Staining Whitewood: How To Get a Great Result

I have a beautiful rocking chair that was in desperate need of some refurbishment. Someone had painted it with a bright yellow paint (Ick, I know), and I wanted to bring out the natural wood under it. After some laborious paint peeling and sanding, I finally reached the wood beneath. I’m not best at identifying wood offhand, so I’ll tell you the truth – I thought it was pine. Turns out, it was whitewood. I discovered this when I attempted to stain it.

See, whitewood can be a tricky wood to paint and stain. This is because it is a very smooth and porous wood. If not properly done, the finished product can become blotchy. That’s exactly what happened to my lovely rocking chair – it looked like I had made a tie-dyed chair. Not a pretty effect. To prevent this, you need to sand, condition, and prepare the wood to take on the stain.

Staining whitewood: how to

I don’t want you to make this same mistake. I’m still not sure how to fix this rocking chair, but I want to explain to you the exact steps you should take to avoid falling into the same trap that I did. First, know your wood! If you’re unsure, be sure to err on the side of caution and treat it like finicky wood.


What Is Whitewood?

There is some controversy over what whitewood actually is. Okay, controversy may be a strong word. However, if you spend any time researching whitewood, you’ll find that many trees are considered whitewood. Quite common is the pine tree. You may see some whitewood lumber with stickers labeled SYP, which stands for Southern Yellow Pine.

However, when looking at whitewood in a broader term, you’ll find that the yellow poplar, spruce, and tulip poplar (aka, the tulip tree) are often the definition of whitewood. Here, we’ll define the tulip tree for whitewood.

Whitewood is a beautiful, porous wood that is commonly used in construction and building. The tree is known for growing up to 25 inches per year, meaning that within 10 years, the tree could reach 20 feet. Even better, these trees have been known to reach heights of 160 feet, which is a lot of wood to bring in on a single tree. Tulip trees grow mostly in the Eastern Coast of North America, but it is shipped all over. The lumber is cream in color, lightweight, and smooth. Because it is so porous, it is a perfect wood for staining.

How to Stain Whitewood

So, you want to stain your wooden project. No matter what your project is, you’ll need to be careful when laying the stain so that it doesn’t become blotchy or uneven, like mine did.

Step 1: Sand the Wood

No matter the project, you’ll want to sand the wood. You don’t want any rough edges or splinters on the wood, so even if this is a refurbishment project, make sure that the wood is as smooth as possible. The sanding will also help to open the cells of the wood so that it can take in the wood conditioners, sealants, and stains you’ll use.

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Step 2: Wipe Down the Wood

Once you’ve sanded down the wood, make sure to wipe the wood down before moving on to the next step. This will remove any dust and grit from the sanding that you just did. This prepares the wood for the next and final steps.

Step 3: Use Pre-Stain

This step is not optional. It is essential to prevent blotchy staining! That said, there are two options you can choose from at this step. You can use a pre-stain, which is sold in all home renovation stores. Some people may call it a wood conditioner. It really is the same thing, but you’ll want to be sure to select a pre-stain/wood conditioner that will work well on your project. This helps to block some of those cells from being too porous.

Some people suggest using a sealant before adding the stain, though be careful of the chemical makeup. A sealant will help protect the wood and prevent the stain from bleeding, but if you use an oil-based sealant, the stain will not take. The other bonus about using a wood conditioner over a sealant is that you will not need to wait nearly as long for it to dry.

Step 4: Stain

Now that the wood has been prepped, it’s time to stain it. I know it seems that it has taken forever to get to this stage, but it will be worth it. Use a paintbrush when staining whitewood rather than a spare cloth. The reason for this is simple – if you use too much stain on the cloth, it can make it streaky or blotchy. Many people tend to rub circles with the cloth as well, which is a no-no when staining because you want to go with the grain.

Staining whitewood with brush

Once you have the equipment, dip the brush into the stain. You want it to be wet, but not dripping. Run the brush over the wood (going with the grain). You’ll want to go over the wood until it is covered, but do not reapply the stain to the same areas or it will make that spot darker. Instead, use long, steady strokes for complete coverage.

