Uniform Dark Stain for Cherry

Finishers share their formulas and methods for staining and toning cherry. June 30, 2007

I currently use Gemini finishes, stains, glazes and conversion coatings. I am building a set of cherry cabinets. The customer would like to have a uniform darker cherry color. I suggested painting. That isn't an option.

The customer gave me a sample brochure about cabinet finishing that has steps for finishing that goes like such. Equalizer stain applied to balance base color, toner applied to establish color uniformity, deep penetrating stain to reveal grain.

I discussed this with the guys that do my color matching, only to be told they haven't heard of such products. Am I asking for the impossible? Need to find another color matching source?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
Has this cherry spent any time in the sun? Also, how much sapwood is present? There are tons of recipes for making a dark cherry or an antique cherry. We do things sort of the slow way, only spraying clears (and I just started doing that), so this might not be what you're looking for.

I start with leaving it in the sun for several days, then letting it sit around the shop for several weeks. I'll seal it with de-waxed shellac, Zinnser's usually, wipe it with gel stain, either Bartley's Pennsylvania cherry or General's Candlelight. If it needs to go darker, more gel. If I want a different tone and want to keep a curl or other figure, I don't use the gel, but use Transtint in water. I like using the Oxford 9000 for clear, but will be trying other products in that line soon.

Personally, it breaks my heart to stain cherry. I think it looks its best after being suntanned, then with the shellac and a clear or even just wax. Also I think that when you stain cherry, it turns very muddy over time. This might not be a problem with cabinets that are replaced every so often, but I just can't bring myself to do it to furniture.

From contributor C:
Cherry gets stained all the time. Quality toning work is not apparent and in fact, even quite difficult for experts to spot. If you can use all heartwood, minimal toning will be needed... but that is often difficult and expensive. I recently redid a job (not my work originally) that was striped like a zebra when I started on it. After a bit of brushwork and some airbrush toning, I applied a very lightly tinted clear for protection and to darken slightly overall. It looked like a really nice product when I was finished. This level of finish work requires exceptional skill and is fairly costly... but is done plenty often nonetheless.

Assuming that you want to develop the necessary skills, you will want to practice on some leftover pieces first. You'll need to learn to do your own tinting and this is a pretty forgiving application to learn on. A pint of toner will do a whole kitchen, but you'll want a couple of colors. Build your colors on the light areas in multiple layers, allowing the glow from the light colored wood surface to mimic the depth of the naturally dark areas. It helps to add a bit of faux graining on the lighter areas, as otherwise their natural graining may be overly muted by the dark toning.

When you get to the point where you find yourself spending a lot of time admiring your practice work, you will be about ready to start on the cabinets.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the suntan idea. However, that is way more time than I have allowed for this job.

Contributor C, what brand of toners do you use? Do you have a color recommendation for starters? Do you spray, wipe or brush on the toner?

From contributor M:
I just did a dark cherry kitchen for someone per their request and this is what I did.
1. Mixed up some transtint dye in a brownish red, and sprayed two coats.
2. Sprayed a coat of 1lb cut shellac over the dye to seal it, and prevent blotching of gel stain which comes next.
3. Hand applied one coat of Bartleys Pennsylvania Cherry.
4. Sprayed sealer coat of shellac over Bartleys to create barrier for water based topcoats.
5. Sprayed two coats of General pre-cat 181 waterbased varnish.

This finish was a lot of work, but produced a very nice deep brown red color on the wood, and it gave the customer what they wanted. It was labor intensive, and the hand applying was the worst part of the job, but without the hand application, I couldn't get the grain to pop enough for my liking. Maybe there is an easier way to get the grain to pop, without splotchiness on the wood, but I don't know how myself.

From contributor T:
We just got done producing samples for a cherry job last week. After much research on this forum we used the following products and the results were fantastic and really not difficult at all.

Step1: Apply ML Campbell Traditional Cherry stain
Step 2: Apply ML Campbell Microton Cherry toner
Step 3: Apply one coat of finish tinted with above toner
Step 4: Scuff and apply two topcoats

Resultant color had depth, good graining and an even cherry color that was pleasing to the eye without being too brown and muddy.

