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Thread: How do I stain sycamore?

  1. #1

    How do I stain sycamore?

    I have made a couch out of sycamore because I could get some really cheap 8/4 and grain looked like it would match mahogany once I stained it. But staining it is not going well.

    Stain or dyes blotch horribly. Even Minwax Polyshade (tinted varnish) blotches.
    I was able to get about what I wanted by using tinted bleached shellac and then tinted water based varnish; but tinting them as dark as I want will be expensive. And... I found out my shellac had wax in it, and putting varnish over it is questionable.
    At the moment I am trying to get the wax to settle out of my shellac, but after 5 days not much seems to be happening.

    So, I have come up with a few possibilities, each of which will require buying stuff simply to try them. So I am hoping someone can give me some advice.

    1) Buy some zinser sealer (dewaxed shellac) and buy some Polyshade of the right color.
    2) Buy some amber shellac and try to move it from orange to brown by adding an appropriate dye. (I thought it would be green, but someone else says it is purple?!)
    3) Try Zinser's suggestion. They say to tint the shellac and then add household ammonia. They say it retards drying and makes a great stain.

    Any ideas would be appreciated.

  2. #2
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    The simplest most straight forward way of achieving the darkness you are looking for is to use a powdered analine dye, mixed with water. What dye did you use that you found blotched badly? Generally, dye blotches much less than any stain with pigment. The method of application could make a difference. I apply dye quite liberally, often with a sponge, and use a dry cloth to wipe off excess. By the way, you can't tell how a water mixed dye is turning out until a top coat is applied--the color can appear WAY off.

    You can get a mahogany color, though I can't quite see how sycamore grain is going to look much like mahogany.

    Skip the Polyshade. Many find it to be the very worst finishing product on the market. It's very, very hard to get an even finish with it, unless heavily diluted, even on woods that don't blotch. It's just a badly behaved finish. Toner's which is what polyshades would be if it worked are best applied by spray to get a sufficiently even appearance. (Don't spray Polyshades however unless you want sticky overspray on all the surroundings.)

    No problem with putting varnish over shellac with wax--except for polyurethane varnish or waterborne finishes. Traditional resin varnishes, alkyd or phenolic, will adhere to shellac with wax.

    I'd not want to be the first on the block to try a wiping stain made by mixing shellac with ammonia. I think it also limits top coats to waterborne acyrlics, probably because of the risk of lingering alkalinity.

  3. #3
    The dye I used was Transfast. I put a few coats of varnish over it, hoping it would improve, but it didn't. I have used it before without problems on oak, mahogany, and cherry. The sycamore has a swirly grain reminiscent of African mahogany; maybe that is unusual for the species. Anyhow, the dye really exaggerates that effect, and makes parts very muddy depending on the lighting. I guess you have to see it. Only shellac seems to go on without causing problems.

    The only varnish I am aware of seeing is poly. Are there other kinds commonly available? What brand names?

    Zinser tells me that any oil base varnish will go over their shellac, but they also told me the wax would separate out in a week and that isn't happening.

    If I did get good results with the ammonia/shellac, could I top coat it with shellac? I haven't used it before, but it is a pretty decent topcoat as long as you keep alcohol off it, isn't it?

    thanks for your help

  4. #4
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    Brands of traditional resin varnishes include Behlen Rockhard, Pratt & Lambert 38, and McCloskey Heirloom. Waterlox makes a traditional resin wiping varnish in Satin, Original/Sealer (which is semi-gloss) and Gloss. versions. (The sheen of the Original/Sealer is very nice, glossy yet mellow.) All of these varnishes work fine over shellac with wax. Polyurethane varnish (which is almost always a polyurethane/alkyd that we find available for consumers has relatively more adhesion problems than the traditional resin varnishes, as well as being less clear and more difficult to rub out evenly.

    If the dye is exaggerating the figure, and enhancing chatoyance more than you desire, you might apply a very light cut of shellac (less than 1 lb. cut) before applying the dye, as a pre-stain conditioner.

    I wouldn't use shellac over the ammonia/shellac mix. Any ammonia left on the surface could cause the shellac to deteriorate. I like shellac as a top coat, but it isn't only alcohol that you must avoid. Ammonia will destroy a shellac finish faster than alcohol. Ammonia is recommended for cleaning brushes and spray guns of shellac. I think that the waterborne topcoat recommended by Zinsser is chosen because of the possible chemical interactions with shellac and other top coats. Frankly, I had never seen that ammonia/shellac recommendation before. I'd want to give it a long trial before using it on an actual piece of furniture.

