Should You Use Shellac or Wood Conditioner Before Staining Softwoods with Oil-Based Stains
posted on December 1, 2011 by Woodworker's Journal

Q: In watching shows and reading articles, people talk about applying shellac to a project, then stain, then a protective coat. Why the shellac before the stain?

Wood Staining Comparison There are several preparations that can be taken to balance stain absorption, wood conditioner and 50% shellac are shown here.

A: Some woods, notably softwoods, tend to absorb more stain than people would like, often selectively, such as in the early wood bands as opposed to the late wood bands. Other woods, like cherry, tend to blotch under oil-based stains. Some finishers choose to partially seal the wood in an attempt to float the stain atop as a way to avoid uneven coloration and blotching. One way to do that is to use very dilute dewaxed shellac as a sealer.

However, I am not a fan of this method for a number of reasons. It does not work in all situations, it is far from foolproof, and it is frightfully easy to make things a whole lot worse. Along with using only dewaxed and not regular shellac, the method demands that you know exactly how much to thin it, how quickly to wipe it off and when you need to sand afterwards. These things vary with the wood and stain in question. In other words, it is one of those methods that people spend time perfecting and manage to make work with their particular stain products and regimens. It is far from foolproof and therefore is not what I would recommend as a general practice for those who have not practiced it beforehand on scrap with their particular chosen wood and stain.

There is, however, a far easier alternative offered by the same companies who make the affected stains. Companies selling oil-based stains, the ones most prone to blotching, also sell wood conditioner. You flood it on, wipe it all off, then stain while the wood is still wet using the same method: flood the stain on and wipe off all that is not absorbed. You end up with both a safe and uniform alternative, with no risk of layering too much stain or the wrong type of stain atop sealed wood, a situation that can cause not only muddiness but also delamination.

Simply put, wood conditioner is a far less risky alternative, and the companies themselves clue you in to which types of stains may need it by marketing it together with those particular stains. All you need to do is figure out which woods are likely to benefit, and I can tell you that: softwoods, cherry, very absorbent woods like poplar, and in some cases, woods with unattractive twisted grain, such as soft maple.

That said, I think the use of dewaxed shellac, which I get in the form of Zinsser SealCoatâ„¢, is a great way to pre-seal end grain if you want to prevent excess stain from being absorbed there. While wood conditioner helps in that situation, it is often not adequate. By flooding SealCoat only onto the end grain, then wiping off what does not absorb and later sanding lightly, you end up with end grain that takes stain about the same as the flat grain.

posted on December 1, 2011 by Woodworker's Journal
previous post next post
Comments

2 thoughts on “Should You Use Shellac or Wood Conditioner Before Staining Softwoods with Oil-Based Stains”

  • sprnce burnside
    sprnce burnside November 5, 2013 at 7:55 am

    i have a solid cherry table top which I have downto bare wood. Should it be stained or put a cler coat on. If I do the latter should I seal befor the clear coat?What clear top coat would recommend?

    Thank you ver much spencce

  • Frank Sheen

    I'm making a nine drawer dresser for my Grand daughter, It's made up of part maple plywood, solid maple, solid cherry, cherry plywood, and Baltic birch plywood.
    The Maple and birch material will all be in a light to natural colour, the cherry will be in reddish colour.
    Question should I put on a conditioner first and what type of stain and top coats would you recommend. I like General Finishes.
    I'm also thinking of purchasing one or your HPLV sprayers which one would you think would best the best for these
    Thanks Frank

Leave a comment

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012
Feedback X