Sunday, November 1, 2015

How to (and how not to) stain maple countertops

This post may set a record for length...just like this project.  We decided a few weeks ago to take the "easy" option and install maple butcher block countertops in the pantry instead of marble or granite.  And at first, it was easy - we bought an eight foot and a twelve foot slab and plunked them down on the cabinets and it seemed like it would work out well.

But then we started doing the actual installation.

The first problem was that our contractor installed the electrical outlets too low on the wall to allow for a 4" backsplash.  Yes, Brian can move the outlets further up but doing so would involve pulling new wire so instead we figured we would just square up the countertops to the walls so a backsplash wouldn't be needed to cover up any gaps (and, of course, this is just a pantry with no sink so a backsplash would be purely decorative anyway).  This, however, meant that the countertops had to fit perfectly against the walls and that the mitered cut in the corner would have to be juuuust right in order to look good.  But, as it turned out, the walls themselves aren't perfectly square because...well...I suppose because that would have made this job too easy.

So, long story short(ish), we spent most of a day moving the rather heavy countertops in and out of the pantry to measure, cut, and dry fit them.  And we cut some drywall out so we could snug the countertops into the corners and the back wall.  And then we had to make sure the mitered cut was right since we only had one shot at it (unless we wanted to go out and buy some more countertops).

Getting started on figuring out the cut

Setting up a guide to use with the circular saw - no going back after this
Notice the cut drywall behind the short side?  Nothing in old houses is ever straight (or easy).
Whew!  It all fits.
At this point, we thought the hard part was done.  That was...incorrect.  Little did we know that maple is one of the harder woods to stain without streaking or blotching.  And, we planned to use a very dark stain too (the same combination of dark walnut and kona that we've used on our exposed parallam beams before).  Happy in our ignorance, we sanded to 110 grit, pre-treated the countertops with wood conditioner, and applied the stain.

Putting the stain on.  At this point, we still think everything is going really well.
But then we took the stain off...

See the weird vertical streaks at the bottom of the picture?  These were everywhere on the countertops.  This was not good.  
We stared at the countertops for awhile, tried to rub out the streaks, and finally realized that this problem was not going away.  So, we took a giant amount of mineral spirits and used that to dilute/remove most of the stain.  Back to step one with new stain...right after we aired out the house so we didn't accidentally suffocate ourselves with all the fumes.

Here are the countertops, post-mineral oil bath.  Streaks are gone but so is most of the stain.  
Before we tried staining again, we did some more research and - like so many things in construction - found that many people have many opinions about staining maple.  So our "method" was hatched from a combination of internet advice and intuition.

While we were figuring out how to fix the stain, Brian used his biscuit joiner to prep the counter for installation 
The first thing we did was to resand the countertops, this time to 220 grit.  Then we skipped the wood conditioner but diluted the stain itself with a splash of mineral spirits.  Next we used a paint brush and painted the stain on in horizontal lines (no rubbing and definitely no circles!).  Finally, we wiped the stain off right away (again, working only in horizontal rows), giving it just a few minutes to sink in.

Relief!  This time, no streaks
Both countertops look good
We put two coats of stain on in the same way to darken down the countertops (and held our breath each time).  Verdict: staining was a success.  Finally.

So, surely the next step would be the easy one?  We carried both countertops back into the pantry to join them.  We had thought about joining them before staining but figured it would be easier to handle them separately and put them together in place.  Based on our track record with this project so far, I'm sure you can guess whether or not we were right...

We just push these together and we're done?
Wrong.  There was virtually no way to get enough leverage to push the countertops together tightly enough to get a decent seam.  There are no pictures to illustrate the problem because at this point, we were too busy considering the merits of turning the countertops into firewood to take photos.

So, we carried the countertops back out of the pantry (for roughly the three hundredth time) and into the workspace (which will someday be known as the living room).  We joined them together using the biscuits and pocket screws (the Kreg jig continues to defend its title as Most Useful Tool around here) and then had to put yet another coat of stain on to make the new seam look good.

Now joined together.  But still, noticeably, not in the pantry.
Finally, we were ready to move the countertops back into place (again).  Since we now had a giant L-shaped counter to move, we called our friend Dan to come help (thanks, Dan!) and the three of us moved it into place.

Remarkably, this project still isn't fully complete but we are getting there.  We need to apply a coat of polyurethane but we'll do that in place.  And we need to do some drywall repair.  And, of course, there's still all the finish work in the pantry at large (including paint, trim, open shelves, wine cooler installation, etc.).  But, thankfully, the countertops are in place, are basically the right color, and have the look we were hoping for.  Our "easy" project took something like four days spaced out over three weekends and involved a fair bit of frustration and swearing.

So, as I wrap up this far-too-long post for the far-too-annoying project, here are a few lessons learned.  First and easiest, don't buy maple if you plan to stain it.  I had a choice of maple or oak countertops and picked maple solely because I was a little worried that oak countertops would look too much like our oak floors...but I should have worried about the maple!  Second, if you're joining countertops, do it first.  We would have saved ourselves a lot of annoyance if we had just joined them before we even started staining.  Third, when it comes to staining, I still don't have a clear idea of what really works or why but if we did this again, we would sand to a high grit (at least 220) before starting, cut the stain itself with mineral oil before applying, and treat the stain like a very finicky paint - paint it on and wipe it off very very carefully.  And keep plenty of mineral oil on hand so if the first coat doesn't go well, you can dilute it and start over (and avoid the quick trip to the store that I had to make).  Interestingly, putting on the dark stain and then taking it off with mineral oil produced a really nice weathered look that - if we weren't set on having dark countertops to tie into the espresso cabinets in the kitchen - would have been a very nice, if accidental, finish.  With all that said, hopefully the next project will involve fewer lessons to learn!

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