Some woods stain great – some don’t. Oak, walnut and elm come to mind as the great ones. They stain easily and consistently, with no blotches or uneven color. On the other end of the scale are woods like maple and cherry, which are also consistent – consistently frustrating. Hard maple is the worst of the worst, with some of it taking almost no stain (I compare it to trying to stain a piece of glass) and other areas, like end grain, sucking up all the stain in the can. Anywhere that the grain simply changes directions is a spot for blotches to show up.
Right up there with maple is cherry. Although you can get some cherry boards to stain perfectly, many will look like a first-grader did it (and not the one first-grader that pays attention in class). The other problem with cherry is that it is usually expected to be at least medium-dark, which means the wood has to be darkened up somehow. I have a few recommendations for hard-to-stain woods, but for cherry, I have a trick. If you know it, don’t say anything yet.
I don’t remember where I first heard of it, but I was told that lye darkens cherry. That’s right, lye, like the soap or Drano. I didn’t know anything about lye, so I did a little research. And, after using it many times, I can tell you that a little research is all I needed. It is amazingly simple and produces awesome results.
If I want a nice medium to dark cherry and don’t need to match a specific color, I will use lye before anything else. Lye is great because it does in seconds what would happen naturally in a very long time. It chemically changes the color of the wood, allowing all of the figure to show through without blotches. The new color created by the lye also goes below the surface to provide a measure of safety when sanding between coats of finish.
I use Red Devil lye (drain opener), which has apparently been discontinued. Lowe’s carries a crystal drain opener that is 100% sodium hydroxide (the active ingredient) or lye. I, however, have never used this product, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness.
To use the lye, simply mix with water. I use about two tablespoons to 16 oz. of water as a starting point. Test on a sample cherry board to see how dark it comes out – the change will be almost immediate. Add more lye to darken the color or more water to lighten it. To apply, use a nylon brush (natural hair brushes will melt away) to saturate the surface of the wood, keeping a wet edge and let it dry. That’s it.
Handle the lye mixture with caution and follow the safety instructions on the label. Specifically, wear rubber gloves and safety glasses, and make sure you have adequate ventilation.
Treat the wood as if you were using a water-based stain, by raising the grain before applying the lye. After the lye is dry, the wood can be finished and requires no treatment to neutralize the lye. I like to apply an oil finish before the topcoats to make the surface shimmer and really show off the magic of the lye.
No matter how you finish the piece, I think you’ll be amazed at how easily and quickly you can have a piece made from new 100-year-old cherry!