Spraying Oil Stains?

This week’s question comes from Jorge who writes:

I’m finishing some maple kitchen doors. I have a Fuji Mini-Mite 3x to apply the finish. I first applied a 1.5 to 2 pound cut of shellac and now I’m spraying the oil based stain. The problem is that I get what I think is called orange peel. Basically I can see the stain dots in the doors. Definitely the stain is not applied uniformly. Here is what I’ve tried so far:

– Applied a thinner cut of shellac thinking perhaps the shellac was too thick. Initially I used a 2.5 to 3 pound cut.
– Sanded the shellac coat more aggressively using 220 grit.
– Adjusted the hell out of the gun. I adjusted the air pressure, fluid control, fan size and any combination of these three knobs with no success.
– I bought a #3 air cap thinking that the #4 was too big for the viscosity of the stain. No success here either.
– Thinned down the stain to 3 parts stain and 1 part solvent. This helped a little bit but still the result is not what it should be.
I’d appreciate any pointers you can give me because this thing is driving me crazy.

And this is my response:

Hey Jorge. Take a deep breath brother! I don’t think the problem is in the gun or your technique. Its in the materials. The shellac, even at 1.5-2lb cut, might be a little excessive in this case. Traditional oil-based stains rely on absorption into the wood to work properly. By sealing with 1.5-2 lb cut of shellac, you essentially created a barrier on the surface of the wood. So now the stain just pools, much like trying to use a marker on a glossy surface.

So here are a few recommendations. If you need to seal the wood first (which is not a bad idea for a blotch-prone wood like maple), just use a 1/2lb cut of dewaxed shellac. After it dries, sand it very lightly with 220 grit. This usually results in a surface that is only partially sealed and will still allow the some stain to absorb. So you can then spray on the oil stain, and wipe off the excess. Do not let it pool up. You may even skip the spray at this stage because all you really need to do is wipe the stain on. Now to be honest, I might even be a little hesitant to do this. I just don’t trust traditional oil stains over even partially-sealed surfaces. So for more predictable results, you may want to switch to a gel stain. The gel formulation does not rely so heavily on absorption and will give you a much better distribution and intensity of color, without any blotching. Once the stain dries, you can then apply the top coat.

Now going back to the shellac surface. Lets say you had that heavier coat on and you still wanted to add color. How would you do it? Well, you could always add some dye to the shellac itself. That’s a great way to bring some base color to the party. You could also add dye to lacquer (if lacquer is your top coat). I like to make very light dye mixtures (using both shellac and lacquer) that are mostly thinner and dye. But I like to add a little of the finish itself to the mix as that helps bind the dye to the surface. Basically, this is what is known as a “toner”. Hopefully that gives you enough to chew on. Good luck!

Category: Finishing


  1. Denis Rezendes August 11, 2008

    i was thinking the same thing marc. if you are using a good quality stain though you shouldn’t have that much of a problem. check to see if it is a stain or a dye stain. a lot of big box store stains are both a dye and a stain. that would cause more blotching. with the gell though you shouldn’t have any problem at all. its made to sit on the surface instead of soak in. same with a water based stain so he may have some luck with that.

  2. James Boston August 11, 2008

    Really good Q&A, Marc. I, as a hobbiest, don’t have a lot of opportunities to experiment, so this kind of info really helps to build a little more confidence going into the finishing stage of a project.

    Thanks – JB

  3. james November 11, 2008

    I want to spray oil base stain & need to know if it needs to be wiped of after spraying. I think it would work well as it would not pool as would brushed on. I need to cover multi. types of wood (pine plywood,oak & some other Asian wood) with some red glue between & the customer wants a light walnut but without any red tint to it as appears on many antiques. JHB


    Hey James. As I recommended above, I would always wipe the stain after spraying. Oil based stains are generally meant to be wiped, otherwise you will have curing issues. Now just spraying a light coat could work, but I have never had luck doing it. Since the stain stays wet for a long time, I just never found this to be an acceptable method for adding color.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Bobironhorse November 15, 2008

    Seems I always have trouble staining either Maple or Birch with oil base stains. I wipe on stain. I recently had a shop stain and finish mahogney piece of furniture and he sprayed the finish, which turned out really nice. I believe that he thinned the stain or dyeand mixed it with lacquer. Question is: Can you thin either gel or aabsorbing stain, wipe and get better results than if you used it straight out of the can.


    Hey Bobironhorse. I would have to say it depends. Not all strains are created equal. I definitely would not dilute a standard oil-based stain. But on occasion, I have had very good luck diluting gel stains. In fact, when coloring very large surfaces like desks, tables, a bookcases, I found it very useful to dilute about 15% with mineral spirits. This loosened the mixture up enough that i would quickly spread the stain over the whole surface and wipe away the excess. Spreading the stain over one small section at a time and then moving on to the next section is a sure-fire way to end up with unevenness.

    Now maple and birch are notorously difficult to stain. That’s why I usually pre-seal with a light coat of shellac and follow up with a gel stain. Check out the following two posts for a little more info.


  7. You know my question for you, I use gel stain as a glaze on some “antique style” rustic tables, would you shellac over the gel stain before applying the final top coats?

    That’s how I have always done it, just wondering what you think about that as far as durability and wear.

  8. shawn December 2, 2011

    how do get light phillipine mohagany,a dark brown finish.i have already, applied a coat of stain,and a laquer sanding sealer coat,but not getting the desired finish.can i combine maybe some oil stain to the sealer and layer the coats to get the desired finish? i’ve only done the cabs, but the doors have only one coat of stain.this is where i need them to look good.any advise?


      I don’t really think you need to make it that complicated. Mahogany should take stain quite well. So before applying sealers or top coats, I would try to work with different stains to get the color you’re after. Only after you have the color you want should you start layering on finishes. That is, unless you want to use a toner or something to help even out the color. Keep in mind that putting color in the top coat layers tends to obscure the grain a bit. But some folks like this look so it depends on your goals and tastes. But if you can, practice on scrap to get the finish process down before working on the cabinets. Save yourself a little headache.

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