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Kitchen Progress: No Stain, No Gain

Our solid maple kitchen counters have been built!!  Hubby and his Dad did a beautiful job making them, so it was a little nerve wracking for me to not only choose the finish, but also apply the actual stain.  Hubby will be sharing the construction how-to on the blog soon, but in the meantime I wanted to show you how I stained them – and share my stain snafu.

Originally my plan included turquoise cabinets and grey counters.  I loved our low-maintenance grey laminate counters in the townhouse because they reminded me of concrete.  They cost $750, which is more
than I wanted to spend on our kitchen spruce so I
nixed that option.

Covering worn out laminate counters in actual concrete has became a DIY trend (see Kara Paslay Designs, Little Green Notebook, and A Beautiful Mess for three great tutorials), and I’ve loved that look as well.  I nixed this option too, though, because the existing mint green laminate counters were bubbling and peeling, and had a weird rounded edge that bothered me.

Still, I wanted some kind of grey counter for the lakehouse kitchen because it would be a pretty, cool neutral to pair with turquoise, and I thought that a shot of grey in the kitchen would connect with our darker grey fireplace.  Because Hubby’s Dad is a woodworker and Hubby’s picked up some skills, I figured Hubby could make some wood counters for cheap and we’d stain them grey.  Somewhere along the way our wires got crossed with Hubby’s Dad, who hooked us up with some wood from one of his suppliers.  I had planned on buying cheap, builder’s grade wood at Home Depot and budgeted about $200-300 for this project but my father-in-law ended up picking out some quality maple for us, to the tune of $611.  I don’t think he realized our kitchen spit and polish is just temporary, while we save for and plot a full reno. 

The finished maple counters have beautiful grain and are substantial: they are 1 3/4″ thick and the largest piece weighs 130 lbs!!  At first I fretted that these beautiful maple counters are too fancy for
our kitchen spruce.  They are, but ultimately I’m thrilled with them.  And they were still cheaper than laminate.  Plus, I figure that we can always re-purpose the counters for the fish room (see the house tour) or make a table(s) top from the wood.  Here are the unstained pieces, laid out how they will be in the kitchen: stove in the gap and sink in the skinny piece.  The widest piece hangs into the dining room, with stools pulled up to it.

It took me days to finally track down a not-brown grey stain and the folks at the store tested it on a sample of maple that was more yellowed than our wood, and it looked perfect.  On our wood, however, the blue-ish grey turned purple thanks to the pinkish hue of the maple peeking through.  I think lighting had a lot to do with it too.  Unfortunately, I hated the stain with the turquoise cabinets – it looked so 80s!  I’ve learned my lesson: it’s important to test stain not just on the type of wood I’m using, but on an actual piece of my wood for the most accurate indication of colour.

I deliberated some more and ultimately decided I was wrong about the grey because the cabinets are very bold and the painted fireplace is also dramatic, so I figured we need something more mellow, instead.  I opted to use the same white stain we used for Hubby’s welded deskSaman brand in “whitewash”.  As a bonus, it dries quickly (1/2- 1 hour), which made staining multiple pieces with multiple coats less of a chore.  I guessed it would end up a creamy white, and I thought that would relate well to the off-white and beige flooring, which we’re not changing.   You know I’m really into bleached oak hardwood floors, so I also thought that whitewashed maple might have a similar, airy, Scandinavian cottage vibe.

All this to say: yes, I totally chickened out and went with white stain.  But look how pretty it is:

Application was a breeze: after giving the counters a hand sanding with 150 grit sandpaper, we moved them over to Hubby’s Dad’s spray booth.  We brushed off any dust and I used a sprayer to apply the stain.  I contacted Saman and they recommended adding 5% water if the stain is applied this way, but I found it to be watery enough (it is, after all, a water-based stain).  I sprayed each section, starting with the edges, and then – spraying along the grain – worked my way from the section closest to me to the one furthest away, overlapping with each pass.  It’s a good idea to apply stain or paint so that any over-spray is on an unpainted/unstained area.  I sprayed each strip of stain in one continuous motion, and started spraying just before the wood and stopped spraying right after.

I let the stain sit a few minutes and then wiped it off with dry cheesecloth (any lint-free rag or foam brush works).  I went through a lot of cloth, and it was handy to have fresh cloth ready because the stain dried quickly.

I’ve learned with stain to really wipe it off.  Like spray painting, it’s better to work in multiple thin layers than one goopy one, and even though it’s painful to watch the wood return almost back to its original state with the first coat, it’s crucial for a finish that sinks in and doesn’t look painted on.  Any time I haven’t been diligent about really removing the excess stain, I’ve ended up with streaks.  Three coats later and the counters were looking very Scandinavian.  I contemplated a fourth coat, but wood-loving Hubby and his Dad winced at the proposition, and hurriedly packed away the equipment.  They’re right: a fourth coat might have covered too much grain and just looked painted.  If we’ve got lovely wood, we should show it off.  A bit.

