Woodworking: How to Make Cheap Wood Look Like Expensive Wood

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The reader will discover how to make relatively inexpensive woods look like luxury woods through the use of dyes and stains.

If you’re anything like me you like to create fine furniture for your home and for your friends using woods like mahogany and walnut but in today’s tight economy using luxury woods can really strain one’s woodworking budget. When my wife approached me with the idea of building a new suite of furniture for our master bedroom that included a Queen Size bed, dresser w/mirror, chest of drawers, and armoire, I saw my year’s woodworking budget going out the door like a runaway train. Enough mahogany or walnut to complete all those pieces was going to cost me mucho dinero but we did need a new bedroom suite. Well I had read on some blog where a woodworker had used dyes to make relatively inexpensive woods imitate the appearance very expensive woods and I decided to experiment with the idea. The results were amazing. I had a hard time telling the difference between dyed Willow and genuine Walnut. I even offer it as an option to my customer’s who order custom furniture to save them money.

When I started experimenting with the various wood dyes I needed a good variety of the genuine samples to compare my dyed woods against. Rockler offers a 20 pound box of assorted species of hardwoods that includes Oak, Maple, Birch, Cherry, Walnut and Mahogany for less than $25 plus shipping and handling. I had bought these assortments in the past from Rockler because the pieces were the ideal size for making small projects like jewelry boxes, music boxes, clocks, etc.

There are a wide variety of wood stains available today from many different sources and I experimented with hundreds before settling on a line of dyes produced by W.D.Lockwood. Lockwood dyes are somewhat more expensive than many of the alternatives but the quality results that I achieved using them made the additional cost worthwhile.

I’m going to give you detailed instruction on how to copy several of my relatively inexpensive wood conversions into luxury woods in this tutorial but they are meant as a starting point for your own experimentations. It’s a great way to wile away the hours between projects.

Turning Willow into Walnut

Willow lacks the density and durability of genuine Walnut but the heartwood, grain patterns and coloration closely approaches that of Walnut with little or no dying. The less dense Willow soaks up liquid stains several times faster than Walnut so it important to experiment with both species ahead of time with the dyes/stains that you will be using if you intend to mix the two species together in one project. Gel stains produce a less blotchy effect when applied to Willow. I often mix species when making projects like coffee tables, dining room tables, etc because I want the added density and durability of the genuine Walnut for the table tops. Lockwood actually offers nine different Walnut stains so it’s easy to match the genuine with the imitation with a little trial and error.

Turning Birch into Maple

Birch lumber and Birch veneered sheet goods is one of the most commonly available materials available at home centers and lumber yards. Birch’s creamy colored and dense grain closely approaches that of Maple with little or no staining required. All you need to do is take your genuine Maple sample with you and select those pieces Birch that closely matches it. If you do what to make it an even closer match Lockwood offer nine different Maple stains to help you accomplish that.

Turning Luan veneer plywood into Mahogany veneer plywood

Luan or Philippine mahogany has long been a substitute for the expensive Honduran Mahogany because of its close color and grain pattern. The only thing that sets the two apart is that the Philippine mahogany has a slightly grey cast compared the Honduran Mahogany’s reddish cast. I found that using a 50-50 mix of natural antique cherry dye (Lockwood #911) for reddish tones and golden amber maple dye (Lockwood #144) yields a near-perfect color match without highlighting the pores of the wood.

Turning Ash into Oak

Few woods have a grain pattern that matches flat sawn oak but ash comes close. Staining the ash with Minwax red oak (#215) makes the match even closer. The pores of the ash will absorb more pigment from a liquid (not gel) stain than will oak. For an even darker finish, sand ash to 150-grit, leaving a slightly rougher surface where the particles of stain pigments can collect. Use a dye if you want minimal grain contrast.

Turning Maple into Ebony

Maple with it dense grain imitates the exotic, very expensive, Ebony almost perfectly. To make the conversion all you need is India ink. The fine pigments in India ink produce a deep, dark, and consistent black, even on the dense surface of maple. Before coloring the wood, cut and shape parts to size. Then finish-sand all surfaces, taking the end grain to at least 320-grit prior to staining.

Turning Popular into Cherry

Widespread availability and low prices make poplar a prime substitute for more expensive woods. Avoid poplar boards with a greenish cast or strong color contrasts between the heartwood and sapwood. Turning Popular into imitation Cherry is relatively easy with dye. Dye will provide consistent color and, because it’s water-based, a damp rag can extract some of the excess if you use too much. (I used Lockwood #911 natural antique cherry dye for this sample.) Allow a little extra shading for the light sanding needed to remove wood fibers raised by water-based dyes. Like cherry, poplar tends to blotch. To make spot adjustments to the color, lightly rub darkened areas with 320-grit sandpaper.

Well this should get you started.


patrick menton
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