How to Make Cheap Wood Look Pretty
When I first started building things, I was under the impression that I would save buckets of money by building my own furniture. The construction class I'd taken supplied all of our materials, so I was largely unaware of what building materials actually cost. I distinctly remember standing in the lumber aisle of Home Depot for the first time, staring in shock at the difference in price between the twisted and warped "whitewood" and the "premium pine."
Since I'm not made of money, I bought the whitewood. My first couple projects were, predictably, lopsided and strange looking. I looked at all the blogs with the pretty furniture, and wondered to myself if they were paying a small fortune to make those pieces, or if they knew something I didn't.
I don't yet have the answer of how other bloggers source their wood, but I promise you, most of my projects are still made out of whitewood and furring strips, aka the cheapest wood sold at your local big box store. I've just finally figured out a process for making those cheap boards look pretty!
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Some Notes About Cheap Wood
I am primarily going to talk about the very cheapest type of board, the furring strip, in this post. This is because the furring strip is typically ugliest and most beat up type of wood you can purchase. Thus, if this process makes a furring strip pretty, it will work for almost anything. I typically don't sand quite as much for the boards that are in better shape to begin with; it's a judgement call depending on what I'm starting with.
To give you an idea of what is achievable, the frame of my TV Lift Cabinet is made of out 2"x2" furring strips:
I chose to paint them in this project, but here's what it looked like in frame-form:
My Monitor Riser Desk Organizer is made out of a whitewood board. The board was actually a little warped, which made it harder to build, but you can barely tell from the finished product:
So, making cheap wood look pretty is totally achievable... there's just a bit of work involved!
How to Make Cheap Wood Look Pretty
Step 1: Pick Out the Best Boards at the Store
When purchasing your wood, spend the time going through all the boards to find the nicest ones. The most important thing is that the boards are straight, not twisted or warped. Look down the board from one end to see if it's warped at all. Put the board on the floor and see if lies flat. Do everything you can to get boards that are as straight as possible, because you can't fix that, and warped boards can make things more difficult to build and less structurally stable. It might take awhile to find good ones- don't give up. And bring scissors or a pocket knife; this process is easier if you can open new packs of lumber.
After straightness, you'll want to look for defects in the wood itself. Large cracks are obviously bad, but I've taken home boards with small cracks before if they were straight. Knots and other defects can be problematic, but ask yourself if you can hide them. Remember, a straight board is the most important thing, and that may mean settling for boards with visible defects. On my TV Lift Cabinet, the center board looks like this from the inside of the cabinet:
Yeah, it's a mess. But that board was the straightest one I could find, so it came home with me anyway. I knew I could turn it so that wouldn't be visible in most circumstances.
To make sure you get the best boards at the store, grab my printable Choosing Lumber Checklist. It walks you through picking the best boards, ensuring you get the nicest boards for your project! Take it to the store with you so you purchase exactly what you need!
Step 2: Sand Away Marks with Low-Grit Sandpaper
This process goes a lot faster if you have a belt sander available. It doesn't have to be nice; mine is a low quality one from Harbor Freight, but it does the trick. I typically start with 120 grit sandpaper on the belt sander, or 60/80 grit sandpaper with an orbital sander.
Then I sand away every mark and defect I can. Knots aren't going anywhere, but the saw marks and uneven edges can be sanded out.
If you're staining your wood, you'll want to make sure every saw mark is completely gone before moving on to the next grit. If you don't completely eliminate the saw marks, they'll be highlighted when you stain the wood, even if they're not obvious right now. The above picture is a good example of what your wood should look like after you're done with the first grit.
You'll note that the wood is a bit fuzzy. That's okay. That's what the next grit of sandpaper is for.
Step 3: Smooth with Higher Grit Sandpapers
I use my orbital sander exclusively from this point on. As you might guess, this is a lot of sanding, and it's important that you have a high quality orbital sander. I say this as someone who used to have a Harbor Freight palm sander. I swear, I would sand and nothing would happen. When it died, I upgraded to this DeWalt sander. It's the biggest tool splurge I've made, and I don't regret it one bit. It makes this process so much easier, and I highly recommend it to anyone who uses cheap wood regularly.
At this point, the correct way to proceed is to work your way up using each grit. So, for example, if you started with the 80 grit sandpaper, you would smooth with 100, then 120, 140, 160, etc, until you were satisfied. I never do this, but it's the correct way to sand wood.
I skip a bunch of those grits, typically only picking two. For example, if I started with 120 grit sandpaper on the belt sander, I'll smooth it out with 180 grit sandpaper. When that's finished, I'll do one last pass with the 240 grit sandpaper. You still get smooth wood, and it's a lot faster.
Here's what my board looked like after all the sanding:
Nice and smooth 🙂
Some Tips for Staining
Cheap softwood is notoriously difficult to stain. Each of the different woods take stain differently, sometimes it's blotchy, sometimes it's not the color you intended. Many things can go wrong. I'm not going to recommend a certain stain or product, since they have different results on different woods, and I've not tried enough variety of the brands I do like to make a solid recommendation.
What I will say- test your stain first on a scrap piece. Is it blotchy or super dark? Try wood conditioner. Test and test and test until you get the shade you're looking for. This simple tip has allowed me to make gorgeous pieces from cheap woods, and have them turn out exactly how I wanted.
One last tip: if you're using oil based stain, do your testing with cheap sponge brushes. Harbor Freight has this 10 pack for $2; if you're in the Midwest, Menards occasionally sells this 24-pack for $.99 after rebate. Then you can throw the brushes away once you've finished, and don't have to use a ton of time and mineral spirits getting them clean.
It is totally possible to use cheap wood and get a high quality result... it just takes a little extra time and patience. Finding the best boards in the store is crucial, and a thorough sanding goes a long way. I use this process on every piece of wood I buy, and it hasn't failed me yet!
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