Applying stain with a sprayer is a great way to practice using the
equipment because it isn’t as critical to get an even coat with stain as
it is with paint.  It’s the first time I’ve used one since painting Charlie the car (Hubby used ours to paint the kitchen cabinets).  I was on the fence about using a sprayer because I was nervous about messing it up, but this method felt foolproof and was so much faster!! 
It took an hour to apply one coat of stain to all of the four counter pieces, but this
included moving each piece in and out of the spray booth, applying the
stain, wiping off, and inspecting for streaks.  By the time we were done
the last piece, the first piece was ready for another coat.  I bought two 946 ml jugs ($27 each) and used all of one, plus a tiny bit of the other – I was so close to only needing one. 

We’ve left the counters with Hubby’s Dad, who is spraying on a few coats of top coat.  He’s using the brand pictured below, which will also be applied with a sprayer (with a light sanding between coats).  He suggested a semi-gloss finish because scratches and marks won’t show up as well as they would with a high gloss finish.  This should be durable enough to be used for a kitchen counter, which will see spills and water.

How spoiled do I feel?  Not only did fabulous, solid wood counters (seemingly) materialize by magic, all I needed to do was swan in and lay down some stain . . . I don’t even have to apply the top coat!!  Installation is slated to happen Friday, and I’m so excited!  Open drawering is overrated.  



  1. EJ @ Not A House, But A Home
    April 9, 2014 / 1:29 pm

    I thought your counters in the townhouse were quartz based on that photo. I didn't know laminate could be so shiny!Also, I didn't know stain could go on with a sprayer! Look at me learning :-)I looove that you went with white! It looks so fresh. I'm sure it'll work amazingly with the turquoise cabinets. I'm looking forward to seeing them together! Great job, Tanya!

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 9, 2014 / 1:40 pm

      Thanks!! The laminate did have a nice sheen to it, and a bit of white swirled in with the grey so it hid wear really well. It was a pricier option than other laminate counters, and it showed in the quality and design. I'm also looking forward to seeing the counters with the cabinets. They are still 65 km apart right now, hoping to close the gap this week. Hoping they look good in the same room, lol.

  2. Martina
    April 9, 2014 / 3:55 pm

    Interesting seeing the whitewashed look on maple. can't wait to see it all come together.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 9, 2014 / 11:08 pm

      It's got a peachy quality to it, kind of a warmth. So far it seems really subtle but we'll see once the semi-gloss top coat is applied and we have it in our space. Our lighting is not forgiving – the wall of windows hides no flaws! Fingers crossed 🙂

  3. Dana@Mid2Mod
    April 9, 2014 / 7:27 pm

    You're making so much progress on the lakehouse! I can't wait to see the countertops once they're installed. The kitchen is going to be gorgeous.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 9, 2014 / 11:09 pm

      I also cannot wait. I grow weary of the counterlessness. We've been eating a lot of frozen pizza to avoid cooking, and I think we both have scurvy . . .

  4. cred
    April 10, 2014 / 1:44 pm

    They are beautiful! I had trouble finding grey stain, too. I wanted to 'age' the wood for a desktop. I was told the stain I chose would come out beautifully but that it would take several coats. But I applied it thinly with a cloth and it completely covered the grain like it was paint. I think the whitewash was the right way to go- it turned out so nice. You are lucky to have skilled carpenters at your disposal.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 10, 2014 / 10:03 pm

      Oh gosh, that's frustrating for you! A lot of greys I found were too brown, that was my problem. Saman seems to have some nice greys, if you're still looking: just weren't any in stock locally, and I didn't have time to order something. I kind of left it to the last minute. Grey is so tricky, though! Watching out for the undertones is so important.I am SO lucky my father-in-law is a woodworker, because Hubby grew up learning a lot of skills.

  5. brikhouse2
    April 11, 2014 / 1:08 am

    Lovely counters but I can't get over the fact that you paid $750 for laminate!! I have been looking around lately because I had my cabinets redone a while ago and I'm stuck with the old counters on top and they are driving me crazy, thought I'd be proactive so the homeowner could fix it already…..and they are no where near that price, though I can see the square edge being a little more than the standard rounded edge. Yikes. I think I'd be nervous with wood counters for some reason…..afraid of nicks and dents.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 11, 2014 / 5:40 am

