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Staining, French Polishing and Varnishing.

A practical guide for the amateur and proffesional, including many valuable recipes.

This is the first of nine chapters on staining, french polishing, varnishing, colour matching and glazing wood and furniture, this practical guide is a must have referance for the amateur and proffesional alike.

Please be sure to Bookmark this page and use as your referance or go to the printable version and print this page.

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Chapter 1.

The value of staining.

Fifty years ago a knowledge of staining was more widely diffused than it is today. Then every experienced cabinet-maker had a good working knowledge of the art, and was conversant with its methods. But that day has passed. We are now living in an age of specialisation in which the worker is master of a section of a craft, and his work is limited to only a few operations.


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  So it has come about that those who now know anything of the art of staining are comparatively few, and the polisher belongs to a small and privileged class.

The cabinet-maker and upholsterer between them make stately and artistic furniture in which they may take an honest pride, but they are dependent on the polisher to give it the beautiful lustrous appearance it assumes when displayed in the showroom. But why should the cabinetmaker, or, indeed, why should anyone interested in the subject, remain in ignorance of the interesting and delightful art of staining? By cabinet-makers, the intricacies and intimate secrets of the craft should be easily and quickly mastered, as they are already acquainted with one important branch to fit- the nature and properties of woods. To those who own furniture of any kind- and their name is legion- a mastery of this art may easily become a most valuable asset. By its use a handsome piece of furniture may be made from common wood, and old furniture, drab and lustreless, can be improved out of recognition.


What it is-What, then, is staining? Let us commence with a rough definition. Staining is a kind of secondary painting that is accomplished by saturating wood or any other porous material, but otherwise the general appearance of the wood as regards grain is retained. On the other hand, in graining the original wood is entirely ignored, and a new surface imposed, on which the colour and veining of another wood is produced.

The general purpose of staining is to preserve and beautify the wood it is applied to, and to bring out effectively the light and shade of the grain. Artistic staining effects a wonderful transformation. The colouring takes off the newness and raw aspect of the wood, and imparts dignity, solidity, and charm.

Variety of Stains.

There are many methods of staining, and those most employed are water-staining, oil-staining, spirit-staining, and chemical-staining. The most popular of these are water- and spirit-staining. Stains that have water as a medium are the cheapest and easiest to make. Spirit stains, though they cost more, are superior in effect, as the spirit, being volatile, dries very quickly. On the other hand, where water stains are used the grain of the wood has a tendency to rise; also when used on new wood, water stains are apt to roughen the surface. Both of these varieties of stains can be obtained ready mixed from any oil-dealer in all the usual colours, among which oak, walnut, mahogany, rosewood, ebony, art green, and many other shades, are included.  Where uniformity of colour and quality is required, it is both convenient and desirable to buy these stains ready made, provided always that the packages bought bear the name and trade-mark of makers of established reputation. This point is important, and it cannot be too strongly emphasised that satisfactory work cannot be turned out if the materials used are inferior or uncertain in quality. Another method is to buy stains in powdered form which require only the addition of water or methylated spirit.



Water Stains.

The most economical stains are made of size, dry colours, and water. The size is used as a binding agent to unite the particles of the paint and to prevent the stain brushing off. In mixing up a stain of this kind, 2 pounds of size should be added to each gallon of water. The amount of colour to be used depends upon the colouring power of the powder and the shade required, and this can easily be ascertained by experimenting with a minute quantity of the colouring on a piece of wood.

The stains are made and also applied hot with a fairly soft brush. For this purpose a painter’s sash tool is the best.

Water stains are not so powerful as spirit or oil stains, and for heavy staining a number of applications of water stain is required. Between each coat of stain the wood should be rubbed over with glass-paper, care being taken that as little of the colouring be removed during the process of papering as possible.

Another important point to remember is that water dries very slowly, and although you may be tempted, when using water stains to hasten the process of evaporation by the use of artificial means, this temptation must be avoided, and the stain be allowed to dry naturally.

Where only a light stain is to be applied, the work may be damped off first, and the grain so raised papered off when the wood is dry. After this apply the stain again, which when dry will need less rubbing.

Water stains dry quickly on new wood or on any porous material, but on any non-porous surface, such as old polish or varnish, they make a heavy call on the patience of the worker, and dry with irritating slowness.

It has already been stated that the great drawback of water stains when used on new work is that they have a tendency to roughen the surface and raise the grain of the wood. This can be counteracted in great measure by cutting down the grain with fine glass-paper while the wood is still damp. By this means the fibres of the wood, swelled by damp or moisture, are in some measure forced back again into the pores.

