Blending oil stains to match a previously stained surface requires trial and error, but by learning some simple techniques, you can reduce the error part.
Boards with various stains on it

Spin the wheel of finish

Use these stain-matching tips to replace broken or missing parts, or to make new furniture match existing furniture or trimwork.

Let's say you want to match a new oak table to an existing baseboard. You must first determine which colors went into the baseboard.

Start with a finisher's color wheel, shown below. This handy tool represents common pigments such as umber, cordovan, sienna, and ochre -- fancy names for brown, red, orange, and yellow. These colors are printed on the rim of the inner wheel, and again on the outer wheel. When you line up different pairings on the rims, small windows in the inner wheel show how the blend creates a third color.

Round chart of colors
Line up cordovan on the outerwheel with raw umber on theinner wheel, and you'll see inthe window approximately howthey mix.

Look for a close match

The windows might reveal several blends that come close to your target. If one looks too light and the other too dark, choose the lighter one, because you can darken stain more easily than lighten it. For our example, cordovan and raw umber blend for a good start.

Now, decide which off-the-shelf stains come closest to the cordovan and umber. Pick up stain palettes, shown below, at a home center to narrow the options, keeping in mind that the grain or color of your project wood may affect your results.

Holding pattern next to round color chart
Test stain samples against thewheel colors to find similar tones.Be aware that manufacturers'palettes often show overly darkcolors and small images.

In this case, a stain named Red Mahogany is awash in cordovan, and Early American or Provincial might provide enough umber. If you're not sure which stain colors you need, you can save money by buying half-pint sizes rather than quarts.

Factor in the variables
As you prepare to mix and test, keep these tips in mind:

  • For consistency, test on a scrap of the same wood—and sanded to the same grit—as your project.
  • Before blending, stir each stain well to get all the pigment into suspension.
  • Let your test samples dry fully. What initially looks spot-on can appear different a few hours later.
  • Apply a topcoat to the test samples, keeping in mind that your choice of finish will affect your results. For example, adjust the stain color to allow for the ambering from shellac or oil-based polyurethane; even crystal-clear finishes will alter the stain's final color.

Measure, mix, repeat

Step 1 Mix the stains in a clean container, starting with a 1:1 ratio. Begin with small amounts—a little stain goes a long way [photo below]. Adding a spoonful at a time gives you repeatable ratios while minimizing waste, especially if you have to start over a time or two.

Measure with whatever gives youeasy, repeatable results: spoons,oral syringes, or eyedroppers fortest batches, and bathroom cupsfor large batches.

Step 2 Record each addition so that you can duplicate it, whether in a larger batch now or another in the future.

Step 3 Test the mix on a sample board, referring to the color wheel to see if a particular color is lacking [photo below].

7 stains.jpg
Neither Provincial 1 nor Red Mahogany 2 match; a 1:1 blend lacks red 3. A 2:1 mix heavy on Red Mahogany lacks saturation 4, and 3:1 looks better but weak 5. Adding black cancels the red 6. Finally, a heavy coat of 3:1 mix left on for an hour matches 7.

Step 4 Add one unit of a color at a time, testing after each addition. Don't fret if you don't hit your target color right away—even the paint-store professionals who do this for a living expect a custom stain to require a dozen or more tries.

Deeper, darker: Longer

To darken the color of the stain, try adding another coat of stain after the first has dried. Keep in mind that your results will vary, because the binders that help stain stick to wood form a mild seal coat, hindering the absorption of more stain. Or, you may darken the color by waiting to wipe off the excess. This delay deepens the color not because the color soaks in deeper (in truth, stain does its job almost immediately when you apply it), but because more of the stain's solvent evaporates, increasing the ratio of colorant to liquid.

So, if waiting darkens the color, can you go superdark by flooding stain onto the wood and letting it dry that way? Possibly. If your stain contains lots of pigment, brushing on a heavy coat and letting it dry about an hour will leave a layer of pigment solids on the wood's surface. With careful, selective blotting and wiping, you can remove some of the thickened stain while leaving more color where you want it, as shown in the photo below. (If it's too dark, wipe with a rag dipped in stain. The solvents in the fresh stain soften the dried stain to more effectively remove the excess.)

To darken the stain, leave it unwipeduntil most of the solvent evaporates.On this test board, selective wipingleft more pigment in the lower leftcorner than in the top right corner.

Keep in mind two things, though: First, the heavy layer of pigment could obscure the wood grain. Second, be sure to spray on, not brush on, your first topcoat, because a brush and the solvents in the topcoat can redissolve the stain and muddy the finish.

Dyes vs. pigments

Oil-based stains get their colors from dyes or pigments—or both. To see the difference, brush on some stain from the top of a can that has rested undisturbed for a few days: Any coloration you see in the wood comes from dyes. But the muck you stir up from the bottom of that same can is the pigment. These heavier particles require frequent stirring to keep them from settling out of the liquid. Dyes and pigments act differently on wood. Because dye stays dissolved in the liquid, it tends to soak into the wood. Pigment particles, though, are too large to get inside wood cells, so they sit on the wood's surface.