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    I tried the ammonia/shellac. It blotched! So nothing else about it matters.

    I think the purpose of the ammonia was to make it take longer to dry, so you would have a better chance of being even. I haven't used shellac before, but I "think" that each new coat partially dissolves the prior coat. So if I used several light coats would they likely be more even than just a couple heavier coats? I am supposing that each new coat would even out the one before it. Does that make sense?

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    Almost forgot, I got a can of Rockhard.

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    The ammonia/shellac seems to me to be just another way to hold pigment onto wood and unfortunately the major source of blotching is the way pigment is captured by different parts of the surface as grain swirls to the surface. Your's is the first experience with it that I've heard about.

    If minimizing the figure is important then the best way to do that is with spray techniques. Dyes can be sprayed in light coats that are quite even and that allow "creeping up to the right color". Tinted topcoats--toner--can also be applied evenly, something I've not been able to achieve by brush or pad.

    The other thing that might help is to shift gears a little as to goals. You have a beautiful figured wood, revel in the intensity of figure, emphasize it, turn adversity into the joy of nature's uniqueness. Or decide that a near natural color that you would get with a coat or two of blonde shellac topped with a varnish.

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    I will have you explain that to my wife; I have already tried. It "doesn't go with the other furniture" unless it is dark.

    My wood is about the color of maple; the references I have seen say sycamore is light brown to dark brown. Do I even have sycamore? Reason I ask is that all the references say sycamore is easy to stain; mine is nearly impossible. Or could it just be natural variation?
    The 6/4 was $3/bf; hard to see someone falsely claiming something is cheap sycamore.

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    Wade, American Sycamore isn't dark...it's somewhat like soft maple, IMHO. Here's a picture of the spalted quarter-sawn sycamore top for a shelving unit that's going in our addition. Finish is BLO and shellac. (with a cherry edging)

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    Here is a link to some other American Sycamore pictures. At $3 per board foot it would almost certainly American Sycamore since the English sycamore (which is a maple) is usually quite a bit more expensive. Your sycamore hasn't turned out to be inexpensive, giving the finishing travails.

    One other thing to try. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. That is Gel stain. It has little penetration and consequently less blotching. I have used it over a dye to get a really dark tone.

    I have learned, after 39 years of marriage myself, not to take sides in others differences of opinion.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Schoene View Post

    I have learned, after 39 years of marriage myself, not to take sides in others differences of opinion.
    Yep,

    me too.

    Thanks for all the finishing tips Steve.
    Last edited by Jim Becker; 10-20-2007 at 8:22 PM. Reason: Fixed quote tagging

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Becker View Post
    Wade, American Sycamore isn't dark...it's somewhat like soft maple, IMHO. Here's a picture of the spalted quarter-sawn sycamore top for a shelving unit that's going in our addition. Finish is BLO and shellac. (with a cherry edging)

    Allowing for the BLO, that is it.
    Gel stain blotched horribly; that was my first try. It even blotched over shellac.
    This is a wonderful learning experience; or so I keep telling myself.

  13. #13
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    I'm perplexed, as I am sure you must be. Can you post pictures of some of your samples? I can't quite visualize how gel stain, over a shellac wash coat, can still blotch.

    Spray on toner may still be a solution--Behlen Jet Spray is an aerosol lacquer, available through Woodcraft and other places, in a variety of wood tones as well as clear. The manufacturer, at www.hbehlen.com has a full catalog. I'd seal with a coat or two of clear lacquer, sand smooth with 320 grit, and then use the spray toner to achieve the color. The usual knock on toner is that it obscures grain, but that's exactly what you want.

    Of course, the fall back is always black enamel.

  14. #14
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    Below is a somewhat fuzzy picture of the wood with Bartleys dark mahogany on it. It would be rather darker and blotchier without the shellac on it underneath.

    My last two tries are tinted amber shellac and making my own dewaxed shellac. The prepared shellac won't dewax after 10 days.

    I have never sprayed. This is a 6' couch make up of 2.5" members. I would have to haul it outside. Doesn't seem like a first time spray project. But then, I have never sprayed, so maybe I don't know.

  15. #15
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    Looks like classic sycamore figure, and is blotching in the same sense that curly maple stands out because of blotchy stain. People work hard to get those flakes and rays to stand out like that. I think it looks great.

    But, a rose is a weed if it's growing where you don't want it.

    Without spraying, the two most likely choices, would be a combination dye on the bare wood to get the basic darkness, followed by sealing with shellac and then covering the figure to some extent with multiple coats of gel stain. That's a little like painting it, but I don't think you can cover the figure

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