      There were a number of factors that went into the price:-length-number of mitered corners needed (the price was per)-how many edges are needed (some people just leave the edges exposed, but we wanted laminate on the areas beside the stove/fridge)-grade of laminate (lots of different price levels)-delivery-type of edge-backsplash added or notAlso in this price included the tiny little piece we bought for the half bathroom, so technically it was a bit less than that – I forgot about that extra bit.I'm sure there are other factors, but these points comes to mind. I too thought laminate would be cheaper, but the really cheap options were in horrible colours. That was four years ago, I'm sure it's a whole different ballgame now.I've never had wood counters, so we'll see! Maple is a hardwood (our wood floors were maple) so it should stand the test of time. We don't plan on cutting on the surface, but using a cutting board instead. I'll do a review in six months and let everyone know! Fingers crossed 🙂

    • brikhouse2
      April 15, 2014 / 11:01 pm

      Ah ok, gotcha. I guess the ones I was looking at were just the laminate alone…none of the other stuff. The homeowner (my brother) usually does the install himself including mitering the corners so it is usually cheaper.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 16, 2014 / 1:09 am

      It might also be that four years ago prices were different. We did the install ourselves, (curb deliver, they literally drop it off at the curb) but the edges came cut mitered already which was nice. If you're shopping around, just make sure there are no hidden costs that hit you when it comes time to order. I hope you find something nice for your cabinets! Shopping for counters is fun, but also a little overwhelming.

    • brikhouse2
      April 17, 2014 / 11:15 am

      I pretty much get what my brother buys lol. Trying to talk him into the plain black ones from Ikea……no hidden costs there hopefully.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 17, 2014 / 3:55 pm

      Plain black ones would certainly be nice and neutral. It would attract potential tenants if you ever move. Hmmm, what else could convince him? It should wear pretty well, and I think Ikea prices are pretty good. It will never look dated – it's a timeless colour. Hope you can convince him 🙂

  6. Brynne Delerson
    April 12, 2014 / 12:33 am

    Ooooh what beautiful wood grain! I can't wait to see the countertops with the turquoise cabinets!!! Like seriously, I am so excited to see this – your kitchen is such an amazing, creative, colorful, breath-of-fresh-air change from the white cabinets + dark butcher block across all of blog land 🙂

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 12, 2014 / 3:13 pm

      I am having a lot of fun with this kitchen, but that's because it's temporary. I think people choose white and dark wood because it's a safe choice and they likely won't grow tired of it. I can understand that, for our "real" reno a few years from now I'm thinking of white too (but a turquoise fridge!). If I'm going to spend big bucks, I want it to have staying power. Right now I have the luxury of being able to have some fun here. Having said that, I do often march to the beat of my own drummer which makes me feel like such an odd-blogger out. Happy to hear you're exciting about my odd choices! I am too 🙂

  7. Bmore Bungalow
    April 14, 2014 / 3:34 am

    Can't wait to see once things are all done!

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 16, 2014 / 1:25 am

      Me too:)

  8. Eugene Miller
    April 30, 2015 / 6:14 pm

    I'm curious to know how the countertops are holding up against cracking after a year. Have you had to do regular maintenance to maintain the finish?

  9. Eugene Miller
    April 30, 2015 / 6:16 pm

    I'm curious to know how the countertops are holding up after a year. Do they need regular maintenance for cracking?

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      April 30, 2015 / 8:43 pm

      That's a really good question and I've been meaning to post an update! The surface has had no issues because the finish is super heavy duty. There are light scratches where we've been rough on it (I toss my handbag with heavy hardware on it when we get home) but it has not needed maintenance. Around the sink, though, we did not use this same finish and it got super wet once so we have a tiny bit of drying/cracking that is totally our fault and not a reflection of the finish. We really should have sprayed it with the same Krystal finish but it was already in place so we used a crappier brush on varnish – big mistake! Had we used the Krystal on the edges, it would be in great shape. My father in law uses that on many of his finished pieces and he recommended it because of its durability. I will have to tidy up the kitchen and take some new photos so I can post an update.

  10. Julien
    April 16, 2019 / 6:45 am

    Hi, my wife and I are just about to whitewash our large kitchen island coutertop. I have been searching products for the past weeks. I had a few questions: how is your coutertop holding up through the years? and is the varnish you used food safe? is that a concern at all?

    Thank you!!

    • April 16, 2019 / 1:58 pm

      I do not believe the top coat is food safe. It’s never been an issue for me because I use cutting boards. And honestly, if I drop something on the counter, I eat it anyway because I’d also eat it off the floor (five second rule, lol) and the floor isn’t food safe haha. It’s held up VERY well. It’s a very tough top coat. My father in law is a woodworker by trade and it’s his go-to. But, because this counter see a lot of use (I craft in the kitchen, garden in the kitchen, and am just generally rough on it), there are light surfaces scuffs here and there. Like a well loved dining table would have after 5 years. Just make sure you use this product around the sink too – we didn’t, and saw water damage there. Other top coats cannot compare to this for water!

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