How to Finish End Grain

This article was inspired by a question from Steve. He writes:

I am new to this woodworking thing. My next project is going to be an entertainment center which will basically be two tall cabinets with doors. The doors will have standard mortise and tenon joints for the rails and stiles. What do you do to the ends of the stiles (where the end grain shows) to make them look good? I have built some doors as a test and the end grain just soaks up the stain and doesn’t look very pleasant. I have similar doors in my kitchen and they look really nice, but they were done professionally. Any help is appreciated.

The Problem With End Grain

End grain is one of those things that can really bite you in the butt if you don’t prep your projects properly. Many times, you finish sanding and everything looks and feels great, but then you apply the finish and all of a sudden your project looks like it was made from two different woods! The end grain soaked up so much finish/stain that it now appears to be a much darker color. Since the end grain is on a different face, where shadows can sometimes play tricks on the eye, you can usually get away with this color discrepancy and few people will ever notice. But there are some areas where this end grain issue is much more obvious, like the top of a rail and stile door frame, and you absolutely must take precautions.

Its All About The Prep

First and foremost, its all about sanding. End grain will always soak up more finish than face grain, and the result will be a darker color. But if you sand it to a higher grit, it tends to burnish the surface and limits the absorption of finish. The result is a lighter color that more closely matches the face grain. So if you plan on sanding the project to 180 grit, I would sand the end grain to about 320. That will greatly improve your results.

But here’s the catch: end grain does not sand as easily or as quickly as face grain. So you might be wondering, “How do I know when I have sanded enough??” Well, if you recall in our recent Keepsake Box project, I explained my system for sanding end grain. Here’s an excerpt for your convenience:

An Alternative to Sanding

Now in some woods, sanding to a higher grit just doesn’t do the trick. Or maybe you are just a little lazy and you don’t want to do the extra sanding. Well there is still hope. Simply pre-seal the end grain. A light coat of a 2lb cut of shellac will work great for this. You can also use a solution of glue size. Glue size is basically a solution of PVA glue and water (dilute the glue by about 90%). Regardless of which solution you use, give the end grain a good sanding after the sealer dries and you’ll be ready for your finish.

Category: Finishing

Comments

  1. Yo whats up marc I was working on a book case for the saw dust chronicles 60 build challenge and I had a 2/4 board and it has a step design on the top of it.It was really hard to sand the end grain so do you think its better to hand sand small areas or end grain or try to get a power sander.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer November 16, 2009

      Yo what’s up Kosta! For smaller pieces, I would indeed try to sand by hand. It gets really hard to balance a power sander on such a skinny edge. So it will take some elbow grease, but the results will be much better in the end. Also consider ganging a few boards together and you might be able to use the power sander.

  2. Mark Hunt November 16, 2009

    Sanding to a higher grit for most instances works realy well, I often use very dark spirit stains on light wood and if the end grain is very absorbant I can sand up to 600-800 grit.

    I always do a test piece- once the stain is in grain theres no going back!

    If you have a lot of end grain to sand give it a thin coat of shellack first before sanding, it seals the pores and if you get it just right you can get an exact match when you stain, yet again do a test piece (or three) first.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer November 16, 2009

      Hey Mark. Thanks for mentioning the sealing idea. I didn’t even think to bring it up in my post.

      • Mardy October 8, 2013

        Is it possible to sand smooth enough to allow for a fairly smooth paint finish? I love my pine cabinet but it has very, very rough end-grain in several places on the face. I need to paint to get it to “go” (color-wise) with my other cabinets. How else can I smooth this finish for a nice paint job?
        I have virtually no experience with wood except for an amateur paint job.
        But…..I learn quick. Thanks lots, Mardy

        •  

          You should probably sand the wood with progressively higher grits of sandpaper. Start with maybe 180, then 220, then finish with 320. That should provide a smooth enough surface for your primer and paint.

  3. Will Ferullo November 16, 2009

    I heard this tip from Hendrik Varju on Matt’s show. He says to wet just the end grain with mineral spirits before staining. It may take a few coats to get the color to match the rest of the piece but it’s better ”sneak up” on it than go too dark and BE stuck. I haven’t used this method myself but thought I’d throw it our there.

