If you've ever stained birch plywood a
dark color, the results were probably so
blotchy and difficult to reverse that you
vowed, “Never again!” Which is too bad,
because if you could stain birch plywood
a deep, reddish-brown color so it looked
like cherry plywood, you could save a
bundle on materials for your next project.
Here’s why you should never say
“never.” I’m going to show you how
to give birch plywood a rich, warm
color that resembles cherry. Th is process
effectively blends the dark-colored
heartwood and light-colored sapwood
that typically appears on most grades
of birch plywood. It even works on the
budget-priced grades you’ll find at home
centers. Th is process also blends solid
wood edge banding with the plywood’s
veneered surfaces. It uses readily available
finishing products and it doesn’t
require any special finishing equipment—
you won’t even need a brush!
Creating a deep, uniform tone on birch
plywood is a real challenge. Using regular
dark-colored liquid oil-based cherry
stains or dyes will result in unsightly
blotching and/or a harsh unnatural
color. Moreover, using stain or dye alone
will not help blend the wood’s light and
dark colors. Even gel stains (which are
sometimes touted as “blotch-reducing”
because they don’t soak in quite as much
as liquid stains or dyes) work only a little
better to meet these challenges.
Nonetheless, a more traditional
cherry look can be achieved with a good
plan and a little extra care. Th e best way
to accomplish this is to deepen the color
gradually, using a series of steps that are
designed to minimize the risk of blotching.
Each step also helps blend color differences
between dark heartwood and
light sapwood and also between birch
veneer and solid birch edge banding.
Sand the plywood and edge banding
to 150 grit. Th e final sanding should be
by hand to ensure no machine marks.
On some grades of birch plywood the
veneers are super-thin and the surfaces
aren’t perfectly flat, so be careful. It can
be easy to sand through the veneer,
especially when you’re flushing up the
Mix two teaspoons of TransTint Golden
Brown dye in 32 ounces of water (see
Sources below). When applied to
the bare wood, this diluted golden tone
provides a warm ground color without
causing noticeable blotching. Blotching
becomes more noticeable with darkcolored
stains or dyes, so you shouldn’t
use them for this step. In order to minimize
blotching, you have to deepen the
Apply the dye and work it around to
ensure consistent saturation and consistent
color (Photo 1). Keep the wood
wet long enough for the dye to saturate
the surface—about two minutes. Wipe
off the excess and let the surface dry for
an hour or so, just long enough to let
the water evaporate. Overnight curing
Stage 1: Use General Finishes Clear Gel Topcoat (see Sources) as a stain controller
to seal against blotching (Photo 2). Wipe
on a coat and scrub it in, using a gray
nylon abrasive pad to remove any raised
grain caused by the water-based dye used
in Step 1. Th en rub off the excess.
Stage 2: Without any delay or drying
time, follow by applying General Finishes
Nutmeg Gel Stain (Photo 3; Sources).
Work it in and rub off the excess within
five minutes. Rub harder to lighten darker
areas. Allow 24-hour drying time.
This two-stage application reduces
blotching in two ways. Putting the clear
gel varnish on first partially fills the
wood’s porous areas, as a liquid stain
controller does. Unlike a stain controller,
though, the gel varnish doesn’t evaporate.
It remains in the wood’s porous areas and
dries, to help seal the surface. In addition,
the nutmeg gel stain is a darker shade of
golden brown than the dye, but it isn’t
dark enough to cause blotching, so it simply
adds part of the final color.
At this point, the surface is sealed well
enough to prevent blotching (especially
in the porous areas), but it’s still absorbent
enough to soak up a little more
stain. Th is makes it possible to evenly
deepen the wood’s overall color and tone
it to look like cherry by using a dark, reddish-
brown gel stain (Photo 4). Liberally
apply General Finishes Brown Mahogany
gel stain (see Sources) and rub off
Let the surface dry for 24 hours. Then
you can selectively add color to any areas
that remain too light by using the brown
mahogany gel stain as a glaze. As the
previous coats have dried, there’s no risk:
You can erase any glazing attempts that
you don’t like with a little paint thinner
on a rag. After glazing, allow 24 hours
before applying clear coats.
For a perfect hand-rubbed
look, wipe on and rub off two more rounds of General Finishes Gel
Topcoat. If you want a waterproof surface,
apply one or more coats of General Finishes
Satin Arm-R-Seal (see Sources).
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Quickly apply a coat of diluted golden brown water-based dye,
using a pump sprayer and a rag. Let the dye saturate the surface,
then wipe off the excess and let the surface dry.
2. Apply a generous coat of clear gel varnish and rub it in to scrub
off any grain-raising caused by the water-based dye. Remove the
excess varnish and then immediately move to the next step.
3. Apply golden brown gel stain. The wet gel varnish acts as a stain
controller to keep the wood from looking blotchy. Rub off the
excess stain and let the surface dry overnight.
4. Now you can safely darken the color to a rich, deep brown,
because the wood is sealed against blotching. To simulate cherry,
wipe on and rub off dark, reddish-brown gel stain.