Custom Mixing Stains

By Bruce Johnson

Not long ago a friend made me some unfinished oak picture frames, which I carefully set aside in my garage work area until I had time to stain and finish them the exact color I wanted. I planned to display three of them over an antique Arts and Crafts china cabinet in my office, so I needed the stain color to be a near-perfect match. That, as it turned out, wasn’t as simple as I had hoped. I solved this by custom mixing my own stain. If you’re interested in learning how I did this, just take a look below.

I first tried a few different Minwax® Wood Finish™ stains straight from the can, but some were too light — and others were too dark. In order to get the color ‘just right,’ as Goldilocks would say, I decided to create my own color of stain.

I had already done some custom mixing, so I knew the first rule is the most important:  Measure, measure, measure! One time, many years ago, I got in a hurry and didn’t bother writing down my formula. So, of course, when I needed more of my “special concoction,” I could never quite duplicate it!

I began by combining six ounces of Minwax® Wood Finish™ “Ebony” with, one tablespoon at a time, Minwax® Wood Finish™ “Sedona Red.” As I progressed, I tested each combination on a piece of oak, and took detailed notes.

After a few tries I was close, but needed a little more “Sedona Red” to balance the dark tints of “Ebony.” I continued to add one tablespoon at a time and kept a record of each attempt until I had achieved the color I wanted.

The final stain color isn’t just determined by the dyes and pigments inside the stain mixture. It’s also affected by how long we allow the stain to soak into the wood before we wipe off all of the excess liquid. I applied my special formula to a long oak board, then every few minutes wiped off a different test area until I found the perfect amount of time (6 minutes) to get the color that matched my china cabinet.

The final step in my testing was to see what the dried stain looked like under a coat of finish. For this I used an aerosol can of Minwax® Fast-Drying Polyurethane to apply a quick coat of clear finish. I liked what I saw, and knew I could now use my special formula on the frames my friend had made for me.

As you can see, the finished frames look great over my Arts and Crafts china cabinet. And with the precise formula now written down and filed away for future reference, I’ll be able to duplicate my special custom stain anytime I need it in the future.

And for a full list of Minwax® stain colors check out their Color Guide.

Until next time,

Thanks for stopping by!


About Bruce Johnson

Author-craftsman Bruce Johnson has introduced millions of do-it-yourselfers, craftspeople and antique collectors to the world of wood finishing and antique restoration. As the official spokesperson for Minwax®, the leading manufacturer of wood finishing and wood care products, Bruce motivates people to take the initiative to beautify their surroundings. Through his many books, magazine articles and columns, as well as frequent appearances on national television talk shows, Johnson is recognized as an authority in the do-it-yourself community. Appearing on PBS, HGTV, The Discovery Channel, and currently hosting “DIY Woodworking” and “Build A Log Cabin”, on the DIY cable network, Johnson has brought the illustrious craft of wood finishing to the forefront of the American home. An expert in wood refinishing, antique restoration, and home improvement, Bruce has published more than a dozen books on these topics, including Fifty Simple Ways To Save Your House, The Wood Finisher, The Weekend Refinisher, and The Official Identification and Price Guide to the Arts and Crafts Movement. For more than 20-years, he penned an antique refinishing advice column, "Knock on Wood," which ran in dozens of antique/collectibles publications. Currently, he writes a column on Arts & Crafts for Style 1900 magazine. A rare combination of craftsman and journalist, Johnson began his career as a high school English teacher, but left teaching to set up his "Knock on Wood Antique Repair & Restoration" shop. He spent the next 10 years as a full-time professional refinisher, but eventually returned to writing. Yet, Johnson says, he won't ever be without a workbench and a couple of refinishing projects down in the basement. Johnson is also the founder and director of the Arts and Crafts Conference and Antique Show held every February in Asheville, North Carolina, at the Grove Park Inn. The conference, which includes the largest Arts and Crafts antiques show, attracts more than 1500 Arts and Crafts collectors each year to its many seminars, tours, demonstrations and exhibits. Johnson is proud to have played a role in reviving interest in designers like Gustav Stickley, who founded the Arts and Crafts movement. His latest book, “Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Furniture,” was awarded the 2009 Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. These furnishings are treasured by such collectors as Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis, among many others.

8 comments on “Custom Mixing Stains

  1. David

    I’ve just finished constructing a kitchen island from Maple plywood and Maple hardwood. Tonight I put on the first coat of the Minwax crystal clear polyurethane on the bottoms and internal parts all made of the maple plywood. I saw in one of your photos that you used a can of spray clear polyurethane and wondered if that would be good for applying on the maple hardwood face frames rather than using a brush on them.

    Any thoughts on that? Thanks.

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Since you’ve started with a brush on polyurethane, David, I would recommend that you continue with that over the rest of the piece. The reason is that you might get two different sheens when using a brush on and a spray on on the same piece. Hope this helps and good luck!

  2. Doug

    I use Minwax stains professionally! I get it from my local paint distributor who gladly matches any color my customers pick out from Home Depot or Lowes cabinet showroom!

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Good for you, Doug. Sounds like you found a great person to help you in your matching and he’s probably treating you well because you’re a good client. Glad to hear you’re getting good results custom mixing the Minwax stains to match your clients’ needs. Thanks for letting us know! -Bruce

  3. Ed B.

    Trying to match a stain color used on a dark brown Bennington Pine dining room table 1970 vintage. Have you matched this stain color before? Do you have a list of the Minwax stain colors to use starting with the primary color to start the matching process?

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Unfortunately, Ed, colors range so far and wide, that it would be impossible for us to have a formula that matched every shade. You will get the best results by going to and picking out one of the Wood Finish colors that comes the closest to matching your table, then adding a second color to create a custom stain that matches your table exactly. Be sure to measure your ingredients and write the formula down so that you can duplicate it in the future if needed. Good luck! -Bruce


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