Choosing a stain for your project can be as simple as a trip to the hardware or paint store and choosing a color and finish, or you can make your own stain and get a result that is satisfying to produce and more closely matches your concept. It's a good idea to take into consideration the effect of a stain on the type of wood in your project in order to get as close as possible to the results you've visualized.
Stain coloring on wood depends on two variables: the type of wood you want to stain, as this affects the appearance and quality of the finished color, and what effect you want to create. Do you want an antique look, a western look, a natural look or just a match to something you already have?
Some of the stain recipes available use toxic ingredients, so be sure they're not something you're allergic to. Staining is best done outdoors or in an area where there is good air circulation.
When you've finished staining and are ready for the finish coat, there are again considerations. You can choose from many commercial varnishes and waxes or use something homemade.
Oil stains are traditional and are excellent for matching stains on existing wood, especially if the specific color you're looking for is no longer available.
Woodworking.com has an article on matching stains safely, plus a recipe for making your own. (See http://www.woodworking.com/wwtimes_oilstain.cfm.)
Linseed oil was traditionally used by craftsmen long before the hardware store varieties were invented. It penetrates deeply into the wood and often deepens the natural color, just by rubbing in many coats. The website http://www.craftsman-style.info has a very extensive discussions of mixing and using oil stains and spirit stains, plus the variables to take into account when mixing your own.
For a homemade stain, white vinegar mixed with colors of ink applied to your wood could be an interesting variation. For instructions, see the website http://www.homeenvy.com/db/6/436.html. Scroll down the page to "Workshop." There is a description of a lot of applications for white vinegar, including instructions for a pickling effect.
For a simple, non-toxic way to make a stain from plant matter, you just boil the plant matter for an hour, adding water if it evaporates too fast. Then add one half teaspoon of powdered alum as a fixative, and paint it on the wood. You can find the recipe on the website http://www.care2.com/greenliving/homemade-wood-stain.html. To make earth-colored pigments, you would wash plain old dirt as described and paint it on. Sand it when it's dry.
Considering the Final Effect
The type of wood you're going to stain affects the choice you make. In general, pine and fir are soft woods--they absorb liquids readily. Any stain that you use on them will raise the grain, giving a soft, furry effect, and the piece will need to be sanded with very fine sandpaper or steel wool for a smooth finish. The harder woods will absorb less readily and the grain won't be raised to the same extent.
All stain applied to wood is decorative only and leaves the piece unprotected. Look carefully into finishes as the final effects differ with rubbed wax finishes, oil finishes, varnish and the more recent high-tech coatings.
Always use waterproof gloves when staining to protect your hands from harmful chemicals and/or from brightly colored fingers!
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