How To Match Wood Stain

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Whether you’re patching a deck or installing new trim, sometimes you need to match new stain with an existing color. This article gives you all the info you need to get the perfect match. It also covers the process for custom matching stain, and gives you a helpful explanation of the factors that make stain so difficult to match. 

Matching Wood Stain

As the old saying goes, close enough only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Follow the steps belows to get a perfect match on your next stain project. 

  1. Choose your new wood. Review the section below on why matching wood stain is so difficult. For a good match, choose wood of the same genus and species as your target wood, that is close in age, and which has a similar grain pattern. Make sure you’ve removed any finish on the wood prior to staining.
  2. Source test pieces. It’s impossible to predict the appearance of stain before it has been applied and given time to dry. To avoid frustrating mistakes with near matches, make the cuts needed for your project and use the scraps for test boards. If you’re trying to match old furniture with new, use an inconspicuous area such as the underside of the new table. 
  3. Get a custom match. Bring a sample of stained wood to your local home improvement store’s paint counter. If you have any leftover stain from the original project, bring the can as well. The stain can will often bear a label listing what pigments were used, and will help the paint counter employee choose the same or a similar base. 
Man using a stick to mix a can of wood stain
  1. Get a few samples. Half-pint cans of sample stain are an easy way to test different stain options and select the best match. Try a few different shades of the same color, or the one color with several different bases/finishes.
  2. Conduct your test. Use a permanent marker to separate the test board into swatches and label each one with a number or letter. Write the same numbers or letters on the different samples. With a clean brush, apply the different stains to the boards. If the stains all have the same base, you can blend or feather them at the edges – you might get the best results from mixing two stains. 
  3. Wait for the stains to dry. Dry times vary across stain types. Water-based stains dry in two to four hours. Oil-based stains dry to the touch in six to eight hours. Ventilate the area to whisk away stain smells
  4. Evaluate your results. If possible, take your test boards and the target wood outside, into natural light. Place the boards next to the target wood and evaluate the color match. If you think you’ve got a match, show it to friends or family and see if they confirm your opinion. 
  5. Keep experimenting, if necessary. If none of the options you purchased from the store look exactly right, don’t despair. Try adding another coat if the hue looks right, but is too light. If none of the test swatches come close, you can move on to mixing your own stain – check the section below for some helpful tips and tricks. Thinning stain can sometimes be a good option as well.

Mixing Stains to Match Wood

Mixing stains is easier than it sounds, as long as you follow a few simple rules. With a blend of two – or even three – different stains and a lot of patience and experimentation, you should be able to get a very close match to the existing stain.  

  • Do not mix oil-based stains with water-based stains. Oil and water stains will not mix. If you apply them together, the stain will not bond well to the wood. 
  • Make and label your test boards. If the color you want is halfway between two previous samples, mix up three samples: a 1:1 ratio, a 2:1 ratio, and a 1:2 ratio of the different stains
Man dipping a cloth into a can of wood stain
  • Measure precisely. Use a measuring cup intended for liquid to carefully measure the amounts of stain you put in. 
  • Mix in a clean container. Don’t add a stain into another container. Use a fresh, clean, plastic or glass container instead.
  • Record your methods. When you find something that works, you’ll want to be able to recreate it exactly. You’ll only be able to do this if you’ve written down the recipe. 

Read our guide on how much stain you should apply to your wood project.

Why Is It Difficult to Match Wood Stain?

Matching wood stain is a difficult process to get right, for a few reasons, including the grain pattern, species of the wood, and the wood’s age. Understanding these factors is important to mastering the art of stain matching. 

1. Grain Pattern

Two trees of the same species that were cut, treated, milled, and stored at the exact same time and under the exact same conditions may react differently to the same stain. This is due to the grain pattern. 

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Grain pattern is the name given by woodworkers to the way the pores arrange themselves within the tree. When a tree is cut, milled, treated, and finished, the grain pattern can either be revealed or obscured. Stains are usually chosen to reveal or accentuate the natural grain pattern of the wood. Paint would be used if the goal was to cover up the grain. 

Planks cut from the same tree are fairly consistent in terms of grain patterns, as long as they were cut in the same way. Quarter-sawn oak, for instance, has a different grain pattern than traditionally cut oak. Natural variations and imperfections also affect the way wood takes up stain.

For instance, board with many knots in it will absorb stain differently in these areas than a board from the same tree without any knots at all. 

Man holding a wooden board with two different kinds of stain

2. Wood Species

Matching stain is never a sure bet, but it’s much more likely to be successful if you’re using wood of the same genus and species.  Red oak will accept stain differently from white oak, for instance. Pine and oak react very differently to the same stain products, due to the differing levels in tannin, so it would be an extra challenge to try to match the stain on these two woods. 

3. Age of Wood

The age of the wood also affects how it absorbs stain. If you add new boards to replace old and rotted planks in an existing deck, the moisture content will be higher in the new wood, which changes the look of the stain. Wood changes color and composition as it is exposed to sunlight and moisture. 

Cherry wood is particularly susceptible to age-related changes in color, as it begins to deepen in color as soon as it is cut. 

Can Stain Be Custom Matched?

The paint counter at your local hardware or home improvement store may be able to provide you with a custom match to your existing stain.

If possible, bring in a small piece of the existing stained surface. Using a camera and a computer program, the paint counter employee will be able to analyze the sample and recommend a custom mixture of pigments and dyes to get the same results. 

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While it may be a hassle to bring in a sample, taking a photo with your phone will not yield the best possible results in custom stain matching. The light and shadow in the photo, as well as the flash, can distort the appearance of the stain. If you must take a photo, try to capture the stained wood in natural light, as this will be the truest depiction of the stains performance. 

Artificial light often has its own subtle color. If you try to match stain based on a photo taken in artificial light, you may find that your finished product looks great at night but doesn’t match during the day. Even worse, the stains may not match the next time you change the lightbulb. 

Conclusion

Matching wood stain is difficult, but you can use the information in this article to increase your odds of success. Half-pint stain samples and a test board are the best way to check the results before committing to a stain. When samples or custom matches aren’t close enough, you can mix stains to find the perfect blend.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.