How Does Wood Stain Work?

  • Wood stain consists of "pigment," or color medium, in a carrier with a "binder" (a resin, alkyd or oil) that will attach the pigment to a surface. Unlike paint, which is formulated to make an opaque film on the surface of a material, wood stain is made mainly of pigment and solvent. The small proportion of binder makes it possible for wood stain to sink into the openings left as the wood dries. This provides a transparent tint that leaves the features of the surface, like the grain and imperfections, visible in the finished piece. At the same time, it lays down a uniform color or alters the original coloring of the wood.

  • Wood stain is effective when the underlying surface, or substrate, is properly prepared. Since wood is an organic material, its porosity is dependent on the type of wood and how "green" it is. Hardwoods like oak and teak are denser and accept stain less readily than softwoods like pine and cedar. Freshly cut wood contains more moisture which fills pores and repels the oil or resin used as a binder in the stain. Fully cured hardwood will accept stain if left for a longer period but softwoods need less time to "set up" and will most probably need to be sealed to insure a uniform tint. This can be done with wood sealer, mineral spirits or water, depending on the type of stain. If wood has been coated with a preservative like paraffin, it must be removed before staining. Sanding with fine grit sandpaper will also prepare the surface of the wood for stain. Remember also that the end of wood, usually at the foot of legs or end of an arm rest absorbs more solvent, meaning that it will get darker faster than the linear grain of the wood.

  • Wood stain is available in oil-based and alkyd preparations. Oil-based stains use resin, linseed oil or lacquer as a binding agent and require the use of an organic solvent like turpentine or acetone. Alkyd stains are water-soluble. Solvents sink down into the wood and cure while the solvent attaches the pigment to it. When the solvent evaporates, some of the pigment has cured into the binder. The excess pigment is usually wiped off of the wood to achieve the desired color and uniform shading. Since wood stain sinks into the wood, it will not protect the surface and a protective coating of wax, varnish or polyurethane is applied to finish the job. Since different wood stains dry at different rates, read the directions carefully to make sure the stain is dry before applying the finish coat.

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