Wood finishing is really not difficult or complex when you break down the components. There are four basic techniques to the art: Colored wood toners, stains, glazes and shading stains. Although there are many other techniques that make up the complete spectrum of wood finishing, this article focuses on these four basic coloring techniques, on which many others are based.

Colored toners
I will start with the colored toners. This medium is usually made with pigmented paste colorants that are added to either clear or white lacquer, with lacquer thinners added to reduce the viscosity. In some cases, the white lacquer is colored with pigmented colorants to produce a colored toner, and then those are added to clear lacquer to produce yet another color.

This series of three photos shows first, raw white oak; next, with the application of a
yellow-colored toner (note the translucency) and last, after the wood has been sealed
and a Van Dyke Brown pigmented stain is applied.

For example: A pink or flesh-colored toner typically is used to create various cherry, red maple and mahogany colored finishes. I would use a white lacquer tinted with Burnt Sienna paste colorant to produce that pink or flesh-colored toner.

By using the white lacquer, only a tint of color is needed to get the correct toner color. If the Burnt Sienna were used in a clear coat, I would also need to add a white colorant in order to get a good pink or flesh-colored toner.
Here’s another example: If I want to do some light fruitwood, light oak or pine finishes, I could add some French Yellow Ochre to white lacquer and produce different yellow-colored toners. If I used a clear coating, I would need to use a lot of French Yellow Ochre colorant and also might need some brown Burnt Umber to darken it a little.

To produce all kinds of walnut colors, you can add either Burnt Umber or Van Dyke Brown into white lacquer. This will produce various tan-colored toners.

Typically, toners are thinned out so they have very little color, and they are sprayed in several passes of the gun to slowly build up the right background color. In most cases, the toner is translucent so the natural wood shows through. This makes the toner look more natural. In some cases, depending on the selected finish, the toner is made to be opaque. Then it is glazed and clear-coated. This, basically, is how faux finishes are produced.

There are basically two types of stains: One is a dye, the other is pigmented paste colorants. Using the dyes will give you transparent colored finishes, whereas the pigmented stains are translucent. Many shops use both dyes and pigmented stains. They each have their place in finishing.

Both dyes and pigmented stains can be sprayed by lowering the air pressure. This makes it easier to get uniform color throughout the work. In most case, pigmented stains are usually wiped dry to get a uniform color. This is because pigments do not dissolve like dye stains do, and the pigments may lie on the surface of the wood otherwise. Depending on the finishes that you want to produce, you can select an appropriate stain.

For the finish shown in the top three photos, I sealed the colored toner to protect the base color and then used Van Dyke Brown stain to add another color to the yellow toner. The next step would be to seal or clear-coat the dry stain. A stain with clearcoats makes up a complete finish.

The photo at left shows a wood sample after a glaze has been wiped on top of sealer; next,
the glaze is brushed out to make the color uniform; finally, the sample after it has dried and
a clearcoat has been applied.


A glaze is a heavy-bodied paste colorant. It is made using a pigmented paste colorant, a drying oil like tung oil or boiled linseed oil and a solvent like mineral spirit. Glaze is always applied on a seal coat so that the color has a base to help keep it uniform throughout the piece. It is applied first with a cloth or flat brush and then brushed out to a uniform color with a clean brush. Using a stain, sealer, glaze and clearcoats will produce an excellent finish. (See the photos below for an example.)

Shading stains
This coloring medium can be made up of either dyes or pigmented colorants. Again, dyes are transparent and pigmented paste colorants are translucent.

These colorants are added to the clearcoats or, in some cases, they can be added to the seal coats. Their purpose is to add color to the finish. In some cases, it may be to darken the color; sometimes it is done to add another color and change the color of the finish.

To create a nice finish using shading stain, I first seal the wood and then apply the shading stain to add color. After I achieve the color I want, I apply clearcoats to complete the finish. I have used a mahogany-colored shading stain that really shows how you can change the color and still end up with a transparent finish.
As you can see, from these four basic techniques you can achieve all kinds of fine finishes. I recommend that you make up complete start-to-finish samples, especially when trying new techniques. This will help you learn to combine techniques skillfully.

Once you have learned and perfected them, you can feel well on your way to becoming a top finisher.

Mac Simmons is a freelance writer and 50-year veteran of the furniture finishing, refinishing and restoration trades. He has written articles for woodworking magazines in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany and Australia and has two finishing e-books on CD for $24.95 each. For information or orders, write Mac Simmons, Box 121, Massapequa, NY 11758.

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