Tips For Staining Maple

Nov 30th 2020

If you’ve ever attempted staining wood with a tight grain and density variations, you know that it has a tendency to become blotchy and uneven. This can be incredibly frustrating, but there are some tips we can offer for a more even stain result. Read on to learn how to stain maple, alder, and cherry and avoid those blotchy results.

How to Stain Maple Properly

Staining tight-grained woods like hard maple is a real problem for even experienced finishers. For amateurs the problem gets even worse. Staining hard maple a dark color often results in blotchy, uneven results, which can mean you’ll have to start the process all over again. Frustrating, to say the least.

Understand that staining woods with density variations—without blotches—is difficult. Not impossible, just difficult. Luckily, there are several ways to help prepare your hard maple for wood stain to reduce the likelihood of blotchiness. Try some of these tips for staining maple to get the most reliably even results you can. The Door Stop also recommends that you start by testing a small sample scrap of the same wood, or beginning your staining on the backs of the cabinet doors. That way, you can catch an uneven stain result where the stakes are lower.

What Causes Blotchy and Uneven Stained Maple Cabinets?

Now, if you still want to try staining to get a darker finish on your maple cabinet doors, here are some tips. The Door Stop strongly recommends using a clear finish rather than using any kind of wood stain on maple, unless you are familiar with various seal-coat techniques. You can often achieve a darker finish on maple, or other tight-grained woods like cherry or alder, by using a wood dye. However, if you still want stained maple cabinets, take these steps first.

First, take a close look at your wood. While the grain may appear to be uniform, it that will almost never be the case. With maple, for instance, a new cabinet door may appear, to your eyes, to be perfect. It may appear to have even color, perfect grain match, and exceptional sanding. These properties will produce a superior cabinet door when lacquered, but when stained, this same door will have darker stain in the less dense areas of the wood and lighter stain in the dense areas. And the darker the stain, the darker these blotches will be on the less dense areas of wood.

This is not the fault of the wood, it's the NATURE of the wood. And having variations in density throughout the wood is the nature of maple. Many other woods, oak and poplar for example, are very uniform in density and, because they are uniform, take stain very evenly without blotching. Blotchy stain on maple is also not necessarily a reflection of your skills. With just a quick internet search, you’ll see that there are dozens of websites addressing the problem of blotchy stain on maple, as well as examples of this uneven result while staining hard maple. Just know that if you choose to move forward, a blotchy result is possible once you get your maple kitchen cabinets stained. That said, the following tips can help with getting a more even result when staining hard maple.

Tips for Staining Maple and Other Tight-Grained Woods

If you want to know how to stain maple without getting a blotchy, uneven result, it’s important to prepare your wood correctly. Before you begin staining, sand and treat the wood properly to ensure that the wood is as even as it can be, and that the stain can’t penetrate too deeply in areas where the wood is less dense. Here’s how to get started.

The first step should be to sand the doors to a grit well beyond what the cabinet industry uses. Sand the frames and panels to 220 grit and the end grain to 300+ grit. This will limit the stain penetration. Clean the dust off the wood with a dry rag. It can also be helpful to follow that by running a damp rag over the wood, which will allow you to see any marks that could cause uneven staining and should still be sanded down.

Then, the doors will need to be treated with a sealer or wood conditioner to limit stain penetration since maple and similar woods absorb stain unevenly. Minwax Pre-Stain wood conditioner is a wood conditioner you can try, or if you’d rather use a sealer, try dewaxed Zinsser Sanding Sealer cut 50% with Denatured Alcohol. To get an even, uniform color when staining hard maple, apply the wood conditioner with a paintbrush, or seal the grain with a thin coat of sanding sealer before staining. After application, scuff with 320 grit sandpaper, then stain as though the wood were unsealed.

End grain is notorious for picking up more stain and becoming much darker than the rest of the wood. You can help mitigate this problem by treating the end grain with a coat of glue size made by mixing white or yellow glue with water at a rate of 10 parts water to one part glue. Allow the glue size to dry for several hours and sand with 400 grit paper. This will seal the end grain which, being very open, will otherwise absorb stain at a higher rate. You can also use a light coat of shellac or sealer this way. 

