Recovering from a Bad Stain Job on Poplar

When a large batch of poplar mouldings is stained way too dark, you have only a few practical options for fixing things. December 29, 2008

We recently hired a finisher to come in and stain 3000 linear feet of poplar crown molding and base board in our shop. The finisher first did a sample we approved and then he began to finish the 3000 linear feet in stages.

We were not able to monitor his progress and when he finished, he had finished the base and crown way too dark. The finish was supposed to be a red mahogany and it came out close to black. We later learned that he used 5 coats of poly Minwax and a wash coat which was completely unnecessary (he was apparently working the clock).

Anyway, he did not want to correct his faulty work on his dime, so we got rid of him. Now we are stuck with 3000 linear feet of base and crown that the customer will not accept (which I don't blame).

Is there any easy way to strip these down or lighten them up without sanding them? We sanded a few down and got them to an acceptable finish, but there is way too much to do in too little time. It was taking about 45 - 60 minutes to finish 16 linear feet by sanding. Is there any good wipe-on stripper or stripping device?

Here is a picture of the finished pieces. The finish in the middle is the sample he was supposed to do. The finish on the right is what he did. The finish on the left is what we got after sanding and re-finishing.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
Good grief, did that guy ever hose you! That's an ugly finish job and I hope you didn't pay him in full up front. I am a finisher, and I personally would not pay anyone up front in full for any reason - this case in point.

As for getting it lighter, I personally don't think it's happening. While stripping might be an option, it's a huge time eater - even the best methylene chloride (which is dangerous to use but quite effective) will take you a long time to do.

We're talking about poplar here, so my guess is your most cost effective thing to do is to stash what you have away and use it later for paint-grade work that will be using an oil or waterbase (you can't lacquer easily over poly).

I hate to say it, but getting new stuff and starting over seems to me to be your only option.

By the way, my guess on his error is that he pre-sanded the heck out of the test piece and then did not pre-sand the actual stuff. Poplar stains very, very dark, almost as bad as basswood, and if it isn't pre-sanded with at least 150 grit (I prefer 220 for poplar and basswood) it will come out ridiculously dark like you have. That, and he didn't sand well in between coats. The dark stuff looks really rough.

From contributor G:
Minwax, huh? Did you try washing it liberally with lacquer thinner? Let the first wash dry and then wash it again. If that don't work, I wouldn't waste any more time on them - get new trim and find a better finisher.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses. We will experiment with some of these ideas.

No, he did not prep it and we had an argument about that as well. He told us that poplar doesn't need to be sanded prior to stain, however other people told us it did. We've personally never done any major finishing work so we basically put all our eggs in one basket with him and got screwed.

My first thought was why would a pro use Minwax in the first place? I would have figured he would used ML Campbell or something more finishers would use. After the job we had a huge fight because he was trying to convince us it was a gorgeous finish.

We use lots of lacquer thinner on a daily basis, so we will try it on the Minwax. When you say "wash it," do you mean soaking it down with a terry cloth soaked in lacquer thinner and letting it dry and then doing it again?

From contributor R:
You didn't mention the source of the mouldings. If it was your moulder or another local shop, perhaps a light pass through the machine, just enough to remove the finish. Maybe that just can't be done.

In the past I have been forced to clean up a couple of projects that a bad finisher stained too dark. He knew they were too dark but applied top coats anyway. I think he just hoped that we would try to get the customer to accept them. Instead I washed them with lacquer thinner. We did it in our spray booth. Sprayed on the thinner, then wiped with planer shavings to get most of the finish off. Then once more with thinner. The remaining color was no problem, since we then restained and re-topped. I don't know how well poly washes off. We used Duravar at the time.

From contributor T:
The most expeditious and cost effective way for that quantity of trim is just to re-pass it through the moulder and refinish correctly. If you just had a few hundred feet or so you could play around with stripping and re-finishing but not with 3000 LF. You will have more money tied up in chemicals, rags, labor, etc. than you ever will in just re-running it. That stuff adds up quick and even then, you are not guaranteed of a successful match.

From contributor M:
I had not thought about passing the stuff through the moulder again. Great idea. Would the poly be any concern gumming up the blades?

From contributor T:
No issues with finish at all in the moulder. You just have to take a bite good enough to get most of the stain off. You can get it all, but then you may be too thin. As long as you get most of it, the rest will blend in just fine. Some profiles may be trickier than others, but this profile shown is a piece of cake.

From contributor M:
As far as poplar not needing to be sanded, that's a load of hockey if I've ever heard it. Just for the record, if you want your stain to come out relatively even, and your mouldings are not freshly milled up with sharp blades, all wood needs sanding.

Now we all get away without sanding stuff at times, especially with lighter stains. But with a dark stain, mouldings that come from a supplier and not our own well-kept machine, and mouldings with chatter marks (which I can see even in the picture with the sanded piece) - they always need sanding. I use a fine grit sanding sponge just to make sure the grain is consistently open to accept stain.

Yes, you can *sometimes* get away without sanding when staining that much stuff, but as a rule you need to require your finishers give everything a scuff sand prior to staining. That is why your wizard got the results he did.

From contributor G:
I didn't know you could put it back through the moulder. That sounds way better than washing it off. If, however, you don't have access to the moulder, you have understood my suggestion...

"When you say "wash it," do you mean soaking it down with a terry cloth soaked in lacquer thinner and letting it dry and then doing it again?"

