Furniture Detective: Unconventional methods work when staining patch compounds

Any time you strip and refinish a piece of wood furniture, somewhere down the line you probably will need to fill a nail hole, patch a crack or fix a piece of trim.

No matter what your choice of patching material, whether water putty such as Elmer’s, solvent based patch such as Fix or Famowood or one of the catalytics such as Minwax or Bondo, you will always wind up with the same problem – the patching material will not stain to look like the rest of the piece. The trick here is knowing which color to match to.

When you stain a piece of wood what you see is not what you will ultimately get because the color will change slightly as you apply the finish of your choice. If you tried to color a patch to match the stained but unfinished piece of wood, when you applied the finish the patch would be a different color again. The time to color the patch is when you have established what the final color will be. Here are some hints on how to make that color match.


The simplest way to apply color is to use the settled out “mud” in the bottom of an unstirred can of stain. Dip out a small amount of mud on a paint paddle and using a small artist’s brush or a pie cleaner, apply some of the mud to the patch. It will take some practice to get it even without streaking because it is not grabbing the finish but just sitting on top. Also don’t get too much of build up of mud on the patch or you will have a glob when you apply your coat of finish. Also note that the stain you used on bare wood may not be the stain you need to touch up with. You may have to modify your stain or use a completely different one depending on how much color change occurred when the finish was applied.


Another very simple method is to use china markers, you know the “grease” pencils from the office supply store. A variety of colors are available but you probably only need black, brown, red, orange and yellow. Imagination is the key here. On walnut for example you might want to lightly color in a background using the brown pencil, then shade it slightly with the orange to brighten it up. Finally, use the black to draw in the distinctive walnut grain pattern. Don’t be too aggressive here. If, after applying the next coat of finish, your touch up looks light or weak you can always go over it again but if its too heavy it will be hard to correct under a coat of finish.

Oil Colors

You can get really get fancy here by using artist’s oil colors from an art supply store. I believe Grumbacher is the most common brand. Buy only very small tubes because it will last you a lifetime. The basic brown color is called Burnt Umber, a dark slightly reddish brown  but you will probably need other colors as well such as Raw Umber, a gray-green, Raw Sienna, a light yellow, Burnt Sienna, reddish orange and a basic Black. Apply small amounts of your oil colors in separate spots on some kind of palate, a smooth piece of metal or glass or even a piece of formica. Using a small brush, “draw down” the various colors into the center of the palate until you get the color you need to match you wood. Practice before you do this on your work. Try mixing the colors as well as overlaying colors to see their effect on each other. Again, try not to get too much of a build up of touch up material because it will show under later finish coats. Be sure to allow these oil colors lots of drying time before applying a finish over them. Allow at least overnight drying and more if you can.

Dry Powder

Many professional shops use a type of dry powder color made especially for this application. If you are friendly with a shop owner ask him or her about these. The most common powders are called “Blendall” and come from Mohawk, a professional supply house that will not sell directly to you unless you are in the trade. There are other sources however.

Another brand name found in many wood working and craft magazines is Behlen. This is the consumer version of Mohawk’s Blendall and is made by them. You can also find dry powders that will work just as well at many large art supply houses.

These powders are used like the oil colors. Put small amounts of powder on a palate and use a small container of slightly thinned shellac as the medium. Wet the brush with shellac and mix into the background color powder. Alter the still wet color by rewetting the brush and dragging a different color into the puddle on the palate. When the puddle is the right color, paint it onto your wood. Rewet your brush and the puddle as often as required. Make several color puddles for subtle shading and grain variations. In other words, get artsy and have fun painting grain patterns.

It doesn’t matter which method you use as long as it works. If you find a method that works well for you it will greatly expand the range of your ability to achieve excellent results in your restoration projects. ?

You might also enjoy these columns by the Furniture Detective:

     •  Restoring 19th century case good drawers
Antique vocabulary lesson from the Furniture Detective
Rebuilding case good runners needs ‘new’ old wood
How to fix an old cane seat
Making obsolete furniture work in the 21st century

Read more of Fred Taylor’s "Furniture Detective" columns.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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