Ok so before I get into this I want to make the following three declarations:
1) I am not in any way in favour of using inexpensive (IE cheap) woods and disguising them as expensive (IE high quality) woods in projects. That is not my goal here.
2) I am not a professional woodworker, nor am I a professional finisher, so this is just my own experience as a hobbyist.
3) I am not a proponent of staining or colouring every wood that you finish; I am totally cool normally with leaving wood the way it is by simply adding a clear finish.
Ok so now that we have those three disclaimers out of the way, I hope I will avoid the wrath of angry commenters! I know that finishing, especially the topic of colouring wood, is a touchy subject. It’s probably more touchy than most woodworking topics because a) woodworkers tend to dislike finishing in general, and b) colouring wood is on the verge of going down that bunny hole of “taboo” woodworking practices. It’s like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry starts shaving his neck hair, then goes into the fringes of his upper chest hair, and before he knows it he’s shaving his whole body. Once you start, there is a fear that you will go too far.
I understand that stance, because 90% of the time I am in that camp that says you should leave wood the way it is. However, some woods look like crap. Plain and simple. Or rather, they will look like crap in the particular application that you are using.
For instance – right now I am building a simple trestle table for our home. The top is going to be made of some pretty thick (1.5”), nice looking Western Maple. I love Western Maple. I live in British Columbia, and for me it’s the local hardwood that is plenty available, looks nice, is pretty strong, and can be used in a wide variety of projects, applications, jigs, and it seems to compliment just about every other hardwood that you can think about.
But for the base of the trestle table, I really wanted the legs (posts), feet, cleats and beam to be beefy as heck. Like 1.75” to 2” thick. So rather than pay premium $ for eight-quarter maple or whatever, or laminating thinner boards together, I got some really thick (measured about 2.25” thick!) local Alder. The boards were 12 footers, and the narrowest one was 9” wide. I still have tons of it left over.
But I had never used Alder before so I was in for quite a shock when I saw what it looked life once it was planed down. Pretty well bleached white (maybe cream coloured) with lots of pink stripes. The problem that I saw immediately, as I had been told by many before, is that Alder lacks intrigue. There is hardly any colour or depth, nor is there interesting grain variance. The grain is very straight, plain and uninteresting. Even once I put on a clear finish the tone, depth and general appearance of the wood did not change significantly. That was definitely a surprise. I tried a varnish, oil-varnish blend, boiled linseed oil, shellac, and water-base poly. None had a significant effect on the alder. Once the finish dried up, the wood went back to looking very boring.
Structurally that is a great thing. Despite the fact that Alder is generally one of the softer hardwoods, it’s pretty stable. At least mine is. It hasn’t bowed, cupped or moved significantly since I got it to the shop months ago, to planing , milling, etc. No swirly grain, so minimal tear-out (unlike maple.)
So my dilemma was how to incorporate that into this project. The maple top would doubtlessly take most of people’s attention, but I really wanted something of a complimentary contrast for the base. That’s when I decided to experiment with staining.
Now understand that I hate staining. I really do – I much prefer leaving wood alone. As I said before, I am not an advocate of “faking” woods- if I want something to look like Walnut then I would rather use Walnut then put a Walnut stain on say Maple.
So for me, staining Alder was a bit of an adventure. And I have a confession here – like most people the reason I am so opposed to staining wood, aside from the fact that most woods look fine on their own, is that I have had negative experiences in coloring wood and I have reservations about coloring products. I’ve put on “golden oak” stains on woods only to have the wood to take on a school bus yellow look. That is very disappointing, especially at the end of a project.
So I avoided staining and dyeing because I didn’t want to risk the challenge. So I read up on my Flexner and Jewitt, and took the plunge. I started mixing colours, using them on test boards, which made me think of Bob Ross. No mistakes, only happy accidents.
I decided to document this as best as possible with some photographs and make a mini-blog series about how it turns out. Hopefully it won’t be a project ruiner. I would have made some video but my camera sucks. So only photos for now.
Below I have some photos of the Alder in its natural state after I milled it:
Up close – tenon shoulder. I noticed that Alder was extremely brittled near the end grain. I think you can probably nick the ends of tenons by rubbing it too hard with your fingers. Splinter free tenon shoulders are hard to achieve.
Here’s the Alder getting ready for some chisel work – mortises. On top of my workbench, which is made of construction grade Douglas Fir, you may be able to see how plain the Alder looks. Even my workbench wood had more figure / depth!
Another shot of the alder prior to getting ready for finish sanding:
-- Making mistakes is essential in learning woodworking.