Wood Finishing

Outdoor finish?

I'm making an adirondack chair using oak and cedar pieces all reclaimed from pallets. I've decided to stain the project instead of painting. I've chosen stain partly because I can't afford to buy any primer and paint right now, but also I thought the stain would hold better in the dryer heat of summer where I live in southern Oregon....

My question: is it better to stain the pieces individually before putting the chair together, or can I put it together and then stain? I already assume that I have to poly it after constructing the chair just curious regarding staining

Ashland, OR

- Kirk

Our Expert

Unless it is an outdoor stain, it will not provide any protection from water and UV rays and so the decision to apply stain before or after assembly does not really matter in that regard. However, if you're using an outdoor finish then the application to the parts before assembly will help to seal the wood and prevent the wood surfaces from absorbing moisture.

Wood finishes break down with exposure to sunlight. As the finish breaks down the wood will begin to discolor and crack from exposure to rain water and UV light. 

The outdoor finish that lasts the longest and provides the greatest protection against the elements is paint. There are some very good outdoor paints available today which will last many years with nothing more than cleaning and an occasional bit of touch-up. I understand that the paint is beyond your budget for this project but you may find that the stain and poly approach the cost of paint. And if you don't mind a painted finish then you'll find that paint will be less expensive in the long run because it will not require refinishing so often.

If you plan on using polyurethane varnish then I suggest that you use a spar varnish. Wood used outdoors will expand and contract more than wood indoors because of the greater fluctuations in humidity. Spar varnishes are designed to have greater flexibility to prevent cracking or crazing under outdoor conditions. Also, some spar varnishes offer UV protection.

Finishing walnut?

I am building a walnut desk from rough cut wood I obtained about 25 years ago. It came fron NW Arkansas, and I don't think it was ever kiln dried. I would like to do something really special with the finish, do you have any suggestions?

Albuquerque, NM

- Dennis 

Our Expert

For many years I've been air drying walnut for use in my shop. It's a lot of extra effort but there is simply no comparison between the color of air dried walnut and walnut that has been kiln dried. (Air dried lumber is much easier to work, too)

Air dried walnut has a rich color that kiln dried walnut typically lacks. This is because kiln dried walnut is usually steamed; rather than remove the sapwood from the board at the sawmill, the sapwood is left in place and the steaming process causes some of the pigment in the heartwood to darken the normally creamy white sapwood. However, this process also washes out the rich browns and reds and creates board with a bland gray color. I've sometimes rhetorically asked why they don't just remove the sapwood at the sawmill. The response is always that sapwood is not a defect. So I then ask why they try to mask it by steaming.

Assuming that the walnut that you have is air dried, I suggest that you finish it with amber shellac. The natural color in the shellac will enhance the walnut color and warm it slightly. Shellac is a beautiful finish, easy to apply with a brush, cloth, or spray equipment, and provides good protection from everyday wear. As the finish becomes worn over the years, as all finishes do, shellac is easy to touch up and repair. In fact, with cleaning and a fresh coat of shellac, the finish will look new again.

Walnut finish?

Did you use a pore filler on walnut?

Audubon, PA

- Gary

Our Expert

Typically not. Walnut has a beautiful texture and I prefer the look without a filler.


I am making the bookcase out of walnut. I have drilled the holes for the shelf pins and wondered if you had any suggestions for staining the holes without getting stain on the sides ?

Goodlettville, TN

- Ricky

Our Expert

To apply stain in a small opening I recommend an artist brush. You can find artist brushes in various sizes at craft stores.

Cabinet Finshing?

Like your beaded face frame tutorial. I was just wondering about finishing. That little bead would seem to need some addtional sanding as well even if the pieces are presanded. any suggestions about how to do that nicely?? I'm concerned about my stain looking uneven.

Ottawa, ON

Our Expert

I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the article on beaded frames; keep coming back to the Amana website to see new articles.