How to Stain Maple Evenly

Staining maple is more art than science and, because of this, even experts struggle with obtaining an even finish. Hopefully, beginning with the tips above and following with the best stain for maple and the right technique, you’ll be able to get a relatively even finish once you get your maple kitchen cabinets stained. Regardless, it’s good to know ahead of time that staining maple is not a quick or easy process. You’re in for a project, and one that may need some adjustments along the way.

Start by considering the type of stain you plan to use. Pigment stains are often unable to soak into tight-grained wood like maple at all, or they sink in unevenly, imparting a blotchy finish. Gel stains, which are typically pigment stains, are more likely to provide a uniform color since they tend to sit on the surface, but often don’t impart much color at all in a tight-grained wood like maple.

The best solution for the do-it-yourself finisher is to avoid using standard pigment stains on the problem woods altogether. In fact, the best stain for maple is not a stain at all, but a wood dye. We recommend using a wood dye instead of a pigment stain, which can help you achieve a darker finish if that’s what you’re after, since the smaller particles in a wood dye can penetrate the wood. Because maple has such tight grain, and pigment type stains don't soak into the wood, except where there is a spot with more open grain. Wood dyes, such as TransTint or Transfast, are more likely to be successful. These aniline wood dyes, which are fine powder dyes that can be mixed with water, alcohol, or petroleum solvents, show off the grain of the wood and let your beautiful maple shine. However, keep in mind that wood dye can also emphasize imperfections in the wood or in the sanding finish, and it can fade in the sun over time.

If you’re looking to get your maple kitchen cabinets stained in a deeper color, but really want to avoid those blotchy, uneven results, you may want to try layered staining. Layered staining uses both pigment stain and wood dye to achieve the final color and finish. To try layered staining, start with a water-soluble wood dye to achieve the deeper color and emphasize the wood’s grain. Be aware that you may also inadvertently emphasize some aspects of the wood that you don’t love. After the wood dye has dried, use a pigmented stain in the same color to stain the wood. The dye will likely make the wood more able to accept the pigmented stain, which should help even out any color discrepancies. Whenever possible, see if you can get a scrap of the wood you’re using to test your stains on or, as previously suggested, begin on the backs of the cabinet doors.

How to Fix Uneven or Blotchy Results After Staining Hard Maple

If you didn’t get the even result you hoped for, don’t be surprised. You’re not alone if you’ve struggled with a blotchy or uneven stain on maple and similar woods.

Even if you follow all of the advice above, you may end up applying the stain or dye and seeing a finish that’s more uneven than you’d like. There are still some solutions, so you don’t have to give up yet. You can try toning the finish coat, glazing the final stain, or if that doesn’t work, you can always strip, sand, and begin again with a few adjustments. To try toning your finish, start by applying a coat of finish, then toning the wood by spraying pigment on the dried finish or wiping on a gel stain. The gel stain is the easier option, as it can be applied as is with a paintbrush and rag. However, you can also dissolve pigment in the finish you’re using, or in a solvent like lacquer thinner. You can either darken the entire surface of the wood to hide and even out differences in color, or you can darken the edges of your cabinet doors for an antiqued look.

You can also try using a glaze to minimize the contrast between the areas of differing stain penetration on your light stained maple kitchen cabinets. However, this will result in a darker hue. Start by applying a wash coat of shellac after the stain is dry. After the shellac is dry, gently scuff with 320 grit sandpaper. Next, brush on a brown colored glaze, then wipe away to remove the majority of the excess glaze. You should see a more uniform color on your stained maple cabinets.

If toning or glazing doesn’t work, or your stain is just too blotchy to fix, you’ll likely need to start over again by stripping and sanding the wood and refinishing. If you really struggled with uneven stain or dye, consider trying a clear finish instead for the second round.

Because staining hard maple is so finicky, you should always make a habit of trying finishes on scrap left over from your project before tackling stained maple cabinets. If you are planning on using a dark finish on your new maple cabinet doors from The Door Stop, please let us know in the “Additional Instructions” box on our order page that you would like some scrap wood samples. We would be happy to include scrap samples in the wood you ordered for you to test your stain on, free of charge.

If you have any questions about staining your cabinet doors, please email us at or call 800-342-1010 and we will be happy to help.

Additional Tips for Staining Maple

For more information about problems you might encounter while staining hard maple, we have included some video links to useful sites for additional tips and tricks.

Staining Maple Doors

Understanding and using Dyes

Coloring/Staining Blotchy Woods

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