Staining Furniture with Inlays

Here are some suggested ways to selectively stain pieces with narrow inlay strips. June 28, 2006

I have priced two matching mahogany hall tables that have two 1/2" bands of satinwood/black/maple border around the top as well as two 1/8" bands of satinwood running around the perimeter of the top and bands on the aprons and legs. When I priced the tables, I specified clear finish, because I know that after I do the inlay work the tables will require light sanding to bring the inlay work flush with the field wood.

I told the customer that I could not stain the field wood without staining the inlay wood (and I hate staining wood, anyway), however I used to own a furniture store and we consistently had pieces in our showroom that did indeed have staining in combination with light wood inlay work. How is that done? Sand flush, tape off field wood, clear coat inlays and then stain, and because the inlays are clearcoated, stain is not absorbed? That is a lot of work and I don't believe that's how the furniture manufacturers do it... too time consuming.

Forum Responses
(Veneer Forum)
From contributor P:
I don't know how the big manufacturers do it, but you can seal the inlay with shellac, then use water stains to color. No need to tape. Brush on the shellac to a nice line. Don't flood the area with stain by the line.

From contributor J:
You can do it two ways. Light wash seal over entire piece, buy the pinstriping tape from an auto paint shop and then after light wood is taped, stain without flooding surface, finish coats. If unfinished, an ammonia fume technique will darken the wood, which is high in tannins (darker colored wood),without darkening the light wood, which is low in tannin content. Finish as needed.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your input. I especially like the fuming idea. Coincidentally, I was reading an article on that this past weekend.

From contributor J
Chemical treatments are cool, especially when you etch highly figured woods to really make them shimmer. You can't get that look any other way. When you fume as with any chemical treatment, don't forget to neutralize the action.

From the original questioner:
What do you mean by "etch"? It doesn't apply to the project in question, but it sounds cool. Also, regarding neutralizing, the article I read on fuming was using aqueous ammonia and the author said that letting the piece simply off-gas for approximately 12 hours was enough. Have you found otherwise? If so, what would you recommend?

From contributor J:
Etching is the same effect as is done on concrete in which a chemical removes by dissolving the cellulose of the wood, mainly the fibres that have been damaged by sanding and obscure the optical trueness of the real wood. These treatments are deadly if not handled in the proper manner. If you are unaware if water goes into acid or acid into water, I'd advise you obtain as many books and opinions from qualified people as possible, because these things don't really give you a second chance if you make a mistake. I'm surprised at the lack of info on neutralizing chemical acid treatments. You should always apply baking soda to the work once the effect is reached to stop the action of the acid. I've seen some beautiful work ruined by the continuing effect of a pH out of control.

From contributor T:
Correction - the color of wood is not an indicator of tannin content. The most common wood fumed with ammonia (vapors) is a light color, white oak, as in Stickley/Craftsman Mission pieces. There would be nothing to neutralize after fuming - the reaction is self-completing.

From contributor J:
If I didn't indicate that the reference to light woods was a rule of thumb, I do so now. If you don't know the tannin content of the wood you're experimenting on, chances are you don't know the dangers of working with acids, either. You are technically correct in the ammonia to tannin reaction, but let me ask you a question: What would be the pH of the wood after this fuming has completed? And what effect would this have on the finish that is applied on top?

From contributor L:
Inquiring minds want to know: after the process is complete, what effect does fuming have on the pH? (I didn't know that I needed to neutralize after fuming - I don't get to do it often.) Is this an issue with all mordant stains?

From contributor T:
Ammonia is a gas and as such, is 100% fugitive. The dark color resulting from the completed chemical reaction is no longer ammonia. So no presence of ammonia in the wood, and thus nothing to neutralize.