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Gel Stains on Poplar (and in general)

25534 Views 12 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  CharlesNeil
So I used Gel Stain (General Finishes Brown Mahogany) for the first time the other day on a poplar nightstand I am building in an effort to avoid the blotchiness and uneven coloring I got on a previous project. While it has given a nice, even finish, it appears almost like a painted surface, obscuring alot of the wood grain. It is missing the depth that comes from a standard oil stain or finish since it does not penetrate the surface. Here is my loaded question:
Has anyone had experience with using a combination of oil-based pigement stain and gel-stain (not mixed together, but in separate, dried coats) to achieve depth as well as even color? I plan on experimenting with this, and it seems to me that the oil-based pigment stain should go on first, followed by a gel-stain, since gel stain contains some polyurethane? which would interfere with the pigment penetration. Keep in mind that this regiment would most likely only be used on porous woods that tend to blotch in an effort to maintain a darker, even color while still conserving the beauty of the underlying wood. Advice on any and all parts of this question is appreciated.
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I've had pretty good success staining cheap plywood first with General Finishes Merlot water based stain then followed a day later with Minwax Dark Walnut (thinned 50/50 with mineral spirits) oil based stain. As a hobbiest I find aniline dyes a little expensive compared to water based stains.
I think if you use the oil stain first, you're just going to end up with the blotchiness that you're trying to avoid. I've been using GF in Java, and I know that you reallly have to be firm when you wipe it off to get it back to where you can see the grain - I'm wondering if maybe you kept it on too thick? You should also consider using diluted shellac as a wood conditioner before the stain to take care of the blotches - have you tried that yet? In any case, test test test, and you'll come up with something that works for you. Good luck!
I haven't dabbled yet into the water-based stains and dyes, as I'm still quite new to this stuff. Have people had success with hand-applied water based stains? Also, I generally use oil-based poly as a finish for any piece that will see alot of use, though I guess a coat of shellac could be a good barrier between the stain and poly. As Beth says, I really just have to do alot of testing. I was sure to remove any excess after a couple of minutes, but in order to achieve the dark color I wanted, I needed to reapply, thus obscuring the wood grain. One thing I forgot to mention was that I noticed a recomendation of sanding only to a 120-grit with the gel-stain after I had already applied it. This seems low to me, as I usually go to 180 or 220. Does anyone have input on this regarding the gel-stains?
I've been sanding to 180 too, and only noticed the 120 after. I haven't tested to see what the difference would be, I imagine it wouldn't be much. :)

If you're trying to get poplar dark, then you should consider dyeing it first before staining. You will have a much easier time getting it dark.
this question keep coming up on the poplar and I've use allot of it the way i seem to get the best results is to dye the wood first to make what little grain their is pop out a bit. i sand that trying to help the grain pop out if that makes any sense then ill put shellac on that let that cure then use a gel stain to even out the color,clear coat and your dun. you wont get allot a figuring with poplar but this method seems to look less painted on as you said.
Thanks Beth & Gumwood for the comments.
Beth - You're probably right about the sanding grit having only minimal effect
Gumwood - Your regiment sounds pretty good, I'm gonna have to try something similar on my next piece (I have alot of poplar and I'm determined to get a beautiful finish out of it) The Wood Whisperer (Dont know if you follow his videos, they are quite good) has a video demonstrating popping the grain on maple in a similar fashion to what you describe. I may watch it one more time and give it a go once I can pick up some good dyes.

You two (or anyone) have any recomendations regarding dye color / gel stain combos that work well on poplar? I've seen some posts in the past describing a method for making poplar look like cherry. I may try searching for that again…
it really depends on what color your going for i usually play around on scrap with a few different color dyes and stains i usually try to use something that will give a good under tone. like i have a project i worked on that i wanted it to look like dark stained cherry so i ended up using a bright red dye sealed it the used a cherry stain on top of that it was a medium brown with a very rich redness to the under tone if that makes any sense i wish i had a picture ill try and find one. the biggest thing with this method is its allot of playing around tell you find what works. poplar is great to work with but just horrendous to stain its a shame really cause its cheap and easy to work
Gum - I really appreciate your input so I'm going to pick your brain a bit more if that's alright. With the dye, this is diluted in water, correct? Can you put dye directly into your shellac (or would this not penetrate the wood)? Also, what pound cut of shellac do you use in between the dye and stain?
In the March 2009 issue of Wood magazine, they did a faux walnut look by dying the poplar with Rit dark brown dye and then following with Minwax Dark Walnut, followed with wipe on polyU. The article starts on p70.
Hey Dan
I think Beth is on the mark with her suggestions and I would add that poplar is usually considered a paint grade wood so trying to pop the grain on it is a stretch. There are a lot of options on how to apply a finish.
I think the best information and most complete is Charles Neils" Finishing A-Z "DVD set it has hours and hours of how to. It's well worth the investment check out the reviews on it here on LJs.
an alternative to the heavier bodied gels that isnt as blotch pron is the the GF waterbased stains, they are very thick so they do not go as deep , thus less blotch, they are as close to a waterbvased gel as it gets, and the crisp and clean grain enhancement is very close to a dye, if you use a thin coat of the natural stain ( clear), it will pretty much stop any blotching, as the first coat..or a 50/50 mix of any waterbased finish ( 50 finish 50 water), after application give it a very light scuff sand with some 320 and apply the stain, if its light in color, which will be caused by the blotch control coats, let it dry and apply a second coat, one of the beauties of waterbased stains is they do not seal the wood like oil based, so the second coat will actually do something, you can also get super depth in the color by, applying the 50 50 mix of finish over the color as a sealer and then wipe it again with the stain, it now acts as a glaze and will really deepen the color, the thought that one coat of stain will dissolve the other is not true in waterbase, water based finishes are far more water and chemical resistent than oil or solvent based, but allow it to dry first, then you can do your topcoats and water based is compatable under all know finishes
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