Picking an Interior Stain Color

I have something like fifteen windows in my house with unfinished wood trim, just waiting for someone to pick a stain color and get moving on finishing them.

Okay, let’s be honest… you’re talking to a person who didn’t have trim around her bathroom door for three years, so it’s possible that finishing the windows isn’t high up on my priority list. But since I’ve resigned myself to living in the garage for a few more months (where there is no baseboard or trim around the windows, mind you), I’m going to make one of my goals for 2011 to finish each room —including the trim— before I move into it.

What happens to derail me from these little project most often– which is to say, just after the complete collapse of my sanity, or misplacing my drill for several hours– is that I end up having to make decisions that are contingent on other decisions, which I can’t make until I’ve used some ancient and forgotten equation reliant on the alignment of the planets and how much alcohol I’ve had that day to tell me where some obscure piece of furniture that I probably don’t even own yet should reside in the house. The house that just barely has walls, mind you.

I guess you could say that on occasion, I get paralyzed by the details.

To help alleviate that, I’ve been doing as much planning ahead of time as possible, with the laundry room, and house colors, for example. So when I saw this aisle at my local True Value, I knew what I had to do…

I decided to be a little proactive on the stain choices for the windows, so that when the time comes to finish a room off, I can have a brush in hand and be ready to go.

I’ll admit to having been a bit of a mad scientist when it comes to stain colors in the past. In my old house the trim was all a dark walnut base coat with a light brushing of cherry and a mahogany/satin poly top coat.


I don’t even want to consider how much of my brain power on a daily basis is used to store the recipes of the crazy concoctions of paint and stain I mix in the moment and then paint all over my house.

To try an make life a smidgen easier this time around, I decided to find just one color that I love and can use for my base wood trim.

And I would really like it to look like these doors, which I love:


Unfortunately Pella doesn’t sell their stain colors by the gallon (as far as I know) and that one time I tried to match it with the cedar beams didn’t work out so well. I am understandably hesitant.

So I picked out some likely candidates from the True Value stain aisle, and conducted a very scientific experiment on the floor of my garage/apartment.


One coat on the top, two coats on the bottom. The four on the left are brush-and-wipe stains, the two on the right are the stain/poly combos in satin finish.

I will tell you straight off that I had high hopes for Driftwood which did not even remotely pan out.


I’m also having a hard time with detecting even the smallest difference in color between Early American, Provincial, and Special Walnut.


And I sort of wish they’d just start naming these stains the color they are coming out of the jar.


Pecan, I officially dub you “barely there bubblegum”. Olde Maple… someone has already taken the name “carrot top”, haven’t they?


We used Early American on the pine ceiling in the Station, so that is my fall back color.


I love it, I’m just not sure I’m in love with it.

What do you guys think. Any interior stain colors you absolutely love?

Just So No One Goes To Jail: I’m part of the True Value DIY Blog Squad and you are so going to get sick of hearing me say this, but while they did compensate me for my participation in the Blog Squad, they did not tie me to a chair with duct tape and say nice things about them.

And speaking of True Value, have you entered to with the $150 True Value gift card yet?

16 Responses

  1. I like the Special Walnut first, followed by Provincial. I like darker stains – so that’s what I go towards. The ceiling in the station is nice, but I agree with you, I’m not in love with it.

  2. I can’t see your pictures because Flickr is blocked at work (annoying!!) so I’m not sure if you are only trying Minwax shades….but why not check out other stain manufacturers? I love my Varathane ‘Espresso’, but I understand the deep dark shade is definitely not for everyone. I do like the way the stain goes on, though. I got mine at True Value, so I know they carry it.

    1. OMG I was going to suggest Gunstock! I think it will give you that slightly industrial edge you’re wanting in the house. Otherwise, to make things even more complicated you could mix stains. My dad mixed three stains together for the trim in my parent’s house (he made custom trim for a living though). He did all the trim at one time though.

  3. OK, here are my thoughts on the staining. I think it is very much a mistake to stain wood to look like walnut. If you used the actual walnut and gave it a clear finish, the resulting color would be MUCH richer than anything you would ever achieve with a stain. The walnut is a bit more expensive, but if you factor in the cost of the stain and the amount of time it will take to apply it, it comes to pretty much the same thing. If you have not already installed the trim, I would urge this as vigorously as I can—without being a total pain-in-the-ass about it.