Yes, but it's not necessary to let it thoroughly dry.

From contributor C:
I think you have been set on the right track with the options of remolding or replacing with new wood. I thought this a good spot to interject, though, that I have had excellent results with faux graining such misstained moldings with red-orange glazes. A recent project had some crown that was similarly over-darkened and though I was skeptical as to whether I could lighten it enough, it seemed worth a try. I was amazed at the results, as the finish was very nearly perfect after two to three coats of the glaze. This project was only a small one (maybe 20 lft. of crown) but was done with the molding in place on the wall and in only about an hour counting custom tinting the glaze (as I was already on site for another finish repair).

From contributor T:
Contributor C, you are absolutely right. For the job you described, you really had only one option and you did it correctly. For the questioner's job with 3000LF, it would not work at all as far as costs go. Overall final cost is what you have to be concerned with at this point, as you are starting at a loss as it is, assuming the first "painter" got paid. What may seem to be the expensive way to the end result is not always the expensive way in the long run.

From contributor E:
What a terrible finish. Trying to get an acceptable result with faux graining from that mess without stripping first, even if it where a small run, would be more trouble than it would be worth. I agree - re-run or replace it. It wouldn't hurt to try a mix of acetone, toluene and mek, 9-90-1. Adjust the mek for tougher finishes.

From contributor D:
I don't think lacquer thinner would take off much of a cured poly. You need something stronger. A liq MC would do it. We always wash-coat poplar before staining to minimize blotching and control stain penetration. Try seal coat first.

From the original questioner:
Thanks guys! We originally thought about trying to re-mill the stained pieces and I am going to look into that to see if the manufacturer will do that for us. The original mill job was pretty crappy, as there were vertical grooves running through all the pieces.

From contributor G:
A quick Google search turned up a company who will provide stained, finished poplar moldings at a cost of $1.22 a running foot. 1.22 X 3000 = 3660

How much will any of those re-moulding plus finishing options cost you? I'd wager some of the guys here can offer you a similar deal.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. We pay about $1.55 a linear foot for 7.25" x .75" poplar base unfinished. This may be an option.

From contributor O:
Let me be the first to pose the question that others have not addressed. Is poplar a true stained grade wood?

I have seen incredible finishes on poplar by a high-end kitchen cabinet company in PA (DraperDBS), but on ordinary poplar milwork, which can have green to purple hues, what can a finisher do? Without toning and glazing, I cannot fathom that a consistent light color finish is possible. Yes, the finisher in question did stain the poplar dark from the sample. But what did the original poplar look like? Three thousand feet of clear, perfect poplar is hard to come by.

From contributor J:
Contributor R makes a good point, but it in no way absolves the "finisher" from responsibility. I have always detested doing stain finishes on poplar, because no matter what you do to it, it still looks like... stained poplar. There are other inexpensive woods to choose from that would make a much better choice for a stain grade finish. Lyptus, alder... heck, even parawood (rubberwood) would be a better choice than poplar.

Still, be wary of any "professional finisher" who plans on using Minwax poly. I confess to using Minwax stains sometimes, but only when I have to match a known Minwax color and even then, I upcharge for the extra dry time it takes to use them properly. I can't think of any circumstance that I could justify using Minwax poly though.

From contributor A:
I have also used a lot of poplar, but only with dark cherry type colors. And I mean dark. Anything else, it is a battle with the purples, greens and blacks you find in the wood.

From contributor V:
To put it nicely, you're screwed! To get it that light you will have to strip it. The person who did this was not watching what he was doing, or did not care. Remember that it is easer to make things darker than lighter.

From contributor W:
Dye the poplar and then stain it, now becomes... walnut. Many a client has given me this job. When done I can hardly tell myself.

From contributor N:
You can stain poplar and make it look good even with the color variations. I just did a set of replacement doors for a customer and it was amazing how much it did resemble walnut. I have also used it for "poor man's cherry." With me, coloring is not the problem with poplar - it's fuzziness and softness. It doesn't machine or sand well.

From contributor Z:
Dye stain is the key to good results on poplar. I would go with a pretty strong ngr dye to achieve 80-90% of this desired color. Pigmented stain after that will add depth and grain definition, so I might stain right over the dye, or I might choose to spray a washcoat of 1# cut shellac over the dye and then do my wipe stain with a professional fast dry stain like SW Sherwood line.

The washcoat takes a little more time, but gives better control over penetration of the wipe stain. A little extra insurance when you are finishing bare wood that has some machine marks and may not be prepped to furniture quality.

It might be an option to find a shop that does furniture stripping and get a price from them to strip the trim. I tend to agree with others that replacement of the trim is probably the shortest distance between 2 points, but it could be worth looking into having it stripped if the price is right. Maybe have a couple of pieces stripped as a sample and then see what you can do with it.

From contributor J:
Even if you get the color perfect with dyes, wash coats, etc., the grain still looks completely different. You may be able to fool someone who does not know wood, but anyone who really knows what they are looking at could tell the difference between stained poplar and walnut from across the room.

From contributor A:
I'll use poplar as a cherry sub but I will use ash as a walnut sub.

From contributor Q:
Start over with either new or remilled mouldings and a new finisher, and get on to the next job. Speaking from similar experiences, you will never repair this to your satisfaction and your anquish will only add to the cost.