Making Curly Maple "Pop"

Finishers share ideas for bringing out the best in this stressed wood. February 26, 2005

I did a finish on a curly maple coffee table for a client. It was a simple finish, a medium brown MLC Woodsong II stain. I let it soak in for a minute and then wiped down, then rubbed the whole top down with lacquer thinner, which made the non-curl areas much lighter than the curled areas, and topcoated with a dull sheen MagnaMax. I was pleased, but my client said she wants the grain to "pop" more on the next tabletop, and she wants a reddish hint to it.

Does anyone have a schedule to make this happen? I will be using ML Campbell products. I've heard form a few finishers that I should apply a dye as my first color (they recommended a yellow dye) and then the brown stain and then clearcoat (I will be using a low sheen MLC Magnamax or Krystal). Since she wants a reddish hint in it, I was thinking of replacing the yellow with red or orange. I am looking for some depth to the grain pattern. Can anyone help?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
Semi-gloss would have had better results than dull.

From contributor J:
Did you consider adding Gilsinite (spelling?)? You may have to play with the formula but it works for me. Start with about 1 TBLS per QRT. Remember, Gilsinite has Xylene in it, so it will make the stain dry faster. I also would bump up the sheen a little.

From contributor B:
The way I think of maple is like this: if you look real closely, the "pop" or "light" that comes from the figured maple is coming from areas where the grain is coming up to the surface. It is as if the grain is acting like optical fibers, capturing the light and conducting it out to the surface where the grain comes to the surface. If you stain first with a pigmented stain, the pigment fills the pores and blocks these light conduits, killing the "pop" effect. I recommend using a dye stain and/or sealing the wood first and shade - a small amount of pigment added to your clear finish, building the color with three to five layers.

From contributor S:
First, rub in a tung oil finish and wipe off the excess. You could use clear stain base instead. Allow to cure. Then shoot on a coat of vinyl sealer to act as a barrier coat. Your vinyl sealer can be toned by adding a dye stain to it.

The tung or clear stain base will penetrate into the wood, giving you more depth and adding to the chatoyant effect. Akzo Nobel calls this clear stain step an oil sealer and it is used for these purposes of enhancing the depth.

From contributor B:
How about boiled linseed oil? Wipe or spray on, wipe off excess. Let dry and topcoat. Too old school?

From contributor R:
I feel so old... I use water base aniline dyes, so I just mix up the darker color, say red mahogany, and wipe it on. After it dries, block sand it off. The stain will sand off the harder wood, leaving color in the softer curl. Spray on your other color, say light golden oak for example, and viola! The curly grain really pops. Also, the higher the sheen, the more chatoyancy.

From contributor S:
Just remember to lay down a vinyl sealer barrier coat. It is possible for the acid catalysts in the conversion coatings to react with the japan driers, which are used in tung oils and boiled linseed oil. The vinyl sealer is enough of a barrier coat to guard against this.

Editor's Addition: I produced a huge kitchen with curly maple door panels, and later a dining table. Also a stained bar in bird's eye maple, which shares many of the grain effects of curly. There are a few simple keys to making curly maple "pop."

One, sand the heck out of the raw wood, to at least 400 grade. Two, seal heavily with a vinyl sealer and sand the seal coat very smooth. Three, use a gloss topcoat. Anything other than clear gloss with greatly detract from the grain's effect, and kill its "pop." Finally, if you must stain, do so either as the initial poster here describes (applying the stain to raw wood and wiping off excess stain immediately and vigorously, so only a hint of tint remains) or tone your topcoat and apply it very sparingly in order to control the depth of color - and be sure to coat again with clear topcoat once your desired color is achieved.

For a bar-top, or coffee table such as the original questioner asks about, wet-sanding, compounding, and buffing completes the process, and produces the "clear lens" that magnifies and intensifies the natural "pop" of this beautiful wood. But most crucial steps are sanding the raw wood down to baby's-butt smoothness, and the clear gloss finish. Without the gloss topcoat, your result will look clouded or muddy, and that's the opposite of what you want with curly maple.