  4. Joe Corda November 16, 2009

    Marc,

    What do you think of using sanding sealers for the end grain? Or for that matter on the entire piece? Do they help or hurt.

    I’m currently building a Cherry End Table and read that cherry can end up with a “blotchy” finish. Would the sanding sealer help ? I’m also considering doing a final coat(or 3) of Arm-R-seal since the table top will be getting daily use/abuse.

    Thanks
    Joe

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer November 16, 2009

      Hey Joe. A sanding sealer would accomplish the same thing as the shellac, mentioned above. Personally though, I don’t bother much with sanding sealers. I like to keep shellac on hand at all times, and that serves me just fine for most sealing tasks. And in general, unless I have blotching to worry about, the first coat of ANY finish is the sealer coat. And often, you don’t really need anything other than the finish itself.

      Now since you DO have blotching to consider, a sanding sealer would indeed help. Since you are going to use Arm-R-Seal anyway, I would recommend doing a coat of shellac (Bulls Eye Sealcoat is easy to find), let it dry, sand lightly with 320, then start applying your coats of Arm-R-Seal. A great finish for cherry!

      • Joe Corda November 16, 2009

        Thanks Again Marc!
        Shellac and Arm-R-Seal sound like a good plan!
        Joe

  5. Germain November 16, 2009

    Yet another reason to NOT use stain.

    I think the end problem also seems to vary depending on the type of wood. In my experience, end grain on pine has a stark contrast to the face grain. Perhaps it takes even more sanding than other woods.

    • Andre November 16, 2009

      I’m with you Germain, unless I ABSOLUTELY have to I always try to let the wood speak for it’s self. But on the rare occasion that I do use stain, I always both sand the wood two or three grits higher and seal it with shellac.

      •  
        thewoodwhisperer November 16, 2009

        Totally agreed on staining. Not a big fan. But don’t forget that endgrain still gets real dark even with a simple oil-based finish. So even when I am not staining, I will treat my end grain this way. But like Germain says, depends on the wood species.

  6. Dean (aka Onboard) November 16, 2009

    As I live, I learn. As a new woodworker I appreciated all the comments. It helps me steer my little woodworking ship in the right direction.

  7. Dan Drabek November 16, 2009

    All good advice.

    A couple of other thoughts…

    Whenever possible, I try to avoid exposed end grain. It not only sucks up finish and stain, it also sucks up moisture and humidity–resulting in warping and checking. When feasable, adding strips of wood to the end grain (gluing or tongue and grooving) will hide it and solve the problem. This is not always possible, of course.

    Also, a commercial solution to even staining, it you’re doing an “on top of the wood finish” is to put the stain in your finish–i.e. tinted lacquer, varnish, etc. Not elegant, but quick and easy.

    DD

  8. One of my sons got a little too happy with the electric sander and burnished the sides of a white oak candle runner I was working on. This is probably a hopelessly basic question, but is there a way to “un-burnish” the sides? Or is that even desirable?

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer November 16, 2009

      You can certainly go backwards. Just pop in a lower grit and it should bring it back to normal.

      In most cases, I try not to sand raw wood too far beyond 180 (end grain being the exception). Wood that gets sanded to a really high grit doesn’t absorb as much finish (as we’ve been discussing). But there is a point where that seems like it would be a bad thing. Part of what makes a good finish durable is soaking into the wood and curing inside the wood fibers. Sanding to an excessively high grit and burnishing the surface takes some of that away and I believe it could result in a weaker finish bond. This is mostly speculation on my part though because I never felt inclined to test it.

  9. What about more sculpted pieces, or sweeping curves that transition slowly from side to end grain… would you just try to “feather in” the difference in sanding or other treatment?

    • Andre November 17, 2009

      With piece like that I would probably not try to feather in higher grit sanding. As hard as you try you probably won’t be able to sand everything to the appropriate grit. I would sand the whole piece to 180ish and use a sanding sealer before applying a finish. Now, I have not yet made a piece like that, but if/when I do, that’s probably the course I’d take.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer November 17, 2009

      Ditto!

    • makes sense, thanks guys!

  10. Steve November 20, 2009

    I am presently making window valence boxes to conceal room-darkening roller shades. I attach them with a french cleat at the top of the window frame.

    How do I attach a picture here of my plan?

