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I have seen several topics about this, mostly on the old MSW, but also a couple here about the difficulties of staining basswood without splotching. It got me wondering just how tough basswood was to stain. So this weekend I went out and purchased some basswood strips and set about to staining them. 


One of the things I learned building and finishing cabinets and furniture over the years is that sanding plays a huge role in how your stain comes out. The stains available at most hardware and building stores are a pigment based product in an oil or water based carrier. The pigments lodge in the pores of the wood and in the scratches left by the sandpaper. The finer you sand the less nooks and crannies there are available for the pigments to lodge in. A lot of woods, Cherry, Maple and evidently basswood have inconsistencies in their structures and evidently some woods have variations in their sap content. This causes them to take stain unevenly or "splotch". 


One of the most common methods of combating this is to use a pre-stain conditioner. Its really nothing more than linseed oil thinned way down in mineral spirits. You can make your own by taking one part boiled linseed oil to 9 or 10 parts mineral spirits. Saturate the wood with it, let it set for 5-10 minutes and wipe up the excess. Apply you stain in the next hour, before it dries and you get a more even stain.


Another method and  my preferred method is a washcoat of thinned down finish. I usually use  1 pound cut of shellac. A one pound cut is simply 1 pound of shellac flake to one gallon of denatured alcohol. depending on the size of a project I may only make a quart at a time. 4oz of flakes to one quart of alcohol. brush it on, let it dry 30 minutes and scuff sand with 320, wipe off the residue with a tack rag and stain. You get a very even stain, although quite a bit lighter than if you stained on unsealed wood. 


Another method I have used is to glaze. Seal your wood make your glaze and work it in. I have my doubts as to its applications in model ship building, its messy and all the details in a build make me think glazing is a recipe for disaster.


I started by simulating a deck or hull. I didnt bother cleaning off the glue since I wanted to see if it was possable to sand out a glue smudge.




I clamped them down overnight  



then removed the clamps



Next I started sanding, I sanded the entire board to 150, then 3/4 of the board to 220, half of the board to 320 and finally the last quarter to 400. Normally on a piece of furniture I would only go to 220, but with all the directional changes on a hull I felt 400 would be better. At that point you are getting to where the scratches are becoming close to the same size as the stain particles. 

I applied my washcoat to the center horizontal 1/3 of the board and minwax stain conditioner to the bottom 1/3. I left the upper 1/3 untreated. My stain was Varathane Golden Mahogany, just something I had in the garage. On the untreated portion the stain splotched pretty severely. On the conditioned side you can see an improvement, especially in the 320 and 400 bands. The wash coat is the most even, but considerably lighter.



Next I applied a couple of coats of Varathane Poly clear satin. 



After looking at my results I got curious. Dye stains can also be a great tool for splotch prone woods. Dyes color the wood on a molecular level so you get a very even color. You wont find dyes at your local home depot or hardware store. You need to go to a specialty wood working store like Rockler, Woodcraft, or my favorite, Homestead finishing. An internet search will turn all of these places up here in the USA. I am sure there are places in Europe and Australia, but I dont  know the names. One of my favorite brands is the transtint dyes. They will break down in any carrier; water, alcohol, lacquer, alkyd, oil, whatever. Thy are a bit pricey. $20 if I recall for 2 oz but the last a long time depending on how you use them.



I had some brown mahogany water based dye here so I mixed up a very small batch; 1/8 tsp in 4 oz of water. I sanded the entire board to 400, then applied the dye to the left side of another board and the same golden mahogany to the right side with both conditioner and washcoat.  The dyed side came out very even. although I dont know if this is a good color for basswood.



Then I applied 4 coats of blond shelac to the top half and 4 coats of linseed oil to the bottom half. Something really unexpected happened when I applied the shellac, the brown dye turned greenish brown. Also if you look closely at the bottom of the board you will see a small green blob that is a small spot of the clear poly I used on the other sample. Prompting  my use of the  linseed oil. This is a great example of why you should always do a test board when staining and finishing. I think a garnet shellac would offset the green but I would need to get some flakes and see. Also a light red dye would shift the green to a brown. 




After all of this I am starting to think that maybe the best solution is to either wash coat or not stain at all. One of the furniture makers I worked with years ago swore if you wanted a dark finish go with a dark wood. If you want a light finish go with a light wood and clear coat. 


I hope all this helps somebody, it seems like this question comes up frequently






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Ahhh, that definitely helps! When making my samples, I noticed it looked best after I applied the conditioner (w/o staining). I'll try some different grades of sanding with just conditioner and see how that goes.


Thanks for the post!!!

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  • 3 years later...

In my railroading days I used floquil stains on basswood, (for water tanks etc), it worked really well. However, you may require a Hazmat suit to apply it!

Is furniture stain suitable for scale models, or, a model stain. Do not know the answer, just my 2 cents worth.



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I agree, stick to satin or matte for a sheen. if you do end up with more gloss than you like you can knock it back with steel wool and wax. Below is a shot of my Enterprise a few months ago, the woods are mahogany and manzonia. The mahogany is finished with a combination of shelac, minwax stain, wood filler with dark brown dye. The manzonia is a dark walnut Minwax stain and the entire hull is finished with many many thin coats of boiled linseed oil, rubbed  out with 0000 steel wool and then waxed.

I know most builders prefer a water based finish since it does not change color over the years, but, I happen to like the way an oil based finish ages so I planed for it.


If you use a water based finish remember to use nylon abrasive pads ( scrubbies) rather than steel wool, the steel wool can get caught up and rust with a water based finish.




Sorry for the 'photobombing feline" but that was one of the better shot of the finish that I have.



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I'm not sure if it will help but I built a large scale 1920's motor cruiser model using Basswood for the exposed Teak timbers. I stained the wood with oil paints which gave a much better consistency and coverage than wood stain and I was also able to control exactly what color I wanted.


Here is the post with some photos. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.






Dan. O'Neill.

Edited by overdale
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  • 2 weeks later...

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