The following colours are used in water staining: Vandyke brown, raw umber, burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, blue-black, indigo, mahogany lake, yellow lake, gamboge, terra vert; also aniline dyes and other transparent pigments.


Recipes For Water Stains. – For those who prefer to make their own stains, the following recipes can be recommended with confidence:

Mahogany stain. – Burnt sienna mixed in water with a little glue size for binding makes a useful stain for this colour.

Walnut stain. – Mix equal parts vandyke brown and umber with liquid ammonia to the consistency of a thin paste; then reduce with water to the required shade.

Oak stain. – Mix ¼ pound vandyke brown with liquid ammonia, diluted with water.

Rosewood Stain. – Mix 10 parts of water to 1 part of logwood, and apply warm.

Ebony Stain. – 1 pound of logwood chips cut fine; ¼ pound of brazil-wood cut fine in 1 ½  gallons rainwater. Apply this as a first coating while hot. Before this is dry apply a second solution made up of ¼ pound gall-nuts dissolved in 1 gallon of water. Two or three coats should give a satisfactory effect. If a more intense colour is required, make up a solution of 2 ounces of sulphate of iron, and 1 quart of water, and give a final coat with this.

Satinwood Stain. – Grind raw sienna in clear water and add a modicum of burnt sienna.

Cherrywood Stain. – Dissolve dark yellow ochre in water, and add a little stale beer as a binder for the colour, and apply one coat. Follow this with a  coat of red lake.

Blue Stain. – Add 1 gallon of boiling water 1pound of indigo, 2 pounds woad, and 3 ounces alum. Apply hot.

Brown Stain.-  ½ pound Vandyke brown, 2 ounces carbonate of soda in 12 ounces water, and 1 pound washing soda. Add ½ ounce bichromate of potash.

Chocolate Stain. –Burnt sienna and Vandyke brown in equal quantities with water.

Crimson Stain. – Boil 1 pound brazil-wood in 3 pints of water for an hour; add ¼  ounce cochineal; then boil again for half an hour.

Green Stain.- Yellow arsenic and indigo in water.

Orange Stain. – Mahogan lake, raw sienna, and chrome yellow in equal parts.

Purple Stain. – Logwood and brazil-wood solution, to which add 1 gallon of water. Finally use a sufficient quantity of paearlash to obtain the desired tint.

Red Stain. – 1 pound brazil-wood, 1 ounce pearlash, and apply hot. Then add a solution of 1 ½  ounces of alum to 1 quart of water to the surface already treated.

Yellow Stain. – Lemon chrome mixed with size and applied warm.




Aniline dyes in practically every shade can be obtained in powder form which are soluble in water. When these are used as stains, a little vinegar must be added to bind the colour to the material.

Floor stains.

 The cheapest stain of any colour is made with aniline colours dissolved in hot water. Some of these will fade, but yellow, red, and brown, especially when covered with a coat of linseed oil, will last for a very long time. Any one tone can be obtained by blending the colours.

Glue Paint for Kitchen Floor.

 A good cheap paint for kitchen floors is made up of 3 pounds of yellow and 2 pounds white lead. Mix well together. Then dissolve 2 ounces of glue in 1 quart of water, stirring well until smooth and nearly boiling. Thicken the gum water until it will spread smoothly over the floor. Apply hot with an ordinary paint-brush.


 Water-staining has been dealt with at considerable length because stains made with this vehicle are undoubtedly the most popular, and the cheapest and easiest to make. Though not so commonly used, spirit stains possess many advantages over those mixed with water. The chief of these is that, as the spirit is volatile and has quick vaporising powers, it dries off quickly, so that the grain of the wood is practically unaffected. In addition to this, spirit stains can be applied to a polished surface, and can be depended on to penetrate the same, which is not the case with water stains. For spirit-staining certain dyes are used that specially lend themselves to manipulation with spirit. Among the colours mixed in spirits are cochineal, indigo, logwood, brazilian redwood, sanders wood, dragon’s blood, turmeric, and saffron.

The following recipes for spirit stains merit attention:

Mahogany Stains. – In 1 pint of methylated spirit dissolve 2 ounces orange shellac, and add enough Bismarck brown to give the desired shade.

A fine mahogany stain is produced by mixing tincture of dragon’s blood and turmeric root in spirits of wine. By increasing or diminishing the proportion of each of the ingredients, the brown stain may be varied to a redder or yellower shade at will.

Walnut Stain. – ¼ pound sasphaltum in 1 pint of naphtha.

