Process Improvement, Product Review, Stain and Finish
Comments 5

Charles Neil’s Pre-Color Conditioner – Product Review

Charles Neil’s Pre-Color Conditioner and Minwax Wood Finish. Is Neil’s conditioner the answer for blotchy stain?

Over the past decades, I have made many furniture projects out of pine. It was my wood of choice for a long time, but that changed some time ago. I began having increasing problems getting a pleasing result when staining pine. I once heard how lumber, especially woods like pine are being grown more rapidly which is problematic because this favors softer, less dense lumber. This softer wood, often with wild grain, is more likely to accept stain in different ways yielding a blotchy look. Even pine that isn’t of the rapid growth variety can stain unevenly along with maple and cherry.

To combat this problem, “pre-stain conditioners” were developed to slow down the absorption of stain into wood. In theory this causes a more even color in woods like pine, but these conditioners have a side effect: this lower absorption causes a medium brown stain to become a light brown stain. And depending on characteristics of the wood, blotching can still occur. So, I have had limited success with conditioners.

I subscribe to Marc Spagnuolo’s “The Wood Whisper” website in my feed reader. Marc recently featured a post about a new kind of wood conditioner which reportedly works as advertised. There were glowing testimonials from fellow woodworkers in Marc’s comment thread – “it worked wonderfully” was one comment.

One of the reasons I specified pine for my Tornado Bed project was a new confidence that I could stain this bed and get good results. Hopefully, at least one of my staining problems would be a thing of the past. As my project developed, it became time to give Charles Neil’s Pre-Color Conditioner a try.

The test
I placed an order for a one quart supply of Neil’s conditioner through his website. The total cost with shipping via UPS came to $28.28, sort of high I thought. The whole process from order to delivery took about a week.

Following the directions, I applied a coat of conditioner and let it dry for an hour. I sanded with P320 paper, used a tack cloth to remove any dust and applied a second coat. I let the conditioner dry overnight.

For the Tornado Bed, I decided to use Minwax’s Wood Finish in English Chestnut. I had never used this color before, but it just spoke to me. I thought this would also be a good test for Neil’s conditioner due to the penetrating qualities of oil based stains and this color being moderately dark – blotching should easily appear under these conditions. I applied one coat with a clean rag and here is the result:

Hallelujah! The results are almost perfect.

As you can see, no blotchy color – none. After problem after problem; frustration after frustration, this pre-color conditioner easily tames pine. It worked very well with an oil based stain and it did the same with some water based stain I had on hand.

Neil’s conditioner is a piece of cake to apply, dries in a reasonable amount of time and cleans up with water – in short, it is easy to use and works; which means it’s worth every penny I spent on it.

My purpose here is to see for myself if this conditioner is like others which sort of get the job done. I am happy to report Charles Neil’s Pre-Color Conditioner is what every other conditioner should be – totally effective. If you would like a more in-depth report on what Neil’s conditioner, see Marc Spagnuolo’s post here.

To order Neil’s conditioner for your own use, click here (there is a demonstration video you can see as well). I fully endorse this product and look forward to using it in the future.

Update July 3, 2011: I used Charles Neil’s Pre-Color Conditioner for a second time today. Some thoughts:

  1. For pine, use two coats of conditioner. The instructions in Neil’s conditioner say two coats may be needed, but since I have a lot of pine to cover, I thought I might be able to get by with one coat. One isn’t enough to stop blotching; although one coat still works better than the Minwax Pre-Stain Conditioner I used to use.
  2. Allow extra dry time for oil based stains. After allowing stain to dry overnight, when applying a wipe-on poly, the stain started to come off. I started to panic a little, but with continued wiping, the color evened out pretty good. I am not sure of the effect on water based stains
  3. This conditioner can sag. If not caught, sags look like left behind spots of glue (from what I understand Neil’s conditioner is like a diluted white glue). During application, this product looks like water based poly and absorbs quickly into pine. Just watch any area that got a higher amount of conditioner. I applied it with a brush; a lint free cloth may be better.

My conclusion at this point is that some further experimentation is necessary to get the hang of using this conditioner, but I feel like this is still a very good product.

Update October 17, 2011: I used this conditioner again over the last few days and while I still believe Charles Neil’s product is the best conditioner I have ever used, my technique for applying it needs improvement.

First, remember that pine is especially porous. Even after spending a lot of time preparing pine for finish, some of the surface can be more porous than adjacent areas without warning. When applying conditioner with a brush, view the surface at an angle in which light is reflected off the wet conditioner. After a minute, note areas which have become dull quickly. These are the extra porous areas in which conditioner has rapidly soaked into the wood. The overall surface should still be wet. Add an additional couple of brush strokes with conditioner to the dull areas in an effort to get a uniform application. Watch light reflecting off of the wet conditioner to make sure it goes on evenly.

Second, in corners, don’t allow conditioner to build up. While applying it to boards that form a corner excess from each board can collect in corners which will show up as a lighter color when applying stain. Controlling this can be problematic when corners encompass large areas or you have a lot of small corners to color. I am becoming a fan of finishing boards prior to assembly. Pre-finishing virtually eliminates corner build-up of conditioner (and stain).


  1. I suspect it will work just the same poplar, but I'm not sure. The next time I'm at Home Depot, I'll pick up a small piece and test it.

  2. See the paragraph:

    “To order Neil’s conditioner for your own use, click here (there is a demonstration video you can see as well). I fully endorse this product and look forward to using it in the future.”

    There is link in that paragraph whih will take you to Charles Neil's page for the conditioner.

    I consider it a speciality product and am not aware of it being sold at Woodcraft or a big box store.

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