Prior to finishing a piece of furniture I sand nearly every surface including profiles created by a router or shaper. However, like most woodworkers, I don't care for sanding and so I use woodworking techniques which keep sanding to a minimal. For example, I use a sharp plane to smooth flat surfaces prior to sanding. When sharpened and adjusted for a fine cut a plane will leave the wood surface incredibly smooth and so very little sanding will be required.

When shaping profiles on a shaper or table mounted router the feed rate is important for minimizing sanding. If the feed rate is too slow, the wood may burn. Some woods, such as cherry, are especially prone to burning and the burn marks are difficult and time-consuming to remove by sanding. If the feed rate is too fast the surface will appear rippled. With a bit of practice it's easy to find the ideal feed rate that will leave the surface both smooth and burn-free.

Another method that I use when routing and shaping is to create the profile in at least two passes. For the final pass I make the cutting depth extremely light, just a few thousandths of an inch. This technique creates a very smooth surface that requires minimal sanding. It also removes any burn marks that may have occurred during the initial pass.

To sand the bead and quirk (the groove adjacent to the bead) I use a quarter of a sanding sheet and lightly sand it by hand. The edge of the sanding sheet fits easily into the groove to effectively sand the entire profile. If the above techniques are used, a light sanding is all that is needed to ensure that the bead absorbs stains and dyes evenly.

18th century pennsylvania secretary Wood Finish?

What type of walnut you use on your Pennsylvania desk? American walnut being dark but your project is full of oranges and reds.

Brisbane, AU

Our Expert

The orange and red undertones that you see in my walnut furniture is a result of using air-dried walnut and dye during the finishing process.

Walnut naturally has a lot of orange and red; as the wood ages it becomes lighter and the red and yellow become much more enhanced. However, most commercially available walnut has been steamed in the kiln which causes the dark pigment in the heartwood to "bleed" to the sapwood. Lumber dealers steam walnut so that they can more readily sell the cream colored sapwood. Unfortunately, steamed walnut lacks the beautiful red and yellow undertones.

During finishing I apply a wash coat of red maple dye to the walnut before applying amber shellac. This simulates the oxidized appearance that walnut has after years of exposure to light.

Wood Finish on a Pennsylvania desk?

I was wondering what type of wood and finish that you used for the 18th century Pennsylvania secretary desk?

Sydney, AU

Our Expert

When building a reproduction of a Pennsylvania desk I most often use walnut. I like the rich browns, reds, and yellows in walnut and the colors only get better with age. I also like a shellac finish; it has a warm color which adds to the walnut. Also, shellac is easy to apply and easy to repair when damaged.

Guest bathroom vanity w/sink and stone top.

I am using bird's eye maple for the base. I want to use the same steps you used on Tiger Maple in Fine Woodworking finishing wood. My two
questions are:

1) How do you protect the finish if a small amount of water is splashed on the wood base? How should I modify your steps you outlined in the tiger maple article?
2) How do you keep the eyes of the maple from becoming too dark from absorbing the dye and stain. My first attempt of applying a stain to a sample bird's eye maple resulting in looking like I splattered the stain on the wood and left the drops there to dry. Not what I was looking for.

Little Rock, AR

Our Expert

In maple, the birdseyes or curl absorb more dye which enhances the figure. However, as you've discovered firsthand, you can have too much of a good thing. I suggest that you first try sanding the wood with a finer abrasive; a smoother surface will absorb less dye. If using a water-based dye, try dampening the wood first and immediately applying the dye while the wood is still wet. Also, try diluting the dye so that the mix is not so strong.

To provide more protection to the finish, use a wax-free shellac and apply a final top coat of varnish over the shellac. Ordinary shellac has a natural wax which may prevent the varnish from bonding.

Add 200 Years to Tiger Maple?

In your article "Add 200 Years to Tiger Maple" in the finishing wood edition of Fine Woodworking what is the dye that was used.

Manhattan Beach, CA

Our Expert

The process is not complicated but it requires several days so that each layer of finish can dry overnight. Here are the steps: 

1. Sand the wood surface smooth with 220 grit.

2. Dampen the surface with water to raise the grain. Allow to dry.

3. Sand lightly with worn 220 grit to remove the fuzzy surface. This will prevent the dye from raising the grain and creating a rough surface under the finish.