Oak Stain. – 2 ounces raw sienna in oil, ¼ pint turpentine, ¼ pint paraffin. Stain may be brightened or darkened by using more or less paraffin.

Ebony Stain. – Spirit black thinned with japanner’s gold size and turpentine.

Satinwood Stain. – 2 pints alcohol, 3 ounces powdered gamboge, 6 ounces ground tumeric.Steep to obtain full strength, then strain through muslin. Apply two coats with a fine sponge; sandpaper when dry, and varnish or French polish.

Cherrywood Stain. – Red sanders wood dissolved in spirits of wine and thinned with methylated spirit will give the shade desired.

Brown. – 4 ounces dragon’s blood, 3 pints spirit of wine, 1 ounce soda.

Green. – Indigo and ground turmeric in equal parts dissolved in spirit.

Orange. – 1 ounce ground turmeric in 6 ounces spirits of wine.

Purple. – ½  pound madder, ¼ pound fustic, ¼ pound dragon’s blood, 1 ounce common soda – all dissolved in 3 pints spirit of wine.

Yellow. – 1 ounce ground turmeric in 1 pint of methylated spirit.

Oil Stains are similar in character to spirit stains, and are perhaps the most durable used by polishers, on account of the penetrative power of the oil and its slowness in drying. Varnish stains, which are akin to oil stains, though largely sold by oil-dealers, should be avoided, as they give anything but satisfactory results. Water or oil stains are both cheaper and more effective.

In mixing oil stains, it is best to buy the pigments required ground in oil, as dry colours are somewhat difficult to manipulate by the inexperienced. In addition to these, use 2 parts of turpentine to 1 of linseed oil, and ½ part of liquid driers. For new and porous wood use more oil and less turpentine.

For oil stains any of the following pigments may be used: Raw umber, burnt umber, Vandyke brown, raw and burnt sienna, blue black, indigo, mahogany lake, yellow lake, gamboge, terra vert, japanner’s black, and asphaltum. These and any other colours that are transparent may be freely used in oil stains.

The following recipes for mixing oil stains are recommended:

Mahogany Stain. – Venetian red mixed with linseed oils as above.

Walnut Stain. – Brunswick black thinned with turpentine.

Oak Stain. – ¼ pound asphaltum mixed in turpentine.

Rosewood Stain. – Venetian red with a touch of black.

Ebony Stain. – Drop black in boiled linseed oil.

Satinwood Stain. – Raw sienna with a little burnt sienna.

Cherrywood Stain. – 1 quart spirits of turpentine, 1 pint or varnish, 1 pound burnt sienna.

Blue. – Prussian blue.

Brown. – 2 parts lampblack, 3 parts Indian red, 1 part yellow ochre.

Chocolate. – This tint may be obtained by varying the proportions of the above and adding a little vermilion.

Crimson. – Crimson lake.

Green. – Prussian blue and raw sienna.

Grey. – Ochre, raw sienna, lampblack, and whiting.

Orange. – Orange chrome.

Purple. – Indian red, whiting, and ultramarine.

Red. – Crimson lake.

Scarlet. – Vermilion.

Yellow. – Lemon chrome.

The above recipes and those given in previous sections are for those who, for various reasons, desire to mix their own stains. But most users, and especially beginners, will probably prefer to buy stains ready mixed. For these Stephens’ water stains are excellent and reliable. They can be used as purchased, or thinned down to suit the taste of the user.

Aniline Dyes. - Then there are the aniline dyes, of which two classes are obtainable – the alkaline and the acid. The alkaline is used with water as a vehicle, and the acid with spirits. These are usefully employed for self-colours, and are extensively used. In addition to these thee are many patent stains on the market, for which large and sometimes extravagant claims are made. These claims should be taken with a grain of salt, and if the purchaser of these commodities bears two points in mind he will  not go far wrong. In the first place, in buying stains, buy only the products of manufacturing firms of established reputation. Secondly, follow the directions given for the use of the stain with scrupulous care. Half the troubles of the amateur arise from the fact that he reads the directions for use carelessly, and omits to follow them. Then, when he turns out bad work, he lays the blame on the makers of the materials he has been using, instead of on his own shoulders. This is wrong. Anything that is worth doing is worth doing well, and in staining, a well-finished job will well repay the labour and care that has been bestowed on it. Finally, one reminder to those mixing their own stains: Remember that water stains must be dissolved in hot water, but for spirit stains heat is not necessary. Simply add the stains to the spirits, shake well, and they are ready for use.



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