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Matching Wood Stain

wood paneling in house

Matching Wood Stain | The arrows point to places on the paneling lighter than other areas. Diplomas, photos, and certificates created the light spots. (C) 2022 Tim Carter

Matching Wood Stain - Add Pigment to the Urethane

This past week I helped two 70-year-old newlyweds solve a vexing problem in a home they purchased. In just fifteen minutes using my transcribed phone call service, I saved them perhaps $5,000.00. I shared a time-tested way they could match the stain on a wood-paneled room. You see, framed pictures, diplomas, and certificates had created lighter areas on the wood that revealed themselves once the original owner moved out.

Change the Color of Stained Wood

Not only can you match the stain color of most wood, but you can also use my method to change the color of light-colored wood that you now want darker. Let's get started.

Some wood species, like cherry, are photoreactive. Some clear wood finishes, especially oil-based ones, also change color in response to sunlight or even artificial light. Oil-based urethanes and varnishes are known to yellow over time. You can see that yellowing in the above photo. Furniture must have been placed along the one wall and the framed photos and plaques prevented sunlight from hitting the clear finish.

Sunlight is the worst as some of the invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays contain destructive photons that crash into furniture, carpets, wood paneling, etc. wreaking havoc on a microscopic level.

This is why the original copies of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence are in a dimly lit hall in the National Archives Building in Washington DC. No doubt the clear protective glass that covers them also has some sort of special coating to prevent photons from reaching the ink and paper. Without this protection, the photons would fade the ink rendering the priceless and magical documents useless.

Fortunately, I had firsthand experience making those light-colored areas on the paneling disappear like a coin in a close-up magician’s hands. Many years ago while completing a very difficult remodeling job for my only customer-from-hell, my painters hadn’t perfectly matched the new wood trip in a giant room addition I had built. The trim was missing a slight amount of red pigment and the owner insisted I strip all the trim and solid-wood doors and start over.

Add Pigment to Clear Finishes

Knowing there was another way, I slept on it. In the middle of the night a voice in a dream said, “Silly, all you have to do is add some red pigment to the clear urethane. It’s no different than putting a transparent piece of colored film in front of a camera lens to change the color of what the eye is seeing.”
I woke up, went to the paint store, and had a quart of urethane tinted with a small amount of red pigment. My guardian angel must have been helping the employee while he squirted in the few drops of colored liquid because it turned out to be the perfect amount. What luck to get it the first time!

When I put a coat of this colored urethane on the woodwork, as well as a scrap we had stained, it was a perfect match. The customer was incensed that I had thwarted her attempt to inflict financial pain on me. The bottom line is we went to binding arbitration and I lost $60,000.00. This was back in 1991 when that was a vast sum of money. I lost simply because my attorney had failed to submit all my evidence by a hard deadline.

The Easy Steps to Change Stained Color

Here’s what I shared with Mary Ann. Step one is to carefully clean the existing wood paneling. I recommended using a mild liquid dish soap and water. It’s mission-critical that the sponge is just damp and that no water runs down the paneling to get behind any pieces of wood trim. The excess water can cause swelling and irreparable damage to the paneling.
Once the paneling is clean, I then suggested that she very lightly sand the light areas on the paneling with extra or super-fine sandpaper to just scuff up the existing clear coating. This would allow the new tinted urethane to get a better grip on the surface.

Mary Ann has a huge advantage that I didn’t have all those years ago. She can take a high-resolution photo of the wall with her phone and show the paint store manager the conundrum. I told her to only deal with the paint-store manager as she/he would have the best chance of getting a match the first time.

Since Mary Ann doesn’t have a scrap of trim like I had to experiment with, I told her that she should just put a single drop of the tinted urethane on the wall. See how close the color is. If it’s way off, take a photo to show the paint store employee so the next matching attempt will hopefully get it right. Once the photo is taken, then wipe off the tinted urethane.

Secret Weapon - Furniture Stores

In the event the paint store is unable to get a perfect match, I told Mary Ann she could solve the problem by bringing in a pro. She lives in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma fortunately. This means there’s at least one, perhaps two, high-end furniture stores that sell the finest furniture one can buy.

These stores employ expert wood-repair craftsmen. If not employees, these talented people are individual jobbers. They routinely repair scratched, gouged, or damaged furniture. I’ve had to use these talented people to make repairs on custom wood built-in cabinets in the past. They possess powerful skills as well as a magic toolkit that allows them to fill in scratches and match stain colors and wood grain to restore finishes to like-new condition.

It would be child’s play for an expert like this to match the lighter areas on the wall paneling. Once again, you find these people when you visit the furniture store and chat up the manager or owner. Bring with you your photos that show what needs to be fixed. I’d also like to see your before and after photos. Be sure to send them to me via the Ask Tim page at my AsktheBuilder.com website!

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