Diminishing oak grain on staircase hand rail

bigdogloverJanuary 20, 2011

Hi, I'm new to the woodworking forum, and I hope you can help me. I'm going to cross-post this over on the paint forum.

We're getting a new stair rail, posts, and balusters. yeay! Everything will be painted white except the handrail and newel posts, which will be oak, stained a warm medium toast color (red-brown) or darker if I can conceal the oak grain somehow. I'm going to use Bartley's gel stain and gel varnish. I wanted a finer grained wood like maple or cherry, but that was way too expensive, so we're getting oak. Oak fans, please don't be offended, but I don't like the look of oak grain for anything but floors, so I'd like to diminish or conceal the grain. Someone at a store said Minwax has a product that you put on prior to staining, that sort of clogs the pores or something, so that the wood will still take the stain but the grain will not soak it up so pronouncedly.

Does anyone know if this Minwax (or any Minwax) product is any good? Or can you suggest how I should go about diminishing/concealing the oak grain?

Thank you.

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bobismyuncle

Forget the advice from "some guy at the store." Wood conditioners are meant to prevent splotching, but they do a poor job at that.

Stains are of two basic types
- Pigments : finely ground powders
- Dyes : chemicals that are dissolved

Think of third grade science where you put dirt in a jar of water and shook it and sugar in a jar of water and shook it. What was the difference the next day? The dirt mostly settled out to the bottom. The sugar remained in solution.
Pigments work like the dirt and dye like the sugar.

The big contrast comes about because the earlywood (large pores) get a lot of pigment in them and the latewood (hard and smooth), does not absorb so much because it's wiped off.

Dyes, on the other hand will absorb more evenly and reduce the contrast (at least color wise).

So, what you want is a dye. Problem is, Minwax stains are sometimes dyes, sometimes pigments, and often both. They don't tell you.

I suggest looking up Bob Flexner's "Understanding Wood Finishing" at your local library, where he shows photos of oak dyed on one half and pigmented on the other. Then get some scrap of oak and test out your intended products and processes on the scrap before starting on your newel post. It's easier to not make a mistake than it is to recover from one.

You can get dyes at most woodworking stores such as Rockler and Woodcraft, or via mail order. You can control the concentration by how much dye you add to solvent (distilled water in most cases). So you might want to mix up a series of concentrations and apply each to see the resulting color. But to see the true color, you will have to apply the finish coats as finishes intensify the stain colors.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2011 at 9:45PM
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bobismyuncle

Below is a good, but somewhat long, article on dyes.

When I say stain, I mean any substance that alters the color of wood without obscuring it (cf. Paint). When this author uses the word "stain," he equates it with pigment stain.

Here is a link that might be useful: Dyes

    Bookmark   January 20, 2011 at 9:50PM
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bigdoglover

Thank you so much, bobsmyuncle. You explained perfectly, and -- who knew all that! I will get the book, and have already started reading the article.

I think my favorite, Bartley gel stain, must be a dye because there are no globs of pigment at the bottom, and the stick does turn color. Of course this could just be that the stain is suspended in the the gel, which is not in the least bit runny... I'll do the experiments you recommended. One thing I like about the gel, though, is that it's pretty foolproof to apply and get a good result, but that doesn't address the grain issue here.

You aren't by any chance located anywhere near Dallas, TX, are you? I see you have a finishing business.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2011 at 10:41PM
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brickeyee

"Bartley gel stain, must be a dye because there are no globs of pigment at the bottom, and the stick does turn color."

While it may contain some dye, it most likely also has a lot of pigment.
The gel nature limits how much the pigment can settle out (like in Minwax stains).

    Bookmark   January 21, 2011 at 10:11AM
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bigdoglover

I think you're right, brickeyee. I'll report back on my experiments in case anyone's interested. First I have to get some Bartley stain to see how it stains the oak -- if it is dye or pigment -- it is discontinued and difficult to get, but there is some out there.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2011 at 1:07PM
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bobismyuncle

Nope, I'm in the midwest.

BDL asked:
You aren't by any chance located anywhere near Dallas, TX, are you? I see you have a finishing business.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2011 at 8:43PM
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