    Steve

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer November 20, 2009

      Unfortunately you can’t Steve. But you can post a link to the picture if you have is uploaded somewhere.

  11. Tom November 20, 2009

    I’m not sure whether the original questioner mentioned where the end grain was showing. If you make the stiles go all the way top to bottom, the end grain would be visible only from the top of the door. In any case, as Marc says, careful attention to sanding the end will help control the stain.

  12. Joe November 30, 2009

    Great info in the post and the comments! I’m new to woodworking and this info will help on my next project.

    Thanks.

  13. Dan Caragher November 8, 2010

    Hi,
    I have recently bought a Kraftmaid Linen Cabinet and bathroom Vanity. They are both the Cherry / Cabernet.
    http://kraftmaidspec.com/doors.....onid=335X0
    When I received them the end grain finish on all of the drawer fronts was horrendous. The cabinet doors were fine though. All the drawer fronts were replaced by the local sales rep and when they were recieved they were just as bad or worse. There is no shinny finish on the edges and they apear white in the bright bathroom light. They are going to send more replacements but I fear they will be just as bad.
    Is there a way I can fix these cosmetic issues with these my self ? I hate to have to do it, but I might not have any choice. If I could I would return them all.
    Thanks

    •  

      Hey Dan. That’s a real bummer. Its a shame that you would have to worry about that with new cabinets. Without seeing it for myself, I can only guess that the end grain wasn’t prepped properly and pretty much sucked up all the finish from the two or three coats it received. It is fixable, but without knowing your experience level or the specifics of the finish, its hard to say how it will come out. And if the doors are stained, you have a whole other set of issues to be concerned about. Any chance you can snap a few pictures and send them via the contact form (link is in the footer).

  14. Tim April 20, 2011

    I’m building a flute stand out of a cross-cut walnut log. I had heard a polyurethane cut 25% with mineral spirits would be a good finish so I tried it on the bottom, but it just looks like a wet log now. What can I do that will bring out the grain but not make it look wet? It’s all end grain of course, so kind of hard to work with. Thanks in advance!

    •  

      Really, the only thing I know of that you can do is sand/scrap the finish off and start over with a water-based finish. Oil and lacquer will most likely turn the finish muddy. The reason is because its all end grain. The end grain absorbs to much finish it usually turns a fairly unattractive color.

      A water-based finish won’t have quite that same effect. If you can practice on scrap, that would be a good thing. You just might not like the way the water-based looks.

      • Tim April 21, 2011

        I picked up some clear polyurethane after I posted yesterday, and I’ve got a scrap piece drying with that at the moment. If that doesn’t turn out I’ll try the water based like you said. Thanks for the advice, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  15. bob Luby September 15, 2012

    Very helpful just starting the staining process on my great grandmothers love seat that i just rebuilt

    thank you
    bob

  16. James Thompson February 21, 2014

    Dear WoodWhisperer, What I came to your site for, and I can’t seem to find an answer anywhere, is this: When you sand end grain, which direction do you sand? Do you sand along direction of the long length of the end, or do you go up and down along the short width of the end? Thanks for your help!

    James

    •  

      I usually sand end grain to a high enough grit that it doesn’t really matter. But I do tend to default to following the grain direction. Even end grain has a visible grain “direction” of sorts and that’s typically what I favor.

  17. Caleb Zlomke May 29, 2014

    Hi Marc,

    I have been dabbling in wooden rings lately. I bought some very thin boards (1/8th inch) and glued them together. Cut the ring out and the center hole with my scroll saw, and shaped them. Sanded them down to insane levels (end grain a bit more) and finished them with CA glue (no pre finish sealer).

    I am mostly pleased with the result and I think the CA glue will make them very water resistant…but I do have two questions. First the grain is darker on the two opposing sides of the rings (being end grain), do you think the shellac trick will work to make them more uniform? I didn’t pay enough attention when I was sanding to see wither or not the rings appeared much darker on those sides pre finish. But post finish my walnut was very dark, and the blood wood almost matched the dark color on those two sides. The second question is slightly off topic, but do you think CA glue will make an effective enough water barrier and durable finish or do you have other ideas for sealing and finishing to add some further protection?

    Thanks so much for the site by the way, I reference it a lot when trying to do something new.

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