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Staining Your Spinet



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by Bo Riley

Bo RileySo, you have finished the cabinet making phase of your spinet harpsichord project...and you are not happy with the color contrasts in veneer. Is there a small amount of sapwood streaking through your beautiful solid mahogany lid? Were you hoping for something a little lighter, or darker? Does your lid look like it should be attached to someone else's spinet case? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, read on.

Aniline stains have been used with great success on furniture since the 19th century. They also work well when applied to your spinet harpsichord. Most woodworking stores and some hardware stores carry this material. It comes in powder form in shades of red, black and brown, soluble in either water or alcohol. Most important for our purposes, is the water-based variety. The water base is critical because subsequent finishing steps require alcohol and oil. Thus, it is essential that one not interfere with the other. This stain works so well because it is essentially transparent. Therefore it won't detract from the natural beauty of the wood. By reducing color contrasts it will appear to simultaneously make darker woods lighter and lighter woods darker.

Before applying the stain, prepare the surface of your spinet by sanding to a fine finish. Then brush with water. Leave no standing puddles but wet well. Let dry completely, then sand again lightly to remove the water-raised grain. If you do not want the light color of your maple or boxwood stringing to be affected by the staining it will be necessary to protect it. Carefully apply at least two coats of shellac with a Q-tip swab prior to applying the stain. At this point make certain that you have at hand sample pieces of the same color and species of that to be stained. You can make samples from your scrap veneer glued to scrap wood. Mix the powder with water according to the container instructions. You will probably want to experiment by mixing several colors to achieve exactly what you want. Aniline is not expensive and a little goes a long way.

Application is straightforward. Aniline stain behaves on a dry surface exactly like water colors when painting. To achieve an even coating it is therefore necessary to do as the artist would and pre-wet the surface, being careful not to leave standing puddles of water. Begin to apply the stain with a good brush. Be quick and clean; do not splash your soundboard. Wipe excess moisture with a damp cloth. The moisture will raise the grain again, but much less so. The dried surface will seem dull. The final look of the piece can be estimated while the surface is still wet. When the surface is completely dry, sand very lightly with fine paper taking care not to concentrate in one area more than another because the surface will look uneven. After the last light sanding more finish may be applied (again on a pre-dampened surface) or you may start the French polishing process.

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