4. Apply a red maple water-based dye stain. Mix the dye and test it on a sample to ensure that you like the shade.

5. Apply a coat of wiping varnish. The oil-based wiping varnish will penetrate the wood surface and add depth to the finish.

6. Apply several coats of amber shellac. The shellac warms the color of the finish and is easily rubbed out to a satin sheen. A one-pound cut(one pound of shellac flakes to one gallon of alcohol) is easiest to apply. The shellac can be sprayed, brushed, or wiped on with a finishing cloth. For a smooth finish, it is best to rub each coat with 0000 steel wool.


I have finished/refinished a lot of wood, generally with an oil-based finished and most usually tung oil.

I just bought a walnut table (new) that has been finished with a water-based finish. Of course, it lacks the wonderful depth and richness that makes walnut so prized; the grain is lovely but the wood itself looks very flat and dull - almost "dead"

Is there a way to add depth to walnut like this? I've done a bit of research, which suggests that waxing it may damage the existing finish. Do I have any options if I want the richer oiled effect, other than refinishing the whole thing?

Brooklyn, NY

Our Expert

As you've found out first-hand, water-based finishes lack the depth and warm color that is associated with oil-based varnishes. Although the color of the water-based products has improved over the years it still has a long way to go in my opinion before it matches the beauty of traditional finishes

Most likely the walnut used in the table is adding to the problem of poor color. Walnut is one of my favorite woods and my home is filled with it. However, almost all walnut lumber that is available commercially has been steamed during the drying process. Kiln operators steam walnut and cherry lumber in the initial stages of drying to hide the creamy sapwood. This process literally destroys the warm red and amber colors that are naturally found in walnut and washes it out to a bluish gray. Many furniture makers, myself included, either shop around for hardwoods that have not been steamed or simply purchase the green lumber and air-dry it. The difference in color between air dried and kiln dried walnut is remarkable and you only need to compare the two side-by-side to be convinced. Air-dried lumber is easier to work, too, but that's a different topic

The effects of steaming, coupled with the water-based finish, have left you with a color that, as you stated so well, lacks the depth and richness that makes walnut so prized. Unfortunately, I don't know of a practical way of restoring or adding color without first removing the original finish. However, once the finish is removed you can easily add warm color with a red or yellow maple aniline dye (experiment to find a color that is most pleasing to you) followed by amber shellac. Shellac will add a lot of color and depth and if you'd like to provide more durability to the finish you can apply oil-based varnish over the shellac as long as the shellac is de-waxed.

Replica of 1840 clock

The best way to stain & and finish a cherry Hancock wall clock 

-Don R.
Alton, Il

Our Expert

That's a tough question because finishes are so subjective. Do you prefer a hard glossy finish or a satin sheen? Cherry ages rather quickly and the color changes from the salmon pink to a rich reddish brown in just a few months. Do you want to color the wood or just let it age naturally?

If you visit an antique store or a museum you'll see that old cherry furniture is often very dark and dirt, wax and grime have settled into the crevices around moldings and carvings. The old patina is very valuable to antique collectors and should not be removed. Do you wish so simulate that look or do you want the finish to appear new?

Also, much is written today about the so-called "blotching" that often appears when a finish is applied to cherry. However, quite frankly, the blotching is part of the figure and character of cherry just as it is in flame birch and tiger maple. In fact, old cherry furniture that has never been stained or artificially colored often has a blotchy appearance.

I've listed a the steps below to a simple finish. I recommend that, just as with any finish, that you try it out first on a sample panel to be certain that you like the look.

1. Apply a liberal coat of oil-based wiping varnish and wipe away any that has not soaked in within five minutes.

2. Apply several coats of garnet shellac. Cut the shellac to 1lb to make it easy to apply. Rub the shellac with 0000 steel wool after each coat.

