Can you stain pine wood to look like oak? You can, but it takes some patience and the right materials to get consistent results you’re likely to be happy with. Practice helps too. Here’s how to stain pine to look like oak.
This trick can be helpful if you want to attempt a DIY project like a picture ledge, but want it to match other furniture in the room. And it also applies to other finishes, not just oak.
Can you stain pine wood to look like oak?
I asked this question at a hardware store 15 years ago. The helpful sales associate said you could, but he cautioned me that if I just used stain alone, it would soak it up like a sponge. It seemed like he was doing a sales job on me, because I walked out of there spending twice as much as I expected, but his advice worked.
The key when you want to stain pine to look like oak is patience, preparation, and having the right materials. It also helps to have some scrap wood to practice on. Of course the grain pattern is different between pine and oak, so an experience woodworker will be able to tell the difference. But to the casual observer, you can get the tones to look convincing, with the right technique and materials.
In fact, furniture makers will frequently use cheaper types of wood for the less visible parts of their furniture, then use stain to make it look the same. They’re more likely to use birch than pine, but the challenges are similar.
You’ll spend a fair bit in materials trying to make a $2 board look like an $8 board. But that’s part of the reason oak is more expensive than pine. Pine is still cheaper in the end, it’s just not 1/4 the cost.
Who decided what oak stain looks like?
Keep in mind we didn’t arbitrarily decide that pine looks yellow, oak is a golden brown, and walnut is dark brown. Stains imitate the natural color of wood when you apply a coat of oil to them. If you apply a clearcoat to oak, it will take on a golden brown color. Exactly what golden brown color depends on the exact variety of oak. But there’s no reason to apply oak stain to oak unless you’re trying to match an existing piece and you don’t have the exact same variety of oak. Stain exists to make one type of wood look like another type.
That means you can stain pine to look like oak, but your results may vary.
Stain pine to look like oak
There’s more to staining pine to look like oak than just applying some oak stain from the nearest store to your pine and slapping a coat of polyurethane on top of it. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already figured that out.
The first thing to consider is your board selection matters. Oak has a lot of grain and not a lot of knots. Pine tends to heavier on knots and lighter on grain. When you’re picking out your material, try to find some that’s lower on knots and heavier on grain. The grain pattern will still look different from oak’s grain pattern, but I think the absence of a grain pattern is more noticeable than the wrong grain pattern.
Step 1: Preparation
The first step is to sand the wood. If you have high spots and low spots on the board, stain is going to accentuate it and make it more noticeable. Sand the board, either by hand, or using a regular sander, not an orbital one. You want to sand in the same direction as the grain, at least for the last few stages. If the board is really rough, you can use a random orbital sander with aggressive 60 grit paper to knock off the worst of it, but you’ll want to work your way up to 220 grit, sanding in a straight line with the grain to avoid leaving unsightly marks on it.
After sanding, clean off any remaining sawdust by wiping it down with a tack cloth.
Secret weapon #1: Wood conditioner
Now it’s time for the secret weapon: wood conditioner. The brand doesn’t really matter. Wood conditioner helps the wood to absorb stain more consistently and evenly. Brush on a thin, even coat across the entire surface you intend to stain, then let it dry according to the instructions on the can. Usually it takes about 30 minutes.
Secret weapon #2: A rag
The second secret weapon is how you apply the stain. As tempting as it is to use a foam brush, don’t. Use a lint-free rag. I know woodworkers who use old socks. An old sock, part of an old cotton t-shirt, or anything else along those lines is fine. Dip the rag in the stain, apply a bit to the surface, and then come back and wipe off the excess with a clean rag. Don’t let the stain sit very long. A few minutes is usually plenty. You can come back and apply a second and even a third coat to darken it if you want or need.
An advanced technique: Using more than one stain
One of the hallmarks of oak is its prominent grain. I’ve seen woodworkers imitate that look by using more than one stain. This requires practice, so learn on some scraps before you attempt this on a finished project. But the trick is to condition the wood, then apply a darker stain to the piece and wipe it off very quickly. The goal is go get some stain into the grain, while leaving the rest of the wood relatively unaffected. Then after the initial stain dries, come back with a lighter stain and apply one or more coats.
Even if you’re after a lighter shade of oak, starting with a dark shade to bring out the grain and then following up with a lighter shade may help you get the look you want.
Practice makes perfect
The other thing to keep in mind is that there is a lot of variation in oak. The store nearest me has at least six different shades of oak stain, and it isn’t just red oak vs golden oak.
To get the effect you want, you’ll probably want to buy at least 2-3 different shades of the 8-ounce cans to see which of them gives you the result you want. It probably won’t look exactly like it does on the can, since they probably didn’t stain pine for the picture.
Can a stain and polyurethane combo make pine look like oak?
Some stores sell a combination stain and polyurethane all in one, which promises to save you a step. I’ve used them, and I’ll say I’m moderately happy with the results. As long as you use a conditioner, these products work, but with some significant caveats. First, you’ll have a more limited selection of which shade of oak you want. You also lose control of the process. You probably won’t get the exact shade on the can. And if you don’t get the color you want, you won’t have any easy options to tweak it. And you have to apply it with a brush, so you’re more likely to get runs and drips.
If you’re OK with getting something that’s just in the neighborhood of what the picture looks like on the can, you can use an oak stain and polyurethane all-in-one. You’ll have to decide if the couple of hours you save is worth it to you. Either way you go, you aren’t going to fool some people. But if you’re going to go with the all-in-one approach, I definitely recommend you try out a couple of different shades on some offcuts before going all in.
The topcoat you use can also affect your color. If you’re happy with how the color looks as-is, a water based polyurethane will change the color the least. An oil-based polyurethane will give the finish a bit more of an amber color. I like water-based polyurethane because it doesn’t have harmful fumes and I can use it indoors. But if you want a finish that really resembles oak produced commercially or professionally, an oil-based polyurethane will get you closer.
Consistency helps with the topcoat too. Apply a thin coat, then sand it with a very fine sandpaper, at least 240 grit. Wipe down the surface with a tack cloth, then apply a second coat. Using wipe-on polyurethane instead of brush-on polyurethane can make it easier to get a thin, even coat. It usually takes at least two coats to get an even, consistent finish.