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A Finishing Trick for a Dark, Even Color in Walnut Woodworking Projects

Even colored walnut lumber
Look close. This piece of walnut is not only finished with a clear lacquer but the light colored sapwood has been evened out to nearly match the heartwood. Woodworking with walnut today means dealing with the sapwood. Here are 3 ways.

Few people approve of pale sapwood in their walnut lumber,  but in the words of  Jim, a salesman at one of our faithful walnut suppliers back east, “When people ask me for a 100% heartwood face in walnut, I just tell them they’re dreaming.” You may be tired of hearing that sapwood isn’t considered a defect when it comes to grading lumber, however it is an industry fact. Lumber grade is a mathematical computation of the amount of clear wood in a board – so says the National Hardwood Lumber Association, the organization responsible for defining the rules of the lumber trade.

“But it’s a defect to me,” says the woodworker.

So what’s a woodworker to do? Fortunately, lumber producers separate their walnut inventory not just by grade but also by color. The good news is 100% heartwood walnut can be had; the bad news is few can afford it. For the most part, about the best balance between color, cost, availability is called 90/70 heart: that means 90% heartwood on the face, 70% heartwood on the back. Remember, lumber has two broad sides, a face and a back, and when building furniture and cabinetry, only one side is displayed in the final product.

Sure, it’s possible to find some 100% heartwood boards from time to time, but on a consistent basis and in large quantities? Not really. And therefore, when you visit your nearest lumber supplier, you’ll never have a perfect pile of full brown walnut to select from. Full heartwood boards are the exception to the rule, so it’s time to look at how woodworkers are using walnut in today’s woodworking.

You’ll find a number of discussions and blogs about this topic, and a good one in particular is this found at Lumber Jocks, www.lumberjocks.com/topics/10565, which discusses three ways woodworkers overcome sapwood.

Walnut board dyed and stained
Two walnut boards compared. Bottom is raw, top is dyed, stained, and finished to hide the sapwood. Can you tell where the sapwood and heartwood meet? Look closely.

3 Ways to Deal with Sapwood in Walnut:

  1. Cut sapwood off, and/or hide the sapwood on parts that will not be seen frequently
  2. Live with sapwood in your finished project
  3. Use a dyeing and staining process to make the color even

Those first two are straightforward.

Dyeing and staining needs some explanation, though. Since you’re not going to be able to go the woodworking store and buy a bottle of Sapwood Hider right off the shelf – alas, no such miracle exists – there are a couple of steps involved, but they’re easy.

For this method, we’re specifically talking about dye and there are a number of dyes on the market, usually mixed with water or denatured alcohol. Dye is different from stain, as dye doesn’t obscure the grain, which is pretty important when using walnut.

The basics:

1. Apply a very diluted dye in a color of your choice to the entire piece, heartwood and sapwood. Two nice choices could be Behlen Solar-Lux™ Medium Brown Walnut color or American Walnut color. Solar-Lux™ is UV resistant and fade resistant, which is great because when walnut is left natural, it eventually turns very tan. There are several techniques to apply the dye (which we’ll cover in another post), but in general you’ll want to dilute it by maybe 50%, then apply it in 2 or 3 coats rather than one full-strength coat because it’s easier to get a better result that way.

2. Seal the wood with a light coat of sanding sealer or shellac. This needs to be thin to allow for the next step to have some effect. Spray it or pad it on.

3. Apply an oil-based gel stain on top of the sealer. Wipe it on, wipe it off. When you wipe it off, use a bit of an artist’s hand – that is, don’t wipe too hard or too soft. You want to leave a light coat of stain right on top of the sealer while also lodging pigment into the pores. In the end you get a gorgeous consistent color across the board.

4. Apply your clear finish of choice. Varnish, lacquer, etc.

It should go without saying that you should always test your dye process on a few test pieces before committing the dye to your final product. You’ll need to test different dilution ratios of your dye before you get the color you want.

Dyeing walnut is not very difficult, but it will take some time. However, you’ll greatly increase your yield of wood and you’ll make the beautiful walnut color last much, much longer than you would if if were to leave the wood natural.

Walnut wood dyed to blend sapwood and heartwood
In this dyed and stained walnut board, you get a nice, dark chocolate color that will last a long, long time. The processed used also blends the pale sapwood so it’s not too different from the heartwood.
  • Laura

    Hi Mark,

    I am designing a light for a university assignment and have purchased some american walnut veneer which is extremely thin to steam bend into my shape and use as a cover over steam bent pine wood. I am using pine for the majority of the light as a prototype as I could not afford to buy as much walnut as required. The walnut veneer is a lot lighter in colour than I want and need a cheap way to darken the veneer, would I work on the veneer before I steam bent or afterwards? also is there a stain that I could use on the pine wood to match the colour of the darkened walnut veneer as both will be visible.

