Caught short of stock for your project? Want to save some bucks on wood? Can't find the wood you need for a missing part? Professional woodworkers, furniture restorers, and furniture manufacturers have long known the value of look-alikes--often less expensive woods that they can stain and finish to resemble more costly ones.
Knowledgeable furniture restorers sometimes face a piece needing repair that's made from chestnut, once a widely available furniture wood. No chestnut, no problem. They'll replicate a part from sassafras, abundant throughout the South, then finish the wood to match. Savvy finishers also know that they can make white ash pass for red oak if need be. In Colonial times, furnituremakers frequently substituted native black cherry for the popular but expensive Honduras mahogany then in vogue. Today, though, black cherry outpaces mahogany in the public's preference for furniture, so the look-alike role it once played no longer makes sense.
Furniture factories also commonly follow wood-substitution practices, turning to such species as alder, hackberry, soft maple, and selected imported woods for frames, legs, trim, and other secondary parts. Extensive staining, sealing, glazing, and toning techniques finish these species so that they look the same as the cherry, mahogany, or walnut used on the major parts.
To demonstrate what happens when you substitute one wood for another, we prepared samples of several common woods. The wood samples were then stained (we used water-soluble aniline dyes) and clear-finished with lacquer to resemble other often more expensive woods, as shown in the photographs. The captions with each pair of photos label the woods and tell you what we used to get the color match. As you can see, some of the look-alike woods play their role better than others.
Heed these pointers for the pretenders
If you decide to do some woodworking with look-alike woods, you'll have more success if you keep the following in mind:
- You often can substitute a look-alike wood for more than one wood species, such as alder for walnut or cherry, red gum for walnut or mahogany, and yellow poplar for a variety of woods. This has been a common manufacturing practice in moderately priced furniture for more than 50 years.
- Remember, all wood falls into three basic wood-grain categories: coarse-grained, such as oak and ash; medium-grained, like mahogany and walnut; and fine-grained, as found in cherry, maple, and yellow poplar. Because it's nearly impossible to make wood with one type of grain look like one with another type, select a look-alike wood with the same general grain features as the one you want to imitate.
- In most cases involving the substitution of wood, you'll have to stain or dye the look-alike wood. That may require some tinting and experimentation before you get the color of the imitator exactly right.
- If you plan to mix a wood and its look-alike in the same project, such as walnut and red gum, you should stain or dye both woods. If the look-alike wood is lighter in color, use two coats of color to darken it, but only one coat on the wood being imitated. As we found out in one instance, the darker, more coarse-grained wood of the two species should get a sealer coat of thinned shellac before coloring so that it won't continually get darker.
Let's look at some doppelgangers
A. White ash finished to look like red oak
B. Red oak
The two wood samples were stained with a diluted Dark Golden Oak water-soluble aniline dye, but first the red oak was sealed with thinned shellac so it wouldn t darken too much. The white ash received a second coat to further enhance the grain. The samples each got a sealer coat of thinned shellac and a finish coat of spray lacquer.
A. Red gum finished to look like black walnut
B. Black walnut
The red gum board was selected for its nearly perfect walnut coloration. It and the walnut sample were dyed with a Medium Walnut water-soluble aniline dye, then sealed with shellac to warm up the color. The finish coat was spray lacquer. Note the color and grain similarity of the naturally finished samples in the right side of the photographs.A. Yellow birch finished to look like maple B. Maple Chosen for its lighter color, the yellow birch was almost a perfect look-alike for sugar maple even before staining with a highly diluted Dark Golden Oak aniline dye and finishing with lacquer.
A. Red lauan (Philippine mahogany) finished to look like Honduras Mahogany
Nearly identical in grain and natural color, the lauan and the genuine mahogany each received a coat of Dark Wine Cherry aniline dye, a shellac coat, and a clear, spray-lacquer finish.
A. Red alder finished to look like black cherry
B. Black cherry
With its fine grain, pinkish color, and figure features, the red alder sample came pretty close to matching black cherry when each received one coat of Dark Wine Cherry aniline dye. However, by first sealing the red alder with shellac, then dyeing it, the result was even closer. Each was sprayed with a finish coat of lacquer. Note how much the two woods look alike in the unstained, clear-finished part of the photographs.
A. Yellow poplar finished to look like black walnut
B. Yellow poplar finished to look like black cherry
After careful selection of yellow poplar samples to match the figure and grain of black walnut and black cherry respectively, each was dyed with aniline dye. It took two coats of Medium Walnut and one coat of Dark Wine Cherry to change the yellow poplar. The finish coat for each look-alike sample was lacquer.