Introduction: Stain Masking

About: I love working at the intersection between design, material science, function, and delight! I like thinking about fashion, history, and art, and about how we define ourselves through the objects we make and t…

Stain is usually applied to an entire surface or, at most, straight edges are masked with blue painters tape. I wanted to experiment with staining crisp, complicated designs!

I knew a good stain mask would be clear and adhere closely to the ridges of the woodgrain. With an opaque stain mask, stain will often wick under your design and you won't know you have a problem until you remove the mask and the stain has set. With vinyl and tape masks, the mask often sits above the tiny ridges in the wood grain. This can be mitigated by burnishing the mask (by rubbing it with a hard object) but will still lead to a fuzzy edge where the stain wicks under the edge of the mask.

I had left my watercolor supplies out and as I was brainstorming I realized masking fluid was the perfect candidate for my experiment and has long been used with watercolors to produce a similar masking effect.

Step 1: Find Inspiration

  1. "Birds on a Wire . . . ( iPadography )" by jimmy brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0
  2. "Birds on the wire - crop right" by Colin is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
  3. "Rural electricity" by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Get inspired! Keep an eye out for photos you love- or use your phone's camera to save moments that catch your attention. I wanted to test this staining technique with both organic/curving shapes and orthogonal/rigid shapes so the classic motif of birds on power lines silhouetted against the sky was perfect. I googled lots of images and printed out a few of my favorites.

Step 2: Gather Your Materials

You'll need

Art Masking Fluid (I like Winsor & Newton's tinted version because it's easier to see as you're working)

Wood Stain (I like Miniwax's Wood Finish line and I used Gunstock)

Paper Towels

Newspaper or other sacrificial materials to protect your work area

Optional: Gloves

Paint brushes for masking fluid

Paint brushes for stain

Something to stain!

I used unfinished wooden magazine holders from IKEA but you could use any wood that makes you happy. Smoothly finished wood will make it much easier to remove the masking fluid but I plan on experimenting with rougher wood (perhaps with a clear masking fluid) in the future to produce a rougher look.

Step 3: Draw Your Design

Paint your design with the masking medium! You can very lightly trace your design or use carbon copy paper but I prefer a free-hand look (and reference lines can be difficult to remove completely from wood).

Experiment with the masking medium on a scrap piece of wood. The medium is rather thick and can take some practice in controlling line density. Apply the medium liberally (it will be slightly raised). You might want to rinse your brush every 10 minutes if you have a large design or it will become stiff with clumps of drying medium.

Note: Putting a little dish soap on your brush before dipping it in the masking fluid will making cleaning the bristles much easier.

Step 4: Stain

Allow the masking fluid to dry for several hours.

Lay down a thick layer of newspapers or other sacrificial material that may get stained.

Use a paint brush to brush stain over your design. Work quickly and always keep a "wet edge"- be sure to keep the edge of your stained area from drying next to an unstained area. Apply a generous first coat then add additional stain over any areas that seem paler. Wood is full of imperfections so don't worry about achieving a perfectly uniform shade but try not to leave obvious brush marks or hard lines. You can achieve this by doing your finish brushing in overlapping W shapes approximately aligned with the woodgrain if you notice brush marks.

Step 5: Wipe Off the Excess Stain

Allow the stain to sit for the recommended amount of time then wipe off the extra. I was happy with the color after 5 minutes so I wiped off the excess with paper towels. I put on Nitrile gloves after the first paper towel when I came close to swiping my whole palm across the wet surface.

Note: I like to use a brown paper grocery bag to collect the stain soaked paper towels. It stays open and lets me throw things away one-handed without worrying about getting stain on the edges of a plastic trash bag. I then leave the paper bag next to my stained project while it dries (that way the paper towels dry at the same time). Never throw away wet stain-saturated rags or paper towels as they're highly flammable!

Step 6: Rub Off the Masking Medium + Seal

The masking medium can easily be removed after staining by rubbing with a soft eraser, or gently peeling it off with your fingers.

Lastly, coat your work with mineral oil to give it a nice sheen. Then, enjoy!