Tips for a Tricky Two-Tone Finish

Here’s how I produced the finish on the audio booth for First United Church:

Step One: Match the stain on the woodwork in the church.

It’s a semi-opaque stain of some sort, so I used gel stain to emulate the look. Because the original stain is primarily orange-ish (is that a word? well, yeah), I mixed up several samples using cherry, brown mahogany, and red mahogany in different proportions, measuring each component of each sample and recording it along the way. The closest match was one part Old Masters red mahogany to two parts Wood Kote [sic.] Jel’d [sic.] cherry.

When you make a custom color, it’s a good idea to mix up more than you’re going to need. Sure, keeping the recipe on hand will enable you to reproduce it (I note down finish recipes and all finishing products I use in every job file; as a result I can tell a client what I used on a job 20 years ago), but as with batches of anything, the next one may be just a little different. Hence the recommendation to mix up extra, even if it means you don’t end up using it all.

Step Two: Figure out how to stain the framework while keeping the panels natural.

I didn’t want to use painter’s tape to mask off the unstained portions, not least since I have found that stain, even viscous gel stain, has a way of sneaking beneath even the finest tape seal.

Instead I took the following route:

  1. Cut all the joints and sand the inside edges of each frame.
  2. Clamp each frame up dry with the rails and stiles in their final positions.
  3. Apply the custom stain mixture to the inside edges of the frames using a bristle brush, let sit for several minutes, then wipe away the excess with a shop cloth.

The reason for clamping the parts together instead of just staining the whole length of each inside edge is that I wanted to leave the cherry bare of gel stain at the joints so that glue would penetrate the wood without even the slightest impediment when I finally glued the panels together.

Next, I sealed the stained inside edges with Zinsser Seal Coat, an alcohol-based dewaxed shellac, with the frames still in clamps.

I cut the panels to size and confirmed the fit, sanded them, and brushed on Seal Coat to help prevent glue from staining them during the assembly, as well as to provide at least some protection in case I splattered any stain on them while staining the frames’ faces.

Once the Seal Coat had dried on the panels, I glued each frame together with its panel(s) in the grooves. I sanded the inside and outside faces (i.e., the front and back of each panel) using a random orbital sander, then finished sanding by hand with the grain.


As you can see in the scale drawing, some of the horizontal pieces go over the vertical pieces, while some go under. It’s not a basketweave, but an interplay between different pieces; some are dominant, others submissive. (I like to think the pieces agreed to their positions–like, it was more of a dance than a fight.) Thanks to this interweaving, sanding the latticework by hand with the grain was more challenging than it sounds.

I marked the pieces and their corresponding parts on the drawing with letters, because that turned out to be the only way I could keep track of where they belonged. Once I’d cut the pieces for the latticework I had to stain their edges and the end grain on pieces that terminate on the panel, instead of at a joint, before gluing and pinning them on the panels.

Once everything had been sanded, I carefully applied the gel stain using a 1″ foam brush. There were a few splatters, which came right off; I used a shop cloth moistened with mineral spirits to remove them, since mineral spirits would not dissolve the Seal Coat shellac.

One more tip: Gel stain dries pretty quickly, and if you don’t wipe off the excess in time, you’re in trouble. Going back over it with thinner or another application of gel stain pulls some of the original pigment out, leaving a paler color. Since oil-based finish would have dragged pigment out of the gel stain, even after it was dry, I needed a topcoat with a different solvent base. I had David Willibey of Bloomington Powdercoating spray the panels with precatalyzed lacquer. They came out great.

David Willibey of Bloomington Powdercoating

David Willibey of Bloomington Powdercoating

2 responses to “Tips for a Tricky Two-Tone Finish

  1. Thanks for the great info!

  2. Very nice, Nancy. Thanks for the detail on how you managed the different stages of finishing, protecting the panels. Btw, I hope Rev. Jack has been good to you. If not, let me know and I’ll tell Mom 😀 (it’s been a lot of years since there’s been an excuse to do that). Jeff S.

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