Step 5: Sand and Lay a Second Coat

After the wood has been coated, allow it to dry. This varies depending on the stain you are using, but you’ll often hear between 18 and 24 hours before it is dry enough to put on a second coat. But you’re not quite there yet! It may seem counterintuitive to sand the wood after already sanding and putting on the stain, but this is an important part of the staining process, especially with a water-based stain. The reason for this is because water-based stains will be absorbed by the wood’s cells and cause the wood grain to swell and raise. This could cause an uneven finished product.

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There’s no call for concern though, the stain will have penetrated much deeper than what you’ll remove with sanding. Use very fine grit sandpaper, like 220 or 240, and gentle strokes that go with the grain. After you’ve sanded and wiped down the wood, lay another coat of stain. Do this as many times as you want to achieve the darkness you want.

Step 6: Polyurethane

It’s looking good, isn’t it? You’re not quite finished, yet. You’ll want to add a varnish or polyurethane to the final product to make it shine and look professionally made. It will also protect the wood from dings, chips, and splinters. To complete this step, you’ll follow the same pattern that you did to stain.

First, allow the stain to dry and cure for about 48 hours once you’ve achieved the color you want. Be sure to sand before the first coat. Use a brush to lay the varnish, because it will adhere much more evenly than with a sponge or cloth. You may be tempted to drench the brush, but this will only cause drips and streaks. Make sure you pay special attention to any wood edges that may have exposed grain. Repeat the drying, sanding, and varnishing process until you achieve the shine you want.

How to Paint Whitewood

So, staining may not necessarily be your cup of tea. The problem with whitewood is that it is not necessarily the best-looking wood. The dark knots could put you off, or maybe you just prefer the clean look of a nice paint color (I’m not looking at you, yellow). If this is the case, painting can be the perfect choice for you, but you’ll still need to follow some basic principles to make sure the paint adheres well.

Step 1: Sand the Wood

Just like with staining, you’ll want to sand down the wood. This doesn’t matter if it is raw wood, an old project, or a piece you’ve just built. Sanding the wood before painting will open the cells to absorb the paint better. Since whitewood is such a smooth wood, the paint will not adhere very well. Through the sanding process, you’ll have scuffed the surface enough to allow the paint to stick.

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Step 2: Wipe Down the Wood

Wipe down that wood! I know this process seems pointless, but with painting, it is even more important than it was with staining. Why? Well, you’ll definitely see any clumping of dust and debris if it isn’t wiped away. I also want to discuss a real possibility that I’ve been guilty of – painting over old paint. It is tempting. After all, who is going to know that you’ve painted over another coat?

Well, the problem with these refurbishment projects is that they have sat for a while. When they sit, they collect dust, dirt, and cobwebs. Those cobwebs will bunch and clump the paint if it is not cleaned. The lazy route is not the way to go when painting.

Step 3: Paint

The type of you paint you use will alter this process a bit but not by much. Oil-based paints make for a high-gloss, lovely finish that can be used on outdoor furniture or to get that factory-varnished look. However, you’ll want to paint outside where the fumes won’t bother you or your family, and you’ll want to be sure to use a natural hair product because the paint will not hold on to a synthetic bristled brush.

For latex, or water-based, paint, you’ll use a synthetic brush. You can use any finish you want – from flat to high gloss – but your choice will be based on the sheen you want on the final product. You can paint inside, but be sure to still ventilate the area.

When you paint, be sure to use smooth strokes that go along with the grain. Do not use too much paint, but use enough so that the paint can settle and let the bristle tracks disappear. This is where oil paint is helpful because it takes longer to dry.

Step 4: Sand and Lay a Second Coat

Yes, you will need to do this for painting as well. Use fine-grit sandpaper to gently scuff the upper layer of paint. This will help the second coat to adhere to the first coat much better. This will also remove any bumps or drips that may have formed while painting.

The good part about paint is that you’ll only need to let it dry for six to eight hours before tackling the second coat. Two or three coats is really all you’ll need to make the project look great. Once you’ve completed the process, you’ll need to let the paint cure. Again, this depends on the type of paint you use. Water-based paints take between two weeks and a month, while oil-based paint should cure in only seven days.