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APRIL 2017
Get a High-End Look from Low-Cost Wood
You don’t need to spend a lot on wood to make a project look high-end. The secret is to start with inexpensive materials, and then use stain and finish to transform them. This display case, for example, is made from just $350 worth of poplar and birch plywood that’s stained to look like cherry. This month we’ll share techniques to help you achieve a high-end look without emptying your wallet.
Cheaper Cherry
Poplar is usually considered a “paint-grade” lumber, thanks to its unappealing green and white coloration. One wood that poplar will never be mistaken for is cherry–at least when it’s unfinished. Applying a coat of gel stain, though (“Georgian Cherry” in this case), can transform the look of poplar.

Gel stain is great for poplar, maple, and pine, as these woods tend to blotch when you use liquid stain. Gel stain doesn’t penetrate as deeply, so it helps prevent these problems. After applying the stain to the surface with a foam brush, use a rag to wipe it off and buff the surface to an even, consistent color. Let the stain dry overnight, and then follow up with a polyurethane topcoat.
Marvelous Mahogany
You may be surprised to learn that you can also give poplar the rich, warm tones of mahogany. “Java” in a gel stain is a good choice, to prevent blotching and inconsistent color. The “Java” stain can be brushed on and wiped off just like the “Georgian Cherry” stain. Polyurethane adds a bit of glossy depth when applied over this stain, as well.
Easy MDF
MDF, or medium-density fiberboard, is a smooth sheet material that’s perfect for making cabinets. But its dull brown surface usually relegates it to a painted finish. Surprisingly, though, MDF looks pretty good stained. It allows just a little bit of material to show through the surface, creating a unique textured appearance.

You can use standard stain and polyurethane on MDF. A “combination” finish of stain and polyurethane will simplify the process. Just use a short-nap roller (3/16" to 1/4") to roll on the finish. MDF can really soak up stain, so you may have to apply a couple of coats.
Antique Maple
Traditional maple furniture has a rich golden-brown tone that goes well with many styles. While maple boards are a bit pricey, you can get “Select” (or #1) pine boards that look similar for a lot less, and then stain them. To create this tone, “English Chestnut” in a liquid stain was used.

Since liquid stain can make pine look blotchy and uneven, you’ll need to apply a wood conditioner first. Wood conditioner is a clear treatment that penetrates soft woods and allows stain to go on more evenly. Just brush it on, wait 15 minutes, and then apply the stain like you normally wood. Here again, a topcoat of polyurethane will enhance the toned wood.
Simple Cedar
This last finish is for use outdoors, where many people choose pressure-treated pine boards to save money over cedar. Of course, pressure-treated wood is a deep green color thanks to the chemicals used to treat it.

If you’d like to disguise pressure-treated wood to look like cedar, a company called Penofin makes an exterior deck stain specifically for pressure-treated lumber in three different shades. It has the same durable properties as their other semi-transparent deck stains, but a great amount of red pigment to block out the deep green color. Application is simple with standard brushes and rollers. The stain soaks into the wood, you so may have to apply more than one coat to get complete coverage.
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