Using Toner and Glaze to Darken Existing Cabinets

Tips and cautions for on-site application of toner and glaze over an existing finish. July 29, 2007

I have a customer who wants me to (significantly) darken the stain on his cabinetry. It looks as though the cabinetry has a medium-gloss lacquer on it now. Can I tint clear lacquer and apply it to the old finish? Or can I make a new stain out of dye and lacquer thinner and then apply a clear coat?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
There are two common ways to add color to a completed finish. One is to use a glaze and the other is to use a toner (color in the finish). Proper prepping and glazing the entire surface will add a little color, but not much. A toner made with dye will add color and remain transparent. It's unusual to add a lot of color with a toner. I generally only count on the toner for a maximum of 25% of the final color. The other 75% or more comes from dye, stain, and/or glaze.

But that's not to say it can't be done. I made the sample below by spraying multiple coats of a "walnut" colored dye toner over maple. The far left is bare wood and the far right is 5 coats of toner.

Some things to consider before you take this route:
- Toner is unforgiving. You can't wipe off a mistake. If you get a run, sag, drip, stripes, solvent pop, or any other problem, there is no easy fix.

- It takes practice to spray toner into corners. Without making a conscious effort, the color will be lighter in the corners. The more coats you spray, the more obvious it will be.

- It takes good spray technique to avoid spraying stripes.

- You should thin the finish a lot so that each coat of toner only adds a very thin layer. Too many coats of finish will lead to premature failure (cracking), especially if it is pre- or post-catalyzed.

- The finish you use for the toner must be compatible with the existing finish. You need to know what the existing finish is before adding to it.

- It's a good idea to spray at least one coat of clear over the toner coat(s) to provide a wear layer.

Without seeing the cabinets and having a clear idea of the color the customer wants, I can't say if toning is the best approach or not. It would be an unusual case to find a situation where toning to add a significant amount of color would be my first choice.

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From contributor T:
As far as the toner coats go, you can make a toner using naphtha and color. Spray it. If you don't like it or screw up, just wipe it off with mineral spirits. If you do like it, lock it in with a coat of clear coat. The naphtha will dry very quickly. I would say that since you said "significantly," a glaze and toner would probably be a better idea. It will be a different look but it won't look as painted as it probably will if you just laid on heavy toning.

From the original questioner:
Interesting... I'll revise my proposal to this fellow - if the re-staining doesn't work, a new set of cabinets will be required. (I like that better anyway!) The way these doors are built, there's no feasible way to strip them. And I'm concerned about spraying lacquer in his house - he's got millions in antique Japanese artwork hanging everywhere you look. Thank you for taking the time to help me with this issue.

From contributor C:
Of course toners can be brushed on just as easily as any other finishing product. I do it on some parts of a majority of my jobs. Toners are quite capable of achieving deep colors as well as subtle ones. Sometimes brushwork can be much superior to spraying for toning work. As an example, I will often use a toner in a dark semi-opaque formulation to add grain to bland woods or to create grain where absolutely none previously existed.

Take a look at the picture below... These doors are thermafoil and previously had no grain at all. I sprayed on a base coat, brushed on a dark graining coat (toner) and then sprayed a transparent veiling coat (toner), applied a black antiquing glaze (to accent the distressing) and finished up with a clear coat for protection. To be truthful, the sprayer saves me time, but I am able to get the same or even superior quality with brushes alone (I know because on nearly every project, I actually do this on some parts which would be difficult to spray). As a matter of fact, the box edges and the toe kicks in the picture were done with brushes only.

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