For a long time, I just assumed stained end grain would always look different from the rest of the wood, and I’d just have to be okay with it. Turns out, there are techniques for staining end grain so that it matches the rest of the wood!
The end grain of wood soaks up stain faster than the surrounding wood, resulting in a darker appearance. This is prevented by closing the wood pores by either sanding or pre-sealing with finish, wood conditioner or wood glue. Additionally, applying with rag instead of a foam brush can reduce stain absorption too.
There are a few nuances to each of these techniques, so lets dive in!
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1. Sanding With High Grit Sandpaper
Sanding too much can actually clog wood pores and reduce stain absorption on your piece. This is because the higher your sandpaper grit, the finer the sawdust becomes, ultimately becoming small enough to clog wood pores.
While this is undesirable on the majority of your piece, this is great news when staining the end grain! By clogging the pores of the wood, less stain will soak into the end grain, causing it to match the rest of the piece.
I tested this out on a few pieces of scrap wood. Here’s what my “control” looked like – no attempts were made to reduce stain absorption on the end grain.
And here’s what the wood looked like after being sanded with 180 and then 240 grit sandpaper:
There’s a significant difference between the two, obviously. But the end grain after sanding is blotchy, and I don’t love that. That could possibly be improved by sanding with an even higher grit (I stopped at 240.)
It could also be a result of how I sanded; maybe I sanded unevenly. But if that’s the case, I don’t know how to sand better. There were no signs that my sanding wasn’t enough. The end grain looked even until I stained it.
Regardless, it could be worth combining the sanding techniques with one of the techniques below for a more even result.
2. Pre-Seal with Shellac
These techniques are all about preventing the wood pores from absorbing stain. By pre-sealing the pores, less stain is able to reach them. In this trial, I applied one coat of Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat.
I applied the shellac with a small paintbrush, so that it only got on the end grain, then gave it about an hour to dry. This was the result:
While this end grain is definitely lighter than the control, it’s still a little bit darker than the rest of the wood. I only put one coat of shellac on the piece, and I bet this could be improved by putting multiple coats of shellac instead.
However, I’m not a big fan of this method. Not because it’s ineffective or that I have anything against shellac (I actually love shellac as a general finish,) but because it takes an hour to dry. That’s an extra hour before you can stain your piece.
If shellac was the only option, I’d definitely go for it. But there are other choices here that look just as good, and don’t require an hour of wait time to stain.
Important Note: I used Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, because it is the only premixed, wax-free shellac on the market. If you’re going to use this method, be sure to grab this exact shellac. Other shellacs contain wax, which can interfere with the finish adhering later.
3. Dilute Some Glue
If you’ve ever wiped off a drop of glue from your wood, only to have it reappear later when you stain your piece, you know that glue can clog wood pores and prevent stain from sinking into the wood.
For once, that fact is going to be a good thing!
I mixed a little wood glue with some water. This was not a scientific recipe – I squeezed some glue into a container, and then watered it down so that it would easily soak into the wood.
Then I brushed the diluted glue onto the edges of the wood piece, and waited an hour for it to dry.
What I like about this method is that it resulted in a really even color on the end grain. It is not blotchy at all. However, it was the darkest result of all my tests except for the control, and therefore the result that was most different from the surrounding wood.
And once again, just like the shellac method, I had to wait for the glue to dry, which really slows things down.
That said, you’re more likely to have wood glue in inventory than shellac, so this still might beat out that method. And I wonder if a higher glue concentration (aka, less watered down) might result in a lighter, more desirable color.
Clearly, there’s still room for testing.
4. Apply Wood Conditioner
The nice thing about wood conditioner is that you don’t have to wait for it to dry before you apply the stain.
While the true wood conditioner application instructions are up for debate in the woodworking community (check out my wood conditioner post and experiment to hear all about that,) it is generally acceptable to apply stain shortly after application. If nothing else, the wood conditioner will dilute the stain, reducing absorption.
So that’s exactly what I did. I only applied wood conditioner to the end grain, and here’s how it turned out:
The end grain is still a little blotchy, in a way that corresponds with the grain of the wood, which is interesting. There’s probably a scientific reason for that, but I don’t know what it is.
Clearly, this isn’t the perfect method on it’s own, but it could be combined with the sanding method or the rag method below for hopefully better results.
Just to be clear: I wouldn’t combine the shellac, wood glue or wood conditioner methods together, since they all work by using chemicals to clog the wood pores.
5. Apply With a Rag
On the control board (as well as all of the other boards,) I applied the stain with a foam brush, and then wiped away any excess with a rag.
For this last test, I applied the wood stain with a rag only. I dipped the rag in the stain, then blotted it on another rag. Once the rag was no longer heavily saturated with stain, I wiped the stain on the end grain. Here was the result:
In my opinion, the end grain matches the wood better than any of the other options.
And it’s the option with the most control – if on your first pass, the stain is too light, re-dip your rag and apply a little bit more stain. That’s not an option when using a foam brush; the wood absorbs all of the stain that’s applied immediately.
For even greater control, you can combine this method with one of the other methods listed above.
The Best Technique For Staining End Grain
So then, which method’s the best? Just to make sure I’m being fully scientific about this, here’s a picture with all of the different end grains lined up, so you can compare for yourself:
My personal favorite method is simply using the rag. It’s easy to control and doesn’t require any extra dry time, and it resulted in the edge grain that was most similar to the rest of the piece
Plus, the rag method can be combined with any of the other methods for extra control, which is a plus. And you probably already have some rags in the house, so it doesn’t even require you purchase anything!
Regardless of what method you choose, I recommend testing it out on some scrap wood before applying the stain to your final piece. That way, you know exactly how it will look beforehand, and can deal with any surprises that might arise.