Staining Oak

Written by on June 19, 2012 in Interior Stains, Uncategorized with 9 Comments

A pile of antique oak, and a wood snob with predictable products…

I admit, when a room pops up on a project that is going to be entirely finished in wood, I get giddy. Sometimes I even cut to the front of the line of painters interested in stain and oil finishes. As fate and schedule would have it, our entire crew is fully occupied right now with equally challenging multi-tasks as our project heads to the finish line. So, for the moment, I will be staining oak for the study.

Here is a drawing of a couple of the elevations in the room that I am working on, in close collaboration with the wood craftsmen who are milling and building it. There is an oak coffered ceiling – wraps, crown and a bead. The walls are entirely oak with raised panel details.

This room has been in concept form for many months, but in the past week has begun to take shape. This is one of the aspects of custom work that I enjoy most, especially when it is stain grade on a larger scale.

The process and products have to be tight, quick turnaround, and able to be duplicated with precision. Put these parameters on oak with a dark stain, and the stakes go up. Make it oak reclaimed from timbers from another century and it deserves full attention. Staining oak is no messing around.

Respecting Elders

Oak has never been among my favorite species to work with. There’s just so many bad and blah examples of it in the world. But this batch is different. It is reclaimed oak. Anytime I get the chance to work with wood that is at least 4 times my own age, I shut up and listen. It is an entirely different experience. Things that work on other species of typical vintage can leave the painter looking pretty silly in this context. So, figuring out the craft of getting from raw material to desired effect is a trip. Usually, good craftspeople in this situation can immediately identify 3-4 potential routes, and then start narrowing down, ultimately backing straight into the right one for the challenge.


Since it is very much part of my job to specify product for custom work, I gathered up some cutoffs from my carpentry colleagues who had begun to mill and mock up raw panel details. These authentic “drops” are the only accurate canvas for stain sampling. In sampling several stain types and tones, the oak revealed itself to be profoundly dry and open. Gel stain was the obvious choice, as penetrating stain would be prone to blotchiness in the desired color range, and I have just never been one for conditioner. The homeowner was drawn to and quickly approved an Early American gel option.

I started running the actual panel glue ups with gel stain onsite today. This is a critical step that alot of painters will miss, staining the flat panels prior to assembly. Gel stain doesn’t migrate to blindspots at all, like penetrators or dyes do, so the entire panel surface has to be stained in order to prepare for eventual movement of the applied square stock panel perimeter frames (see drawing). Make a whole room out of wood, things are going to move in time. No stripes here, ever.

The gel applied and dried with induced conditions showing remarkable depth and richness, the way only antique wood coupled with quality (and proper technology) stain can. I cannot wait to get back on them tomorrow and continue to prepare them for assembly and installation in the room. Nothing in this system will be sprayed. All hand applied. And a couple of my favorite clear products getting the call to action.

Finishers are far more challenged by fine stain grade systems than paint. And there is no doubt that wood finishing is misunderstood, even by professional painters.

The next step here is some clear brushing and a hand off to the carpenters to get some momentum happening in the room. Two coats of clear, sanded and handed before noon.(the erecta rack shown above is about half the panel batch currently in production).

Stay tuned.



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  1. Matt says:

    Hi Scott, how’s things? I have a custom project to do some stain samples for, and would like to solicit your opinion on product/process. The species is quarter-sawn white oak, and the application is garage door casing as well as the garage door itself. Sikkens Door and Window? I sanded the mill glaze with 120. Any input would be much appreciated. Thanks.

    • Matt says:

      PS. Just recieved an email from the custom wood working company; they strongly recommend a ‘real’ marine sealer. Epifanes was mentioned.

    • Scott Burt says:

      I am doing well thanks, Matt. You may know that I am not a Sikkens fan. I am an epiphanes fan, but you would still have to figure out what to do for stain. Not sure what I would advise there, not knowing the color tones you are looking at. Have you seen the new Arborcoat transparent stain on cedar overhead doors video I posted today? Might want to sample up some of that, I have had good luck with it, and it is much less labor intensive than a stain and epiphane system.

  2. Brian Finnegan says:


    I get encouraged by your humble attitude towards wood finishes like this! I really hope you get to enjoy the full Blessing of this job, as Painters or as Master Stainers which is the original trade or guild of painters where we all origanted from centuries ago in London England, we should always be the last tradesmen and women to be on the job. Unfortunatley in our fast paced age I see painters tripping over carpenters and drywallers. I have a passion for wood finishes, and have had the sheer and utter Blessing of learning this in Ireland and London England, Working on period homes centuries old and restoring original wood in place. Oak was one of my favourite woods, and as my father once said, the finish begins inside and underneath the surface of the wood, which is refreshing to see you undoubtly understand this. Yes your reclaimed oak was on this earth before you and I my friend and will probably be here long after. And while we humble and even sometimes doubt our abilities and decisions in how we tackle and spec our work, but please allow me to share this with your readers Scott. It is the craft and the care that we put into our wood finishes now that will, ensure their survival for another generation, and this is how we keep our craft alive, this will be your testimony for a furture generation, that has the same passion as us, and will give them motivation to keep the integrity of such intact and alive. To most its just another stain job, but to those who have actually seen quality finishes, its a reminder of what we are still capable off.

    My Name is Brian Finnegan, and generations of Master Stainers before me “approve this message” lol had to say that!

    • Brian Finnegan says:


      just a quick question: Gel Stains are new to me, Please reccommend such for Alder wood if you can, what would you use?

    • Scott Burt says:


      Thank you for yet another thoughtful and “wood snobbish” comment. I very much enjoy your passion for wood and finishes. I share your sentiments entirely, as I was taught most of what I know about wood and wood finishing from old timers who passed it on from several previous generations as well. It is refreshing to know that we are not alone, in a world of painters looking for more ways to water it down.

  3. Chris Haught says:

    Scott, I look forward to seeing the project progress. In this day and age of MDF, race to the finish schedules, it must be a real pleasure to do hand work on such materials! Glad to see the craft at work!

    • Scott Burt says:

      Thats one of the misconceptions about “fine finishes”. They can be done really efficiently, and all by hand, to a stunning level. The term really has been watered down these days. Sometimes people think that if they are doing a higher level of quality than they usually do, then they must be doing a fine finish. lol

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