From contributor M:
Contributor T, is that solvent based finish that you were using, or waterborne? It sounds a lot easier than what I just went through, so I am curious. I don't have a real spray booth, so I can't spray nc lacquer based stuff, which is why I am asking.

From contributor T:
MLC products that we are using are solvent based but I don't know why the technique would not work with waterborne products. They do have CA approved products in their line. You may want to check out the product line. We have tried them all and we always go back to MLC. Just our preference.

From contributor R:
Just about finishing up a dark cherry library and it went like this. One quart of Zar oil based stain #123 and a half quart of Zar oil based stain #124. Stain it, seal it twice, sand it with 220, seal it again, use same stain and reduce it with lacquer thinner, apply it with spray gun to tone to nice even color, apply two satin topcoats, let cure and ship.

From contributor H:

I may as well tell my experience with cherry wood. I finished a dark-colored cherry kitchen a couple weeks ago. The color was a rich, dark reddish-brown color and turned out very uniform.

I use Sherwin-Williams dyes for almost all my finishing that I can, as it makes things go much smoother, and I don't have to wait between stain and the conversion varnish (Plastofix). Anyway, I mixed some SW black vinyl sealer with some yellow and red dye concentrates into some acetone for my stain. Spray this on, then a coat of Plastofix. Wait a half hour to dry and then scuff it with a 3M sanding sponge. Then spray another light coat of stain, and then a final coat of Plastofix. Simple, effective, and the customer loves it.

I do have to caution you that if you're using these SW dye concentrates, you need a *very* good gram scale. We were able to get a used one from a local pharmacist that's accurate down to 1/100th of a gram, but that is a little overkill. We tried using a cheap digital diet scale from Wal-Mart, but that gave us more problems than you want to hear about for color uniformity.

From contributor A:
Dyes look nice on cherry. They typically don't blotch, and they let the grain show through.

My usual schedule is:
1) Lockwood WB dye (Antique Cherry is a good one)
2) Zinsser SealCoat
3) Light sanding
4) WB pigment stain, usually diluted in water. Spray on, wipe off. This step is optional, but if the cabinets are going to get a lot of sunlight, you should consider it because dyes alone tend to fade from UV exposure.
5) Clearcoat. I use Target, ML Campbell WB, Fuhr, etc.
6) Glaze, usually Golden products Asphaltum color. Brush on, wipe off.
7) Final topcoat.

If toning is required to even out the color, it can be done by adding TransTint dye to the topcoat.

From contributor J:
Everyone appears to be on the same page here. I remember using both equalizer stain (green/brown) and sap stain (red/brown/purple). These are fast dry and made of dyes. These are used to even out the wood to the darkest wood you have. Then use a pigmented toner over the whole thing and then a wipe stain. This pretty much made the product uniform. That was 20 years ago. I think today to help enhance the look, I would also glaze it to pop grain.

Just a word of caution - if there is a lot of direct sunlight in that kitchen, watch the amount of dyes you use. They will pop out like fluorescent colors and look way off. Just let the customer know in advance what the color will look like under different light sources. Sometimes the customer can be finicky without prior knowledge.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for pointing me in the right direction, everyone. Now I must go mix and learn!

From contributor C:
Burnt umber is the most useful pigment, as it is a russet brown with fiery reddish undertones. Sometimes the cherry has so much red in it that you need a bit of raw umber and its greenish undertones to cool it. The sapwood may need some red or orange added to the burnt umber. Black is useful in small amounts (it knocks the reds back toward the deep burgundy that cherry is famous for). A little light yellow will help to lighten overly dark areas just a wee bit. Too much red? Use a dab of pthalo green to kick it back toward brown.

From contributor Y:
Sodium hydroxide will both darken and redden the cherry heartwood. Buy a bleach kit and use part 1 or A and see if you or your client are happy with the results. Be sure to neutralize with boraxo or white vinegar. If you have a lot of sapwood, a sap stain dye could be used on those areas first before the lye solution. Be sure to use a brush to apply lye, let set till dry before neutralizing, wear appropriate protection. Can be sprayed but need a totally stainless steel system to do so.