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How To Make Red Oak Look Like White Oak

With white oak being so popular these days, it has almost quickly become one of the most expensive hardwoods in America. While switching to maple or cherry could be a money-saving option, using red oak will achieve the exact same beautiful grain pattern as white oak. We just need a special stain to mute the orange and pink, and create that soft white oak finish we've all fallen in love with.

(Design and photo credit Studio McGee)

Let's first give credit where credit is due: we got this original stain recipe from Natalie Park at @parkplaceabode on Instagram (give her a follow!). While we're not generally a fan of DIY stains, we are also completely aware that having access to, or the budget for a highly-skilled finisher isn't always an option for a lot of homeowners. Unfortunately, a lot of us get stuck having to figure all this out on our own, with little to no help from the builder or painter. So, we'll take what Natalie created and build on it to combine the best of both worlds: a DIY-friendly color formula available at most hardware stores, some pointers for creating a very even stain, and the durability of a professional-grade protective topcoat that will ensure decades of maintenance free use. Let's get started!

Mute The Pink Undertones

A little insider baseball here: whenever you are trying to mute one color, you go to the opposite end of the color wheel. In this case, we're trying to mute the pink undertones of red oak and sometimes even white oak (Natalie original video is "how to make red oak look like white oak"). While simply "adding green" to mute pink, or "adding blue" to mute red isn't an option, we can find stains that have these colors already in them.

The Secret Recipe

By mixing and reducing off-the-shelf stains, Natalie found a perfect recipe to both mute the pink and bring out the warm tan we all love with oak.

All the stains are Varathane and available at most hardware stores. First combine, 1 part Aged Wheat + 2 parts Antique White + 2 parts mineral spirits. This will create a "watery-sage green color". Even if it's not the perfect color for your project, this is at least an excellent starting point:

(screen shot from Natalie's video)

Now, let's take all this a step further. A lot of oak cabinet doors have solid frames (the stiles and rails) and a veneer center panel. Additionally, we see a lot of color variation in oak, white oak especially. While wood conditioner can help "even" out stain (most professionals don't use conditioner), there is a much better way to create consistent stain color and tone, and prevent the "picture framing" I'm sure you've seen: finish sanding. Within an hour of staining, we want to sand all solid wood to #120 grit, and all veneer to #220 grit. This opens the pores of the solid wood, and closes the pores of the much-more-porous veneer. This is how we get even and consistent color on stained projects. Here is an excellent video from General Finishes' YouTube page detailing this process (though we like to use a random-orbit sander with a very fine "scratch pattern").

As we've mentioned before, we're not fans of finishing on-site. That said, it is the standard in a lot of US so let's unpack that a bit. First, check out our recent blog where we go into all of the details. Second, because we need to be able to sand surfaces within an hour of staining, given the design and layout of your kitchen (tight spaces next to range hoods, awkward crown molding, island legs, etc), sometimes you just can't physically reach something to sand it properly. If that's the case, it may be best to pre-finish certain components before installation.

Protective Clear Topcoat

Once you've got the perfect color figured out, we then want to protect the wood. As we've discussed before, there is a big difference between water-based clear topcoat, and solvent-based clear topcoat. Even on stained projects, solvent-based can still add an amber/orange hue and continue to move the otherwise-perfect color you created. This is why I would recommend using a water-based topcoat. Generally, if you use an oil-based stain, you'll want to use a solvent-based topcoat. Fortunately, General Finishes High Performance water-based topcoat can be used over oil and solvent-based stains, maintaining the perfect stained-only color.

This is the best brush-able clear topcoat we're aware of, and has the adhesion to work with any stain underneath (and available on Amazon if not available to you locally).

A Good Starting Point

(Design and photo credit Amanda Teal)

Even if Natalie's stain formula isn't perfect for your project, she came up with an excellent starting point. Tweaking with a bit more Antique White, a bit more Aged Wheat, reduce more, reduce less, all easily done to create your perfect shade.

It's worth mentioning, we want to keep the relationship between you, your builder/cabinetmaker/finisher/painter as even as possible. You are responsible for providing them with clear and consistent direction, and they are responsible for coming up with a solution. The above process is a bit of a last-resort: if you're absolutely not getting the support you need from your builder or painter (incredibly frustrating, we know) then you've at least got a solution. One of our customers had a difficult situation with her new home and painters, and fortunately, we were able to help:

"Even though I did not learn about Wayhome until after my cabinets were installed, they still provided an IMMEASURABLE amount of assistance and cost saving value. Our Expert saved me from total heartbreak, set realistic expectations, and was an advocate and liaison between myself, builder, and those tasked to stain my kitchen cabinets.

In under 15 minutes in speaking with my painters and build superintendent, our Expert was able to discern that professional grade products would not be used for my project and identified a lack of knowledge and experience that would have been needed to complete the job."

- Lindsey, Oklahoma City

We exist to empower the homeowner with unbiased, expert advice. If you need help with clarification of technical terms, specifics of how the process should work, vetting of professionals, or anything else at all, please consider booking a Cabinetry Consult with us. On most stained projects, something done incorrectly is impossible to undo. We want to be certain the finish is perfect before we go applying it to the entire cabinet. This $79 call can go a very long way in preventing the heartache of brand new cabinets being ruined by the wrong process.


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