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens WWS

      With veneer you might be surprised at how dark the walnut will get if you apply an oil such as boiled linseed oil, a tung oil varnish, or even better a walnut colored Danish oil. Those might be suitable for you. Hopefully you have enough veneer to test some finish on. Veneer in particular is often rather Gray in color, but it will come back to life with a decent oil finish.

      Wait until after you’ve bent it to work on the color.

      The pine, on the other hand is going to be troublesome to match the color. Pine doesn’t take stain well at all and it’s a game of trial and error with various dyes and glazes. Considering the time involved and the additional cost of an arsenal of things to try, you might be better served to just get some walnut.

  • Edwin Jostmeyer

    Hi mark i have a problem i just bought a new butcher block countertop and my wife wants it stained black, it’s american walnut a little dark but she wants it black, how do i do that

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens WWS

      Does she want it jet black or just simply darker than what it is now?

      If jet black, go get some black dye by solar-lux. Then you can put a polyurethane or an oil finish over it.

      If she just wants it darker, you might want to just test out something like a tung oil varnish and see if that does what you want. Otherwise, in my experience a really nice dark color for walnut is a stain color called Moorish Teak by the brand Zar. It is extremely dark brown. Maybe one of those approaches will help you out.

  • David Leaf

    Hi Mark. I’m designing an office desk and bookcase made out of American Black Walnut. I love the dark brown color in Walnut when it’s new, and don’t want it to fade to an orange/gold over time. Any thoughts on veneer vs. solid wood? And if I do go with a veneer, would it be a mistake/unnecessary to stain or dye it (i.e. does this website tutorial only apply to solid wood)? Finally, I’m probably only going to have these pieces of furniture for about 5 years (long story), and they won’t be exposed to too much direct sunlight. Does that make you less worried about fading, or does most of the fading occur independent of sunlight, and also in the first year or two, in your experience? Thanks so much! Sorry for so many questions.

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens WWS

      I’m out of town until Wednesday July 29, 2015. I will reply to your email then.
      Or you can reach customer service at 800-423-2450 or orders@woodworkerssource.com
      Thanks for your patience.

      Mark Stephens

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens WWS

      It’s going to be fine for that amount of time. Direct sunlight is the main culprit. And usually a consumer grade polyurethane applied right to walnut will ultimately give a rather unpleasing (my opinion) yellow tone, and it does so pretty quickly. The fading is more the urethane taking on that color than it is the wood washing out.

      Couple of reasons why I like to recommend a light application of dye, sealer, and gel stain before the clear top coat (even if it is a consumer urethane). First is to just enrich that natural walnut color, not necessarily to change it but build on it. I hope that makes some sense. Dye and stain also have some level of colorfastness, which means the color will hold for a longer amount of time. Second, this method is a great one evening out the color when you have a mix (no matter how slight) of heartwood and sapwood and/or funky grain.

      However, I want it to be clear that it’s not the only way to come up with a pleasing color! Ultimately, you’re the judge – but what got me started on creating this tutorial was in direct response to the act of just applying a consumer level polyurethane right on walnut. The putrid yellow color cabinet door in the video I think says it all. That’s just not the finest way to enrich and work with the natural color. I digress . . .

      If you don’t want to go through the trouble of the dye and stain but want to prevent the yellowing as best as possible, another choice starts is partly discussed here: http://www.woodworkerssource.com/blog/tips-tricks/heres-a-secret-to-a-better-wood-finish-on-walnut/
      Consider finishing the walnut with a tung oil varnish (the Old Masters brand I use in that sample isn’t the only one, but it is a good one!). The oil-varnish blend gives the color a gorgeous tone. One coat is all you need. Let it dry, then seal with dewaxed shellac. When that dries sand it to remove dust nibs, then top it off with a water based acrylic or a water based urethane. Buff it, wax it, and it’ll look fantastic for years to come, and it’ll be pretty simple to “refresh”.

      Anyway, all of these processes are just fine for veneer, too.

  • choerenz

    It looks like you used gloss lacquer if I’m not mistaken? How would satin look (less shiny?) and also how is lacquer different from polyurethane? Sorry for such basic questions but I’m trying to finish a piece that has to look great but have the ability to hold up to water well. Let me know.

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens WWS

      Yes, sorry, this tutorial really doesn’t cover the ins and outs of the clear top coat choices (and how to apply them!), partly because those techniques are not specific to this wood. And it’s a whole topic of its own.

      Nevertheless, I used 2 coats of dewaxed shellac and 3 coats of semi-gloss lacquer in these samples. You can use satin sheen as well or do a final rub-out with #0000 steel wool and a little bit of paste wax to dull the sheen and get the finish buttery smooth.

      For water resistance, polyurethane is probably your best choice.

