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The preparation and use of stains

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Postby Janel » Fri Dec 10, 2004 6:51 pm

I receive questions occasionally about the stains that I use with some of my carvings. I know of no texts which instruct us completely on the use of stains.

My experiences are simply my own. Other carvers experiments, ideas and access to knowledge are as diverse as the work which we all produce. There is much more to this topic than I am offering with this first contribution on the subject of stains. I hope that others will contribute to this topic.

Question: "I have been studying several of your carvings and note references to a stain made from boiled pecan shells, also references to a stain made from tea. Is there a text reference that gives directions on how to brew them. Or are they personal recipes? Are they applied by dipping the carving into the stain or are they a brush on and wipe off as is traditional in woodworking."

Text reference: specifically "no" unless I did some research in my own library and on the inter-net, but you may find something as you find books or web sites about the subject. Personal recipes: "yes" and "most likely" from other carvers as well. Some techniques are available on the inter-net, which has become a vast resource library for many lines of inquiry.

The simple answers are to: "applied by dipping the carving into the stain... "sort of"; and to: or are they a brush on and wipe off as is traditional in woodworking... "no".

-Pecan shells (I have also used this method with dried/ripened black walnut husks, as well as with alder cones, which Masatoshi describes in The Art of Netsuke Carving as told to Raymond Bushell ISBN 0-8348-0265-1).
-Cover with water in a stainless steel or enameled kettle
-Simmer for a long time, pour off and reserve the dark liquid
-Cover again with water and simmer for another long time, pour off and reserve the dark liquid, and perhaps repeating a third time if dark color is still being produced by the shells.
-Strain the liquid (I used a 100 mesh screen from our pottery studio.)
-Boil and reduce the dark liquid to a concentrated degree. You get to choose when to stop. You may test your wood, antler, tusk or bone in the brew to see see what the effect is on the materials while the stain is hot.
-I cool and freeze the liquid stain, others may leave it to form a moldy surface. You get to choose what to do for storage.

-When ready to stain the carving, if it is boxwood or other wood that has compressible grain, be sure that unwanted areas of compression are revealed and dealt with before staining.

Raised grain! It happens when wood is compressed during the carving of a piece, and will pop up when in contact with liquid yielding unpleasant surprises when you are not prepared for it. When in the last stages of sanding and touching up minute what-evers here and there on a piece, perhaps after the finest mesh sandings, I moisten the piece with water and let it dry. Then I re-carve or re-sand any areas that pop up, and re-sand at the finest grit again as well. I may repeat that step if I have used any pressure with carving tools. Getting rid of the surprises before staining a piece is a good step to take. (This brings to mind a technique used by netsuke-shi for adding textural elements to netsuke: ukibori. This is another topic for another time.)

-Prior to staining the carving itself, I will have made a test piece of wood that has been sanded to the degree of the main carving. This piece is then immersed in boiling hot stain and checked at intervals to see how the wood is accepting the stain. If it is what I wanted to see from the stain and the wood, I will proceed with staining the carving.

What you choose to do after that is up to your own discoveries. Rinse with water, or not? Add other color, or not? Use a finish of some sort, or not? Carve through the color and add to it, or not? There are so many things that could be explored ...

The tea stain I used was from a very strong brew of black tea, perhaps eight bags to a cup or more of water. The material was immersed into the boiling hot liquid and checked for color until I was satisfied with it. There are other areas of knowledge to be experimented with here, types of tea, the ratio of tea to water, length of time for immersion, surface preparation, what material is being used, etc. This could be another topic for discussion.

Two books which I often refer people to are:

Living Masters of Netsuke, Kinsey
ISBN 0-87011-679-7

The Art of Netsuke Carving as told to Raymond Bushell
ISBN 0-8348-0265-1

Does anyone have other books to add to this short list?

I hope that this is helpful,

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!" ~ Goethe

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Postby tomsterling » Tue Dec 14, 2004 1:11 pm

I’ve tried several methods to stain and/or color boxwood, with varying levels of success. Cold applications often demonstrate the problem Doug alluded to by end grain becoming markedly darker than side grain. When I’ve “boiled” the wood piece I usually found a dramatic increase in the amount of stain uptake. I especially liked the result using an oil finish with the boiling method. I used a double boiler (water bath) and CLOSELY monitored the process for 2 to 6 hours, taking the netsuke out, drying it and checking to see if it was “done.” Obviously, when you have a pot of hot solvent sitting on the stove, you have a dangerous potential fire situation, so if you try this please be very careful, keep a fire extinguisher handy, etc. I liked the result, with the wood gaining a remarkable depth and clarity. I also noticed that several days of soaking in cold oil finish gained an identical result. I’ve finally settled on a linseed oil based finish for my work, using Danish oil finishes like Watco, or just linseed oil thinned with “odorless” paint thinner (50/50 mixture). There are colored versions (wood colors, like walnut, oak, not red. Green or blue) that I’ve obtained even staining with. I must admit I’ve been very nervous about heat methods like this, since, although there have never been any problems, I’m always afraid of a piece I’ve spent weeks of effort on developing a crack in the extremes of temperature.