3. Apply a coat of paste wax and buff it to a satin sheen.

Finishing Tambour Doors

I am making tambour slats with the Amana Tambour Door bit set. Should I finish them before or after assembly?

Lithia, FL

Our Expert

It's important to seal all of the surfaces of each tambour slat. The best way to do this is before assembly of the tambour. You can use your favorite finish however I suggest that you avoid a thick finish that may cause the slats to bind.

Curly tiger blanket box

I built a minature dovetailed blanket box out of tiger maple and I'm having trouble reproducing the finish that you submitted to F. W. #180. I'm using "russet amber maple" by Lee Valley and its not giving me that golden yellow tone as shown. Am I wrong to expect that Lee Valleys russet would be the same as Mosers. Lee Valley used to carry analine dyes made by Lockwood and I would expect its the same product, different package.  Thank you.

Ontario, Canada

Our Expert

I've never used the Lockwood dyes, but from the results that you've experienced, it must not be the same color as Mosers.

Cedar Chest

I have enjoyed your classes and am still learning on my own.  I have started using aniline dyes, water based, under shellac.  The only issue I have is that I tend to get darker areas where my application has doubled up.

Any tips for eliminating this?

Also, does it add much in protection or looks to apply more than 2 or 3 coats of Shellac?  I love the look and feel of the shellac finish, so find it tough to stop after just a few coats.

Finally, is there any other finish that will hold up to the oils from aromatic cedar (other than shellac)?

Cedar City,UT

Our Expert

When applying water-based dye, more of the dye is absorbed by end-grain surfaces than the adjacent long-grain surfaces. To even out the absorption rate I apply clean water to the end-grain surfaces first. Then I immediately apply the dye while the end grain is still wet.

As you have discovered, shellac is a beautiful finish. It's also easy to apply and will stick to most any surface including oily aromatic cedar. So I suggest that you continue to use shellac for that purpose. The only real shortcoming of shellac is that it does not wear well and it is not resistant alcohol. If you'd like additional resistance to wear and alcohol you can seal the surface with one or two coats of shellac and then coat the surface with a tougher finish such as a high quality oil-based varnish.

As a rule-of-thumb, any film finish provides greater protection as the thickness of the film is increased. In other words, four coats will provide greater protection than two. However, the tradeoff is that finishes appear unattractive when they are thick.

Finishing a Nightstand

Cherry darkens to a warm reddish brown color in just a few months. However, sometimes the various pieces of stock will darken differently. I color the cherry evenly with a very light wash coat of aniline dye. Experiment first to find a color that you find attractive; you don't have to limit yourself to shades of cherry. Afterwards, several coats of 1lb cut shellac will warm up the color further and seal the dye. 

-Clark Van D.
Semmes, AL

Our Expert

I want to finish the cherry nightstand I made the way you have described you "age" cherry to give it a warm aged look.  Would you please provide the details of how to do that.  What color dye do you use to darken the cherry?

Finishing Maple

I building the tall case clock that you presented in Fine Woodworking.  I was wondering about the finish and whether it was the finish described in
the Nov/Dec 2005 article on an antique finish for tiger maple. Thanks in advance for your time.

- Robert I.       
Jarrettsville, MD

Our Expert

Yes, the finish that I discussed in my article in Fine Woodworking is the finish that I use on all tiger maple pieces. As maple ages it turns from a creamy white to a deep amber color; however, the oxidation process takes many years to develop the deep, rich color found on antiques.

A water-based aniline dye adds the color while the wiping varnish provides depth and helps to highlight the dramatic tiger-stripe grain. The final coat is amber shellac.  Amber shellac provides additional warmth to the color as well as a richness unlike any other finish.

End Table

I took your Woodworking Essentials class last summer and it was great!  I thought the size and pace of the class, and the project, was just right.  I
really appreciated how much time you spent with us individually.  You even managed to take our "errors" and put them in the "save" category, and
usually turned them into good teaching examples of how to fix things that go wrong.

