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The Trick To Staining Maple

Staining maple can be challenging because it is a dense and close-grained hardwood that tends to absorb stain unevenly. The trick to staining maple evenly is to not stain it at all, rather use a technique called toning. As opposed to letting the wood absorb the stain (which, when it does so unevenly, leads to blotching) the stain is mixed with the clear protective topcoat and layered on top.

It's worth noting right out of the gate: toning is not a very DIY-friendly technique. While we do discuss DIY toning below, this article is mainly intended to help you when vetting and choosing your cabinetmaker to ensure they're familiar with the toning process. No secret stain recipes or quick TikTok "solutions" for this technique, they're either familiar with toning or they aren't. Let's make sure they are before placing any 5 or 6-figure cabinetry orders.

(Photo credit: Diamond Cabinets, buckskin on maple)

Why We Don't Stain Maple With Light Colors

Achieving light, even colors on maple is about as difficult as it gets in wood finishing. While toning is a fairly advanced technique, it's certainly not uncommon. Hundreds of cabinets shops and manufacturers across the US do it daily. However, there are still many shops that are unfamiliar with the process. Unfortunately, if an unskilled finisher or painter attempts to stain maple without knowing the correct technique, things can go very bad very quickly.

This example is from a recent Cabinetry Consultation we had with a very unhappy homeowner. This maple vanity was finished by a "professional" with the intended finish on the left. Little can be done once stain goes down, so the homeowner's only option was to paint. We have seen this exact situation over and over. It's a much better approach to prevent this from happening in the first place, rather than trying to "un-toast bread" as we say in the finishing world.

Painters Aren't Finishers

In certain markets in the US (looking at you, Texas), cabinets are installed unfinished and then painted or stained onsite. Most of the disasters and unhappy homeowners we've seen in our Facebook group Ask A Cabinetmaker have come from site-finished cabinets (specifically low-skilled painters attempting highly-skilled finishes). While yes, I'm sure there are some painters who are also skilled cabinet finishers, it is very rare. If you are working with a cabinetmaker who finishes onsite (or expects the painters to) I would strongly encourage you to get samples of exactly what you're wanting (the exact door style, material, and complete finish) very early in the process and, if necessary, finding a new cabinetmaker.

It's best to think of a cabinet finish as a complete system, not just a stain color. The type of wood, sanding process, dying, toning, topcoat, glaze, water-based, solvent-based... all combine to create the finish. Simply selecting a stain color isn't enough and rarely works out in the end.

Consider Cabinets From A Manufacturer

While I'm always one to support local cabinetmakers, if they're not capable (or willing) of producing the finish you want, then they haven't earned your business. There are a lot of excellent regional and national cabinets brands that have beautiful toned finishes on lighter, cost-effective woods to meet any budget. No need to create something from scratch when all of the R&D has already been done. We recently discussed a few alternatives to white oak in maple, birch, and cherry:

DIY Toning

Every now and again we chat with a homeowner whose cabinetmaker is eager to learn new techniques. If this is the case with your project, I would encourage you to have them contact any of the following companies: ML Campbell, Milesi, Envirolak, Renner, or Centurion. Professionals don't use homeowner-friendly brands like Minwax and Varathane found at hardware stores. Rather, an entire finishing system is used. If your cabinetmaker is eager to learn professional finishing, any of the previously-mentioned companies will have training at their local distributors.

If you're going to attempt to tone maple yourself, it's doable but consider a few things:

You can't just start mixing stains with topcoats: Compatibility (ensuring that each of the chemicals work with each other) and adhesion (ensuring that finishes adhere to both the wood and to each other) are the two biggest considerations in finishing. Certain topcoats can be tinted with colorant, dye, dye stain, or even the stain itself. If the two aren't compatible, your finish won't last (if it even looks good to begin with). Most finish manufacturers with say whether or not a specific topcoat is "tintable", and if so what colorant to use.

Here is the most user-friendly system from General Finishes I've seen and should be available at most specialty woodworking stores:

Practice, practice, practice: I've found it's better to spray rather than brushing. Again, the point of toning is to keep the color from soaking into the wood (and doing so unevenly), so misting or "forecasting" the color is the right way to achieve very even tones on lighter woods like maple and birch. Before attempting any finish on your cabinets, first experiment with samples.

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