I’ve briefly tried a method placing the netsuke in oil finish and placing the whole mess under pressure. My compressor develops 90 psi, and several hours in the oil showed a similar uptake in the wood test piece. I just need to make a handy container for all of this. The test cobbled up a one time use container, and I was nervous about it. Once again, a solvent under pressure is a dangerous condition, and a burst container will spray flammable liquid all over the place, so place the pressure vessel in another container (like a trash can) to contain any unhappy little accidents. Failing in this will cause great consternation to the woman of the house. This is aided by the density of boxwood, since its’ density causes it to sink in oil finish., remaining covered throughout the process.

I’ve also had a fair amount of success with fabric dyes on boxwood. I don’t try for an overall color, just adding color accents. I simply dissolve a knife-tip amount of dye in a few drops of distilled water, and paint it on using tiny brushes. Sometimes in difficult cases, a surface tension reducing surfactant can be useful, like TSP or detergent (tiny amounts). As long as you have some method of separating the dyed area from other un-dyed parts of the carving, boxwood seems to behave fairly well. By separation, I mean small v-cuts to keep the stain from running. If you think of Doug’s analogy of wood as a bundle of soda straws, you have to interrupt the travel of the liquid in the straws to keep the stain where you want it to stay. These days I usually do this with a wood burner. Modern wood burners are more like tiny hot knives, and can burn this v-cut with only one pass, and in color values from black to almost no darkening at all. The passage of the hot knife through wood melts the waxy lignins that glue wood cells together, creating a waterproof ditch that the stain (USUALLY) won’t flow across. Of course, it should be needless to point out that allowing a glop of stain to bridge the ditch will allow the color to spread to undesired areas. Multiple applications of dilute color seem to give better results than a concentrated painting, especially after the raised grain is dealt with (water finish, remember?) and further polishings. I think keeping the areas wet with the dilute colors allow for deeper penetration, not as easily polished away.

I’ve also had some success using this same method on ivory pieces, if the area to be dyed is first etched with vinegar. I prepare the ivory surface with a gloss by polishing to the final desired state, then apply several coats of white vinegar, letting it dry between applications. Even just the first application of the vinegar will dull the polished surface. Dilute dyes are then painted on, and will not readily polish off. Once again. little ditches to contain the color are advised, except the wood burner won’t work here.

You can see examples of this at my Web site:

There are a few in the netsuke section (see especially “Sockeyes” “Sizing Up” and “Pygmy Owl” on the second netsuke page. More, and perhaps better examples, can be seen in the knife section.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.


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Postby chonchon » Wed Dec 28, 2011 10:57 am

I have an ivory Netsuke which had some black ink, sumi? spilled on it at some point in its history. About 1/3 of the Netsuke was affected and the ink had worked its way into the channels of the clothing patterns, turning the original light brown stain dark black. You can see some of the sumi towards the bottom of his kimono and on the bottom of his right foot.

Following some advice by Valonline I tried a small paint brush with warm water and soap. Ths worked well and I have managed to remove perhaps 95% of the black sumi stain.

Unfortunately the process has removed the brown stain too, so now the Netsuke has unstained light patches on it, creating a kind of albino effect.

It may be my imagination, but the ivory which is now missing the original stain looks yellow or orange, as if some coloring has been imparted to the underlying material, possibly by the sumi ink.

I would like to restain to create an even appearance, if possible. I do not want to drop the whole piece into anything as the face and hands are shiny ivory surfaces.

Assuming I can restain this piece, would the stain (whatever stain it might be) only attach to the scraped/carved channels?

If anyone is out there, thank you for any advice!


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Postby Brian_I » Wed Dec 28, 2011 11:53 am

Hey Piers.

It's for sure stained in to the ivory.

In all of my experiments with staining, I would say the best thing to do is either take it to a contemporary netsuke / ivory carver and have them carefully re-stain the piece.

Usually, the piece is shaped and polished and then the lines that need to be dark are carved, after the initial polishing. This way, the smooth parts resist the stain and the fresh, rough lines that were just carved are very receptive to the stain.

Because of the time gone by since it was first carved and now, it could have any number of differences to the smooth surface and also would have absorbed skin oils and such, so if you were to just try to re-stain the piece as is, I think it would not look well at all. :S

I can give you advice on re-staining (I've had to do this a lot of times) but it would be at your own risk, because on the issues with thick materials is that they can swell and crack. You can message me and I will send it that way.

This is to stop people just reading my post on how to re-stain, trying it on their own netsuke, it cracks and they the want my head :S.

Website for my work:

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Postby chonchon » Wed Dec 28, 2011 12:19 pm

Brian thank you for your advice. I have been sitting here thinking that it is better to get it right, or failing that, to leave it to a proper Netsuke artist. Thus the wind has gone out of my sails.

What you say goes comfortably with that, so no need to send me anything. My heart is at peace now. :)

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Postby chonchon » Tue Jan 10, 2012 5:47 am

Posted this earlier in Chon' Bits 'n Pieces. The results of restaining:

Size is something.

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Postby Vlad » Tue Jan 10, 2012 4:01 pm

The staining came out pretty even, Piers. Congratulations! One thing to possibly consider would be removing extra staining from the natural and damage deeps to give it a bit "cleaner" look, if possible...
"Man sieht nur, was man weiß" - "One sees only what one knows". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

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