Guide To Staining Whitewood

Whitewood is one of the most popular and versatile type of wood to use especially in home projects. You can use whitewood for a variety of woodworking projects, like shelves, cupboards, corner tables, coffee tables, end table, trays, racks, picture frames, and a lot more wooden ware. Whitewood can also be used for big projects like flooring, decking, stairs, plus other furniture. It is also suitable for both indoor and outdoor projects.

Whitewood is very popular. Because there is an abundant supply of whitewood, it is readily available in most lumberyards and box supply stores. Whitewood is easy to obtain and is cheaper than most hardwood in the market. It also is easy to work with. However, staining whitewood has its challenges, especially if you are not too familiar with how it’s done or if this is your first time to do it.

What is Whitewood?

Whitewood specifically refers to the American tulip tree or tulip poplar, the Liriodendron tulipifera. The tree is grown largely in North America (southern Ontario) and in central Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon. Whitewood is also known as a native tree in Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

However, whitewood is also a generic term used in lumberyards and box stores to refer to many other species of wood that is not the American tulip.

There are three varieties of whitewood you can buy. These are designated by labels: SPF, SYF, or SYP. SPF stands for Spruce, Pine, or Fir. It means the whitewood you are getting may be either of the three. And unless you ask or unless the store owner tells you what specific kind of whitewood you are getting, you’ll have to do further research yourself, if you need to get to the bottom of things. Otherwise, in general, you’ll be getting whitewood that do not differ much from each other. SYF stands for Fir. And SYP stands for Southern Yellow Pine.

Staining Whitewood: Natural Properties of Whitewood

Because of its color, whitewood can take on any kind of color. You can keep its natural creamy off-white hue or stain it with something darker. Staining whitewood with a darker shade can give your project the appearance of more expensive hardwood. However, staining whitewood with a darker shade can also pose some difficulty. This is because of some of whitewood’s properties.

Light Color

Whitewood’s light color makes it easy to stain. Unlike other kinds of wood which are naturally dark, whitewood can be stained without too much trouble. It can take on a light shade or something a bit darker.

Open Fibers

Whitewood is not a dense kind of wood. It is light. And open. It absorbs paints and stains pretty well and can penetrate into the wood fibers deeply. This allows the interior part of the wood to be preserved better. It also gives the product a better finish by allowing more layers of paint to be applied to it.


One of the exquisite features of whitewood is the presence of knots. Knots form some kind of an eddy along the grain of the wood. It is an attractive feature because the design interrupts the design and color of the grain. Also, because knots are nature’s creation. However, knots are darker because they are denser.

When staining whitewood, you need to take into account some of these properties. Because they can work to both your advantage and disadvantage. Each of these properties of whitewood can contribute to your project looking great. Or it can contribute to some of your troubles.

Staining Whitewood: Steps to Apply

1. Sanding

Before you apply stain on whitewood, you need to decide how you will sand it. If you want a more natural, rustic finish on the surface of your project, eg. coffee box or cupboard, you can sand it using grit that is not too fine. A 180 grit will leave some unevenness on the surface of your boards. It won’t be a very smooth and silky feel. But after you’ve applied the stains and varnish, you’ll be happy with its homey, countryside look. A 320 grit will give you a cleaner surface. And sanding your work with a 400 grit after several layers of paint or stain will give you a smoother layer to apply the final layer.

2. Conditioning

You have the option of applying a wood conditioner to whitewood. This is done to control the amount of stain or paint that the wood will soak up. Because whitewood has loose fibers, it readily absorbs stains and paint. And in order to minimize the cost of too much paint, you can apply a wood conditioner before applying your wood stain. The wood conditioner will reduce the amount of stain the whitewood fibers will soak up and give it a smoother surface to apply the stain on.

3. Sealing

Applying a sanding sealer can also work on reducing the amount of stain the whitewood fibers can absorb. Shellac will also do the job. You’ll need to apply at least two coats. But you need to dry each coat of sealer or shellac before applying the next coat. After this step, you can apply as many layers of stain or paint until you get the desired look you are aiming for.

4. Staining

Staining whitewood with a dark shade can prove to be a challenge because your stain could blotch. Because of the open fiber structure of whitewood, it can absorb stain on different areas quite differently. And this results in one area soaking up more stain and will appear darker than another area. This is a challenge if you are using a dark stain, that is, to get an even stain. With light shade or natural stain, it doesn’t pose much of a problem.

Try out the stain on a piece of scrap wood before applying it on the article you are working on. This will help you decide how many coats of stain to apply to achieve the shade (lighter or darker) you desire.

However, best results can be achieved by spraying instead of rubbing with a cloth or brushing. This is because spraying lays a very light layer of stain on the surface of the wood. There is not too much hand pressure as compared to rubbing the stain with a cloth ball or applying stain with a brush. The pressure of the stain being applied to the wood contributes to the amount of stain the wood absorbs. So, if you’ll be rubbing or brushing the stain, make sure you do it smoothly with light even strokes, to prevent too much blotching. And always make sure to wipe off any excess stain with a clean rug.

5. Finishing

If you choose some kind of wood stain to change the color of your whitewood into something darker, it would be good to finish it off with a coat of shellac or varnish. You can choose a matte finish to make your product look rustic and countryside, or a glossy finish for a brighter and shinier look. But varnish doesn’t only affect the appearance of wood, it also acts a protection from outside elements which could cause damage or rot to your article.

But if you decide to paint your whitewood article, then several layers of paint, up to 6 or 7 layers, will do the job. Sand it with a 400 grit sandpaper before applying the finishing touches. Many layers of paint will give your finished article the brightness and glow and will also protect it from wear and tear, and possible damage due to exposure.

Working with Whitewood

Because the supply of whitewood is abundant, it is not expensive. Therefore, working with whitewood is an inexpensive way to make attractive pieces of woodwork. Likewise, because whitewood is classified as softwood, working with whitewood is relatively easy. It is easy to saw, easy to chisel, and easy to sand; compared to hardwood. It doesn’t take too much toll on your tools and on yourself.

Some Challenges

However, some of the properties (which are also good features) of whitewood makes it vulnerable to damage.

Open Fiber

The open fiber structure of whitewood which allows it to absorb stain and paint, also allows it to absorb wetness or water. This is one reason why whitewood articles are best kept indoors. While paint and varnish can protect the wood from getting wet or getting soaked with water, constant exposure outdoors also weakens it. This could eventually lead to early rotting.


Knots add beauty to whatever article you see it on. However, knots can also pose a challenge to the woodworker. Because knots are denser and are harder, they are more difficult to smooth with a plane or chisel. Knots can also cause cracks in the wood grain because of their structure. They are denser and don’t go along with the grain. Also, they absorb stain differently than the grain and may bleed out, causing unevenness in color.

Overcoming the Challenges

Staining whitewood not only brings out the beauty of its natural grain but adds a dimension of life to it by giving it color. Whatever type of whitewood you would buy and would work on, the result will not differ much. Because there is natural beauty in whitewood. And the challenges in working with whitewood are easily overcome by careful thought, preparation, and some research.