I love the table we made in the class.  Mine is walnut.  I'd really like to try putting string inlay around the drawer front and around the top, somewhat like a basic Federal inspired piece.  Do you think the inlay would fit with the design of this table?  If so, what size stringing should I use, and how far in from the edges would you place it?  

Would cherry be a light enough wood for the inlay, or should I use maple to make it stand out more?  I was thinking of using cherry inlay, with a matching cherry knob for the drawer.  Would that work for this style, or should I use a metal knob if I'm going with a "Federal" look?

Lastly, I'm planning on using Formby's Tung Oil Finish (which is really an oil/varnish blend, I believe) on the piece.  If I use cherry or maple inlay, can I finish the piece with just the Formby's Tung Oil Finish?

Thanks again for a great experience in your class, and your help with my questions here.

- Todd M.        

Ashburn, VA

Our Expert

I'm certainly glad to hear that you enjoyed the class and I'm looking forward to working with you again.

The string inlay on the table is a great way to add detail and fits perfectly with this style of table. I suggest that you use maple rather than cherry for the stringing. As the wood in the table oxidizes with age and exposure to sunlight the walnut will become lighter and the cherry will darken. After a few years you will have difficulty seeing the contrast of the stringing. Although maple also darkens somewhat with age, it will not darken as much as the cherry.

A wiping varnish such as the brand that you've mentioned is easy to apply and with two or three coats will provide good durability as well.

The Finish on the Breadbox

I used the Amana tambour bits to make the tambour slats and I have completed the breadbox. Could you tell me the steps to the finish that you used?
Thank you. 

- Charles G.

Mercersburg, PA

Our Expert


I'm glad to hear that you like the maple finish on the breadbox. It is finished with a water-based dye stain to bring out the figure in the grain.

The process is not complicated but it requires several days so that each layer of finish can dry overnight. Here are the steps: 

1. Sand the wood surface smooth with 220 grit.

2. Dampen the surface with water to raise the grain. Allow to dry.

3. Sand lightly with worn 220 grit to remove the fuzzy surface. This will prevent the dye from raising the grain and creating a rough surface under the finish.

4. Apply a red maple water-based dye stain. Mix the dye and test it on a sample to ensure that you like the shade.

5. Apply a coat of wiping varnish. The oil-based wiping varnish will penetrate the wood surface and add depth to the finish.

6. Apply several coats of amber shellac. The shellac warms the color of the finish and is easily rubbed out to a satin sheen. A one-pound cut(one pound of shellac flakes to one gallon of alcohol) is easiest to apply. The shellac can be sprayed, brushed, or wiped on with a finishing cloth. For a smooth finish, it is best to rub each coat with 0000 steel wool.

Walnut Clock

On a question about finishing walnut, you said to bleach the finished project and stain with red maple stain and finish or seal with shellac.

Question 1 -- What brand of red maple stain/dye did you use?

Question 2 -- Did you use a tinted shellac and if so what tint, amber, buttonlac or---?

Thank you sincerely for your help.

- Charles M.

Fayetteville, TN

Our Expert

As walnut ages it becomes lighter and somewhat red in appearance. You can artificially age the wood by bleaching followed by a red maple aniline dye. I use Moser water-based dye and follow up with several coats of amber shellac. As with any new finish I suggest that you experiment on some off cuts until you're sure that you like the color.

Aniline Dye

I used alcohol-based aniline dye under a shellac finish. When I applied the shellac the dye became streaked and muddy in appearance. What went wrong and how can I correct it.

- Gary B.

Our Expert

The dye was dissolved by the application of the shellac. Most dye is available in a powder form and must be dissolved before use. Dyes are available for mixing with water, oil, or alcohol. When making your selection use a dye that will not be dissolved by the solvent in the top coat. For example, when using shellac, I use a water-based dye to color the wood. Otherwise the alcohol in the shellac will affect the dye.

To repair the problem I suggest that you strip away the shellac and dye with alcohol and 0000 steel wool. Remember to use plenty of ventilation to avoid breathing the fumes from the denatured alcohol. 

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