Carpenters or furniture restorers work with two main varieties of oak hardwood, white oak with its bold grain and creamy golden color and red oak, with a finer grain, or less "figuring" as it is commonly known. Red oak has a rose hue to it when unfinished. The term "quarter sawn" refers to a specific cutting technique used in milling the boards to bring out the best grain. Any stain can be used on quarter-sawn oak; make your choice based on the space and the affect you want to create.
Many craftsmen suggest oil-based stains for the richest color and longest-lasting finish. Oil finishing products cause a reaction in the oak grain that opens the pores, allowing the stain to penetrate more deeply than water-based stain. In particular, Danish Oil is recommended as a product that accentuates the grain of quarter-sawn oak, creating a sharper contrast between the bed color and the dark grain. This affect is much more noticeable in white oak than red. Oil stain will need to be varnished with a clear coat finish to seal and protect the wood and provide sheen. You will need to work in a well-ventilated area to dispel the fumes.
Water-based stain products provide several advantages to the beginner. Water-based stains do not have the same strong fumes and harsh chemicals found in oils. Second applications and cleanup are easier. Water-based stains typically are applied with a brush, making for a more even coat. They do not penetrate much beyond the surface, therefore, the color and contrast may not be as rich. Both oil and water are available in any color. Some manufacturers offer custom tinting to match other woodwork. As with oil stains, you will need to apply a separate varnish. Use oil-based varnish with oil stain and water-based with water stains.
Stain and Finish
A third option is a stain and finish all-in-one. These products are available in both oil- and water-based varieties. They contain both stain and a clear-coat varnish in one product, which is brushed on in two coats to complete the finish. This method makes the process neater and faster, but not necessarily better. Because the varnish is incorporated with the stain, these products typically do not penetrate the grain well. The color you achieve is applied atop the surface, rather than soaking in. The figuring for which quarter-sawn oak is known may not be as visible with this product. This type is a good option for beginners, but it will not yield as good a visual result as individual stain and varnish.
Quarter-sawn oak has many traditional colors associated with it. English Oak finish is nearly clear; it allows the color of the wood to shine through. Antique oak is more of a brown color, reminiscent of walnut. Mission-style furniture in oak typically has a yellow or gold cast to it. Almost all oak stains are fairly light and translucent, allowing the grain to show through. No hard and fast rules dictate how you choose the best color. Take some color samples from your stain supplier and look at them in the room where the quarter-sawn oak will reside. Test the colors you like on small scrap pieces before committing to a color for your project piece.
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