Refinishing dresser, trouble with staining maple

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Forum topic by MN_Jackrabbit posted 05-28-2019 08:08 PM 203 views 0 times favorited 3 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1 post in 538 days

05-28-2019 08:08 PM

Topic tags/keywords: maple staining sanding refinishing question

Hello! I am new here, so apologies for if this has been covered previously/I post in the wrong spot/etc… I am fairly new to serious woodworking (though I did many small projects with my dad growing up), and love the planning/build, can live with the sanding, and dread the finishing… mostly because I am not very good at it yet and I see my projects go from great to mediocre because of a poor finish job. Any and all recommendations or advice would be appreciated.

A bit of background, this is my second job of real finishing now. The first was a crib I built from solid red oak for my first child a couple years ago. If the house fell down, being inside this crib is probably the safest spot to be… it’s built like a tank. I was thrilled with how the build turned out, but disappointed with the stain/finish. I don’t remember the exact details, but probably sanded 80-120-150, mineral spirit wipe-down, Minwax prestain for oil-based, two coats of a Sherwin Williams custom oil-based stain to try to match a dresser, and three coats of Minwax semi-gloss polyurethane with a light sanding/cleanup between coats 2-3… following label directions on all for timing. In an attempt to get the wood as dark as possible, I unfortunately left the stain on too long, so in some spots it acted more as a paint that released and flowed as soon as the first polyurethane hit it. It was a ton of work, but I believe I managed the blotchiness as much as possible, so I think it turned out okay, but still not thrilled. This is certainly not changing now. I learned you need a ton of patience with cribs because of all the little nooks and crannies, but I am still glad I did it. I just refinished a cheap crib/toddler bed to move him into when baby #2 was on the way, but simply hung and painted it with a HVLP paint sprayer… sooooo much easier! Certainly love the natural wood grain over painting though.


So, onto the current project… refinishing a dresser that I believe to be maple. Drawer fronts and dresser top are all solid, dresser sides are a veneer plywood. This is my first refinish project, so I didn’t experiment with the finish stripper chemicals, and felt more comfortable sanding. I started with random orbital sander (Porter Cable) 40 grit, then upgraded to an 80 and 120 grit belt sander (3×18” WEG picked up off Amazon) on the solid wood as orbital sanding was taking forever. I started going in long forward-backward sweeps, but had issues with side grooves on each stroke, so started going side-to-side a bit, which I knew was certainly possible to have issues with gouging, but I figured I could even it out before the finish (whoops). It seems to have worked well on the drawer fronts that had some pretty serious discoloration from the hardware. I then went back to 80-grit random orbital, progressing into 120, then 150 with dusting off the pieces in between. Fine details/nooks and crannies were done by hand with the same grit regular sandpaper. All pieces felt wonderfully smooth without any clearly visible scratches or gouges at this point.

I then skipped the mineral spirit wipe down (is that an issue?), applied the same Minwax prestain from the crib job, then applied a Minwax Classic Gray oil-based stain. I did learn my lesson on leaving stain on too long from the first job, so got it wiped down in time, but was very displeased with the results. Most stain really didn’t take, the top showed major issues from belt sanding side-to-side, and two of the six drawer fronts have what appears to be a mis-matched piece of wood in the middle that looks like it will take stain much differently.

I found this neat post that shows my stain choice just may be the root of most of my problems. I did check in on the back of a drawer front before staining the whole thing, and thought it looked decent, but I guess not.

So, I am discouraged, and am tempted just to paint the silly thing and cut my losses, but am willing to try again if you all have some recommendations to solve some of my problems.

From the link above, I think trying the General Finishes gray gel stain may be worth a shot. I clearly need to re-sand the top to remove belt sander gouges, check more often with a light across the surface, and plan to hit the drawer fronts again a little bit, then try again. I’ve only ever worked with polyurethane, but would certainly be open to a different clear finish that may work better.

I appreciate your time, sorry for the novel… and thank you for any tips you may be able to give me on ANY part of my process.

Dresser after removing old finish

After removing old finish, mid-way through full rough sanding to get rid of discoloration

After pre-stain and staining for 15 minutes

After pre-stain and staining for 15 minutes… belt sander marks!!

After pre-stain and staining for 15 minutes… mis-matched wood on drawer front

Again, thanks for any and all help! I appreciate it!

3 replies so far

View DS's profile


3192 posts in 2838 days

#1 posted 05-28-2019 10:18 PM

I’ve had good success with Maple using a no-wipe stain that is sprayed on.
Of course, this involves lacquers and sprayers and you may not be set up for that.

ML Campbell has a really nice no wipe stain product.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View LesB's profile


2123 posts in 3860 days

#2 posted 05-29-2019 12:28 AM

We all tend to learn things the hard way some times.
Sanding is the first step in finishing a project. You can get by most of the time with a 150 grit on Red Oak but not on the smother hard woods like maple. You need to take them down to at least 220 if not 320 or 400. I like to use a random orbital sander and then give it a hand sanding with the 320 going with the direction of the grain. The worst wood I ever had to sand was California Bay Laurel or as it is called in Oregon, Myrtle wood. It shows even the finest sandpaper scratches so 400 and 600 was a must.

Some woods like maple need a sanding sealer to help control the penetration of the stain. Generally a good sanding sealer is a de-waxed shellac cut to 1# or 2#. Zinsser’s Seal Coat is a 2# cut clear shellac and I cut it 50% with alcohol. One or two coats with a light sanding after each coat. It drys in an hour. Then apply the stain according to the directions and you should get good results.

-- Les B, Oregon

View OSU55's profile


2356 posts in 2407 days

#3 posted 05-29-2019 09:21 PM

A number of problem areas IMO:

> Never use a belt sander for stripping because of what you ended up with – uneven surface. Scraping is much better – card, cabinet, scraper plane Use ROS to then clean up if necessary.

> MS, naptha, or DNA wipe down to ID scratching/problem areas – always do it.

> Pigmented stains require perfect sanding since any little scratch or defect collects pigment. Gel stains have pigment. Dyes are much more forgiving. GF has dye stains, might be the way to go (I haven’t used them I mix my own)

>The MW oil-based pre-stain conditioner, and some other brands, are useless. They have no solids content. Read here for blotch control, and maple requires it. A properly conditioned surface, even maple and cherry, can be colored evenly. In order to get enough color intensity, you may need toner coats which can also be used to even out the color to the degree desired. The amount of “blotch” allowed/desired is personal – some like it some want a perfectly even color.

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