A student of mine is building a gun cabinet and used Maple plywood for the main box, with maple hardwood for the face-frame and doors. He is almost done with the build and will soon be moving on to the finishing. I told him to start thinking about color, so he stained a few test pieces but they all came out looking muddied and blotchy.
I know maple takes stain a little different that other hardwoods, but I don't know how the plywood vs. hardwood will turn out. He was originally looking for something darker, but now is thinking straight poly based on the poor results of our test pieces.
Personally, I don't like the "amber-ing" effect Poly has on bare maple. I'm afraid that if he uses Laquer to get a clear finish, by the time he's done he'll be higher than a Georgia Pine. He's really put a lot of time/effort into this, and I'd hate to see him end up with a bad end-result based on poor stain/finish choice.
Does anyone have suggestions as to what to use or past experience finishing Maple?
Another option may be a washcoat of shellac, but may require a little experimentation to get the exact cut needed and not over seal the maple…
A gel stain may help with even penetration as it will sit on the surface (because of the viscosity) and not penetrate as deeply as a wipe on stain. Or avoid a stain all together and try a NGR dye as an alternative. Your student can adjust the color of the dye by increasing or decreasing the concentration. A dye penetrates more evenly than a stain.
Have plenty of sample boards and try the alternatives mentioned above. Prep the sample boards exactly as the cabinet was prepped (for example - sanding the sample boards through all the grits that the cabinet was sanded)
I built a TV shelving unit out of maple, and I had good results with a 1# cut washcoat of shellac, sanded back, then applied an aniline dye (dissolved in water, wipe on, wipe off). Once that was dry, I finished with shellac, but you could really use anything, provided you give the water from the dye plenty of time to dry. It was pretty easy, and the dye came out fairly even.
If the student does use a dye, make sure you stress that it doesn't clean up easily like stain does. Wear nitrile gloves, old clothes, and put down plastic under everything. Dye is probably the hardest, if not near impossible, thing to get out of, well, anything.
From my experience, the best way to put striking color in maple is by water soluble analine dye. First choice is medium walnut. See next posting of curly maple cabinets made with maple plywood and solid wood face frames and doors.
I like your comment about "being higher than a Georgia pine" from lacquer. A good quality respirator and a well ventilated area, or better yet, a spray booth, can help to solve that problem. Is a waterborne finish an option here? If so, waterborne finishes give the best clarity of all, to the point of making darker woods seem "washed out." Another advantage in using either lacquer or a waterborne finish lies in the fact that they can be tinted and sprayed onto the wood to achieve an even colour. Yonak is right about the stain taking differently on plywood vs. the solid maple. Test first, like you've been doing. Finally, based on the youtube videos that I've seen, Charles Neil's pre-stain conditioner might be just the ticket, if you decide that staining is necessary
2 thoughts here that I have used in the past that turned out great. Woodcraft has a Amber tint that mixes with denatured alcohol that looks great for a lighter finish. Also minwax has a stain called Special Walnut, that is absolutely beautiful. Love using that one, and its not really dark, and would look great for a gun case. I prefer using that on our gun safes that we build. Poly top coat just sets it off. Good luck buddy
I would suggest shellac, impossible to mess up, easy to fix, comes in colors - blond, amber & garnet.
Even after applied, if something darker is desired, it can be applied over the shellac without and problems. From the description, I would suggest garnet shellac, from flakes & mix it yourself.
Of course, testing on a scrap is the best way to make sure of the results being satisfactory.
Another choice is Gel Stain. I used it on the towel cabinet in my projects and granted it was on red oak but it was a mix of QS red oak hardwood, QS red oak plywood (for the top) and regular red oak ply for the carcase. Gel stain was incredibly easy to apply and it made me feel like I knew what I was doing in the finishing phase which I really don't
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