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Tips for purchasing unfinished furniture
Dec 17, 2004

The reason many people buy unfinished furniture is because they want to match it to existing furniture.  

You may think unfinished furniture is less expensive than finished furniture, however, a piece of quality unfinished furniture can be just as costly, if not more so. 

When buying unfinished furniture use caution and purchase wood that matches your existing furniture. 

If you want some depth to your finish, then purchase solid-wood unfinished furniture. Usually, this type of furniture is made from solid pieces of wood that are edge-glued to make a top that is at least three-quarters of an inch thick. Less expensive grades often don’t have such things as drawer glides or solid drawer sides. 

Better grades of unfinished furniture are made from solid birch, ash, pine or beech, while other expensive grades are made from maple or aspen. 

Hardwoods have a more distinct grain than soft woods.  If you plan on applying a polyurethane finish to highlight the grain, then select a hardwood.  Some of the better woods for grain characteristics are bird’s eye maple , beech and birch, especially red birch. 

Don’t go by the paper colour charts in a building centre when making a stain selection.  Pick a stain that you like and then test it on the bottom of an old cabinet or the back of a drawer. This is necessary because a stain will show up different on different types of wood.  Indeed, the wood from the same tree can take stain differently, depending on whether the wood is from the heart of the tree or the sapwood.  

One of the better stains on the market is jellied stain, but there are others such as oil stains, wax stains and lacquers.  I prefer the jellied stain because it is a semi-liquid and tends to eliminate lap marks. 

There are also stain varnishes that add finish and the stain all in one coat, but there is not the same control as with a stain that can be wiped on and off.  When using a wiping stain, you control the colour.  Apply this stain with a brush or cheesecloth and then immediately wipe it almost completely off.  For a darker stain, apply more stain and leave it a bit longer before wiping it off. If it’s too dark, simply wipe more of it off until you get the desired colour. 

After the stain has dried, you can apply two-coats of either a stain or a gloss finish, making sure that you sand between the two coats after the first coat has dried. 

Some opened-grain woods such as mahogany may require filler before applying the stain. For example, if you want to finish mahogany for a tabletop and want to have a clean, smooth finish with no pores, then filler is required.       

If you plan on painting unfinished furniture, use two coats of semi-gloss or high-gloss enamel. Do not use flat enamel on furniture since it will show finger marks too easily. 

Unfinished furniture can also be antiqued or wood grained.  Apply a base coat ant then use a special ink to antique the piece or to apply a simulated grain.  You may wipe off the ink in such a way to produce a worn antique look or you can imitate the grain of different types of wood. 

Using a cork from a bottle and twisting it slightly on the surface can create knots.  Stores that specialize in unfinished furniture usually have brochures to help you make a selection and give you ideas on what type of finish to apply to match your needs.