I bought an existing home a couple of years ago. One of the things I really liked about the house was the kitchen. The face-frame style cabinets were obviously handmade, and not only that, they were clearly not made by a cabinet shop but by the previous homeowner. He built them really well, taking the extra steps to transform a job from good to excellent.
But the one thing he fell short on was the aesthetics of the cabinet doors. They look like plywood masquerading as hardwood. They were stained the same color and finished with the same varnish — but they look very different from the solid oak faceframes and end panels.
Why Different Results?
So why should that be? If you use red oak lumber and red oak plywood, why do they often look so different — especially once they are stained?
Here is the most important reason. Even though they are the same species, they may not actually be really the same. What do I mean by that? All hardwood plywood sheets are not created equal. (And in that designation, I include sheetstock like hardwood veneered MDF, particleboard and your typical veneer core hardwood plywood.) Often the less expensive hardwood plywood sheets are covered with rotary cut veneer. Rotary cut veneer is made just like it sounds.
The mill mounts a green, prepared log between two pivots. Through industrial magic, they start the log spinning at a pretty good clip. At this point, a very long and very sharp cutter is slowly advanced into the log and veneer starts to flow off the spinning log like water. It is a very efficient way to make veneer. But when you consider how lumber is cut from a log, you can see why the plywood will look different. Lumber is cut in plainsawn, quartersawn and riftsawn aspects. No lumber is made with a “spin-around” style cut.
I can hear some of you asking “why is he talking about how plywood is made and not about how to stain hardwood plywood to look like solid hardwood lumber?” So here goes: buy hardwood veneered plywood that has the same grain pattern as the hardwood lumber you are using. If you are building with plainsawn lumber, use a sheetstock that features plainsawn veneer. Using quartersawn lumber — well, you get the picture.
What’s the Problem?
The problem with matching stained plywood to solid lumber is how the veneer is cut, not how the stain is applied. If you match like grain patterns in the plywood and the lumber, and you prepare the surface of your piece similarly, you will get good results when you stain. And by the way, it will also look great if you choose to finish it without any stain.
You can find hardwood plywood with various types of veneer pre-made at lumberyards that deal with cabinet shops regularly. (Many specialty woodworking stores like Rockler Woodworking and Hardware will special order plywood for you if you ask.) You can even order plywood with custom grain patterns (book-matched, for example) that you would prefer from some sellers.