      The differences between lacquer and polyurethane (quick version) are:

      1. Lacquer is a faster drying finish allowing for numerous coats in one day, where as polyurethane usually needs to dry 4-8 hours between coats

      3. Consumer grade lacquer is less durable than polyurethane

      4. Cured lacquer is easier to repair than cured polyurethane

      4. Lacquer is usually sprayed, and polyurethane usually brushed or wiped – which is one argument that lacquer is just easier to apply with fewer troubles, but both take some skill to do well

      4. Oil based polyurethane is slightly more amber in color than lacquer

      Lacquer is a little hard to “box up” with a set of differences because there are several of types of lacquer. Generally you’ll hear that lacquer isn’t as durable as polyurethane, but that’s only true for some kinds of lacquer. As an example, precatalyzed lacquers are very durable.

  • Tom

    I’m about to start a project, and I like the way you evened out the color in the walnut. You did a nice job. In your video it says the dye you used “American Walnut,” but in the article it says “Medium Brown Walnut.” Are the boards in the article vs. the video two different examples? They look very close.


    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens WWS

      Different boards, yes. In the video you see the “American Walnut” color and in the pictures above here you see the Medium Brown Walnut color. The results are just a tad different, but both are very nice. Check out this attached picture. I made a comparison of the the two colors for you. Dying wood is really flexible. You can make the color lighter or darker by using thinner coats to go lighter or by adding more coats to go darker. So even if you don’t use the exact same color, good chance you’ll get a very nice color.

      The American walnut color is a darker brown while the medium brown color has a touch of red in it.

  • Andy Pensavalle

    I just received my shipment of the thin walnut featured in last week’s email. Wow, what a buy! The wood is just beautiful!!! Any of you guys that make boxes or small craft projects should jump at this one. Thanks, Mark.

  • J. Griffith

    I have only purchased Mesquite once. It was a dark color and it did not resemble the pictures I have seen on the net. Is the source a determining factor if I wish to find the darker mesquite lumber for furniture ? Perhaps darker mesquite is from more equatorial regions? Please assist. Thank you!

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

      Mesquite changes color quite drastically with time. Freshly cut, it’ll be very light tan. But as it ages it goes to a rather dark brown, you’ll see a slight difference within a couple of weeks. Exposure to light accelerates the change. Additionally, the finishing process one uses on a piece of mesquite has a drastic effect, so that’s a very important variable that should be considered. The source region plays a role, but it’s nuanced.

  • Edison

    Hi, how to hide sapwood in oil finish?
    Still using staining underneath the 2nd layer?
    Will waterbased or NC based staining will help?

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

      Can you be more specific about the oil finish? What kind of oil finish?

      Something like tung oil or boiled linseed oil will not work as the top coat in the process above because those need to penetrate into the wood. The washcoat of shellac or sealer (the step between the dye and the stain) prevents that. However, you can apply a varnish instead of a lacquer for the top coat after the stain. But maybe that’s not what you’re asking.

      It’s important to have a grip on what role the different products play. The dye establishes, as much as possible, an even-colored base layer upon which to build, and you can do any number of coats of dye or any dilutions to suit your tastes. The thinned sealer prevents the next step from coloring the wood too much and obscuring the grain. The oil stain delivers colored pigment to all the tiny pores in the wood without coloring the surrounding wood (much). The overall effect appears to blend the sapwood and heartwood. The bottom line, an oil finish just doesn’t fit into this equation.

      With that, it’s possible to tint oil and perhaps arrive at nicely blended heart and sap. For example boiled linseed oil can be tinted with linseed oil-based artists paints. You could try that for the first step instead of the dye I used. Maybe it’ll do what you want. Let it fully dry. Then continue with the steps above — apply the thin coat shellac or sanding sealer, then wipe on/off the stain. That works too, though the results can differ obviously, perhaps you’ll like that look more. That would be the only advantage (that I can think of) over using dye.

      Also, a water based stain miiiight work in place of the dye in the first step . . . but I don’t know. But stick with the oil-based pigment stain in the third step.

  • Doug

    Hey Nick,

    I must be weird too; I like sapwood (and its variegated look) as well.

    So I’d like to maintain the original look of the wood while preventing the fading that you indicate will occur. Can you do that? How?

    Thanks for the tips!


  • Yavuz B.

    Looks awsome tough.whats the stain color ya use?

    • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

      Zar “Rosewood”. Used a rag to apply and wipe off.

      • Yavuz B.

        Thank you.keep up the good work.

  • Tom H.

    You must have read my mind. I am in the process of building a walnut bench and have been trying to figure out how to properly “cover” the sapwood. I just got my answer. Many thanks.

  • Nick

    I must be weird, I LOVE sapwood.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Sure it would.

  • Joe Tripodi

    Do you think this method will work to darken a light colored batch of veneer?