Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to re-stain old wood

Answer:  Just do whatever Nicole Curtis says to do.  Everything I learned about re-staining I learned from watching Rehab Addict.  Here's an example described below. 

This was a bit of a tough one for me because the original maker of the furniture was long gone, and so I could not confirm how the piece was originally finished.  How many of you remember the original Cargo Furniture?  How many of you locals are old enough to remember the Cargo Furniture store that was up by Baybrook back in the late 1980's (if memory is serving me)? 
There's a bunch of subsequent business entities now using the name "Cargo Furniture".  There are even copy cats.  But none of those refer to the original retailer.   
According to internet sources, Cargo was bought by Pier 1 (and Pier 1 confirms that they acquired the retailer in 2001).  But then most of the original furniture lines were discontinued.

Screengrabbed from Google. 

This is relevant because Cargo Furniture did not finish their original wood furniture pieces the same way many other retailers did.  And because they are long out of business, there was no way for me to confirm what substance they originally applied to their wood. 

On their natural wood furniture, I recall the salespeople telling me that they were using something akin to tung oil.  In other words, it wasn't a simple varnish or polyurethane.    I remember the salespeople telling me that the finish was not conventional and that I should "oil" my furniture periodically as a result.  I never did, though.
That piece you see above is a wall shelf unit made out of what I believe is yellow pine (but not knotty pine).   It has that characteristic "honey" finish (a euphemism for yellowish orange) that is no longer in style, so my intention was to update it by staining it darker.  But I didn't know how the stain would "take", given that it had originally been oiled, so I used the Nicole Curtis method, which proceeds according to the steps I've sketched out below.

But before I get into that, a disclaimer:  This was a pretty simple project involving an older piece of furniture that had only a minimal historical treatment that needed to be overcome prior to re-staining.  If your old wood is more extensively coated with additional products such as varnish, you will need to do a more involved preparation, probably involving a chemical stripper.  This Old House published this very succinct DIY sequence that could help you with that. 

OK, here goes. 

First, I sanded the crap out of it (to use Nicole's highly-technical terminology).  Seriously, if you're going to try to re-stain old wood, make sure you sand it extensively, whether or not you need an initial chemical stripping step.  Sanding is very boring and it takes a lot of time, but the final result is worth it.  I didn't know how far the tung oil penetrated this piece, but the obvious idea was just to get as much of the outermost layers off as possible. 

Second, and here's where Nicole's method becomes very important: I opened up the wood grain with a wet rub-down.  Not sloppy wet, but enough water on the rag to penetrate the wood. 
Back when I was a DIY newbie, nobody would have done this.  Having any moisture remaining on furniture that was about to accept an oil stain was the ultimate no-no.  But as Nicole correctly deduced, a light wetting will open up the wood grain so that it will do a better job of accepting the stain. 
Third, I used the highest-VOC stain I could find.
In this case, it was Rustoleum's Kona shade.  It can be bought in these tiny cans at Lowes for about six bucks.  This is a very convenient size for small projects like this one. 

I complained out loud back in 2011 when I published this popular post on staining fences that many of the stain products on the market are just not very good right now because manufacturers have removed so much of the volatile fraction in order to meet air quality regulations.  But it's the solvents that give stain its penetrating power, so product quality has suffered, in my observation.  This is a frequent topic of discussion on internet forums such as this one, which discusses whether this Rustoleum product is oil-based or water-based (answer: probably a hybrid, but it does seem to have some petroleum distillate solvent qualities).
Fourth, I used a flood-and-wipe method of application.  Nicole uses this method when re-staining old wood, and I've always used it on new (unfinished) wood.
"Food and wipe" is just as it sounds.  You don't use a paintbrush to apply an even coat the way you would do with a paint - that's too difficult and not appropriate for most stain applications anyway.  You simply get a clean rag (I like to cut up my husband's worn-out undershirts), dip it in the stain, and rub a saturating amount onto the wood. 
And then after you let the flooded wood sit for a minute or two, you take a larger clean rag and wipe it down, removing the excess stain which hasn't soaked into the wood.  You end up with a quasi-tie-dyed looking rag as you do it. 
Fifth, after the stain has had a chance to dry, you add at least one coat of polyurethane to seal it.
I used this brand simply because I had it sitting around in my garage from another project.  The main thing to remember in order to remain trendy is don't use gloss.  Glossy wood is out of date because it looks unnatural.  This one is a satin product, but I would prefer a more matte finish than even this is capable of delivering.  If your final result still looks too glossy to you, you can knock down some of the shine by going over it with an extremely fine-grit sandpaper (use a very light touch). 
Be careful about this issue:  The polyurethane is probably going to lift some of the new stain back off your piece.  In this picture above, you see me squishing the foam brush into the drop cloth, and what's being squeezed out of it is actually dark brown instead of clear polyurethane, because the brush is picking up the underlying stain.   
That stain loss is happening because, again, I don't think the stain qualities on the market right now are what they should be, because they no longer have the penetrating power of the high-solvent products of yesteryear.  With some projects, this stain-lifting phenomenon can be a real problem in that the poly overlay will strip too much stain off the piece, leaving it pale and blotchy (been there, done that with new-wood refinishing).  But in this case, I was able to achieve a decent result, probably because I had incorporated Nicole's wood-wetting step into my preparation.
Here's the stained shelf unit next to the very trendy industrial-looking stool that I was intending to match (the stool is tipped over the lean against the shelf, so it looks a bit wonky here).  Not a perfect match but it doesn't need to be perfect.  It's close enough so that these two pieces will look OK when placed in the same part of our great room. 

This is the CB2 Contact Stool and would you believe I found it via a Facebook product placement ad?  For once, Facebook actually delivered me something I wanted to see instead of a useless stream of weight loss ads (me, at 130 pounds, as if they couldn't figure that out from their targeting algorithms).  I bought a pair of them, which means that it cost me almost three hundred bucks to update my status that day.
So there you have a stain solution.  Happy DIYing.

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