    If you decide to stain anyway for whatever reasons are good and sufficient to you, here is how to avoid surprises with the final results. The wood scraps you use for practice stains MUST be the same species of wood as your trim. Red Oak does not look like pine when it is stained, and so forth. You also have to use the same varnish throughout. Every varnish looks slightly different once it is on the wood. They also change color differently; some yellow, some don’t, and so forth. When you put down the stains, use a board that is a good six or eight inches square. Sand it to the same smoothness as the wood on the trim. Ideally, by the way, that trim should be sanded to 220 grit, unless it’s red oak, in which case 150 grit is sufficient. It is NOT enough to just daub stain on these samples. You have to stain the piece, just as you would if you were staining a finished product, then put down at least two coats of varnish. At this point you will then know EXACTLY how the finished trim will look.

    Personally, I am not big on Minwax Stains. They’re very thin. I found that I had to put down two coats of stain to get the results I wanted. My own particular favorite was Carter Tripp Stains, but that company has now gone out of business. Rocker has a line of finishes called General Finishes. Here is a link to the page with their stains and finishes:


    I have used their varnishes and got good results with them. I cannot speak to their stains, because I don’t really stain things anymore for reasons already stated. I would recommend giving their stains a try though. With the old Carter Tripp, the stain itself was much thicker and easier to work with, and one coat did the job. I cannot say the same for Minwax.

    The other thing you should keep in mind is that the soft wood (usually pine) that typically goes round windows is difficult to stain because it splotches. General Finishes has a Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner that will keep wood from splotching when it’s stained. It will ensure that you have a nice even color from one end to the other, as opposed to a lot of dark and light areas throughout.

  4. It seems to me that the Early American and the Provencial are much more red than the walnut stain. Your door definitely has a reddish tint to it, so if you’re wanting to match that, I wouldn’t go with the walnut.

    Also, as others have indicated, you might look at other brands of stain. Watco oil has some good products, although they do have a tendency to burn your house down (long story :).

    Joseph gives great advice in getting your samples to match your real-life application as closely as possible. It seems like a lot of work, but re-doing all your trim would be more work for certain. And I vote for a pre-stain conditioner also – extra step, yes, but better results are worth the extra effort. You have a sensational space, no use tripping up now!

  5. Hi-
    I have never posted here before, but I NEEDED to share my most favorite stain in the whole world. It’s Minwax English Chestnut. So lovely, and it matched the 100+ year old stain color in our Craftsman Bungalow to a tee. We used it to stain our upstailrs floor and to match the wood color in the rest of the house’s trim.

    It’s warm, lovely, inviting and very similar to walnut. Give it a sample – you might love it as much as I do! (Only downside is that it comes in the smaller size only – maybe you can special order a larger can?) HTH!

  6. Just a caution to following the warnings about storage of stained rugs and cleanup procedures–spontaneous combustion is real, as I know from personal experience!

  7. You should us a sanding sealer or a pre-stain conditioner. I do on all my woodworking projects for the best look and rich colors!

  8. Higher end wood stains are sold at dealers that can usually color match whatever you want, and the stain will probably fade more slowly over time. The local Mohawk Finishing guy helped me out with a tricky color match in the past.

  9. Dear Sir,
    I’m looking to change all my trim and doing my red oak floors over. What’s the beststain color to use on the new trim should it match the floor or what other color stains can I use thanks Bert

  10. Hello,

    I recently purchased French doors from Pella with their Early American finish. I’m told Pella’s stains are either not available or very expensive. In your experience can you tell me which Mineax or other brand most resembles Pella’s Early American stain? I have some molding I am tying to match to my new doors. Thanks for your help.

    Dan Roth
    Wyomissing, PA

    1. Hi Dan! I think we ended up using Minxwax early american on the interior… it’s not a perfect match to the Pella, but it was the color we liked the best. I do recommend doing some test patches with different stains to see what you like though. Another option is to take a chip of the pella color (if you can get one) and have someone color-match the stain. Hope this helps.

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