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Home Theater Finishing Notes 

This page contains notes on working with finish products like stain, clear coats, and sanding.

Stain. I knew I wanted a dark, dark, dark stain on the paneling, but I tried about 10 different stains on test boards before I found one that I really liked. Home Depot and Lowes seem to have stopped carrying most brands of stain and carry only Minwax and Olympic stains in my area. I tried both of those but wasn't satisfied. None of them had the color richness I was looking for, and all the samples I tried had a tendency to raise the grain of the wood. There is a lot of wood in the room, and I thought that emphasizing the grain would just make the room overwhelming. Another issue is that the paneling is two kinds of birch (3/4 birch plywood, 1/2 birch plywood, and birch door skins) and the millwork is hemlock--and those different kinds of wood take stain fairly differently. One solution is to use conditioner on the wood, but that made the color look somewhat washed out, and I didn't like the effect.

I eventually stumbled across Woodkote Jell'd Stain [pdf]. Their product had several advantages for my application. First, the color saturation was very deep and produced a really rich look. Second, it stains birch and hemlock consistently, which eliminated my need for conditioner. Third, the jell is very easy to work with. It doesn't run and drip the way most stains do. Finally, it isn't very sensitive to the amount of time it's in contact with the wood. A lot of stains behave differently depending on whether you leave them on the wood 2 minutes or 15 minutes. The Woodkote Jell'd stain seems to stain instantly, and although it's harder to wipe off if you wait very long, it doesn't seem to affect the color of the wood. The odor is pretty intense--it smells like shoe polish, only you use a lot more of it, so it's a lot stronger. I wouldn't have wanted to put this on in my enclosed space without a respirator. 

Clear Coat. For a home theater application, I wanted a clear coat that would enhance the natural beauty of the wood without producing a high gloss (i.e., undermine my goal of keeping the room dark). The options in clear coats are bewildering. There are lacquers, varnishes, oil-based polyurethanes, water-based polyurethanes, etc. As with the stains, I ended up trying about 10 different varieties on test boards, and they had very different strengths and weaknesses. One leveled itself very well even with fairly careless brushing, but the odor was almost suffocating. Others looked great after 1 coat, but looked very different after its second and third coat. Water-based products make for easy cleanup, but I couldn't find one that looked very good. I ended up going with Minwax oil-based Semi-Gloss Polyurethane. I originally thought I wanted a satin finish to minimize reflected light, but I couldn't find a satin finish that didn't make the wood look dull. The MinWax is fairly easy to apply and is not overly reflective for a semi-gloss. The first coat doesn't look that great, but it looks really good after two coats. After 3 coats, the finish is a lot glossier, so I'm applying 2 coats and hoping that will provide enough protection.

Sanding. It turns out that sanding is a key ingredient in minimizing the differences in appearance of stain on different kinds of wood. I sanded the flat birch surfaces with 100 grit sandpaper, and didn't try to sand them all that much. However, it's important to sand the hemlock millwork until it feels quite smooth, or the stain will look blotchy and won't be as good a match for the birch. The  Woodkote Jell'd stain is not as blotchy as other stains I tried if you don't sand carefully, but you still get the best look with a good sanding job.

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