Staining Alder for a Rustic Look

Finishers offer tips and tricks for dealing with Alder's busy grain, knots, and tendency to blot. September 16, 2008

I've been contracted to build a custom kitchen with knotty alder. This is my first attempt with this species and I plan to use an oil base stain and then topcoat with oil base wiping urethane. How well does alder stain? Should I condition/pre-stain to bring an even color? Any thoughts are appreciated since this wood is not native to the East coast.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor K:
You better try some samples. It may blotch.

From contributor I:
You'll need to pre-condition to prevent blotching.

From contributor J:
It depends on how rustic of a look your customer is going for. I just did a job in knotty alder with no wash coat or conditioner, but again it was a very rustic look. If you need even color, then condition.

From contributor C:
Just did an alder job. I used gel stain with good results. I used a piece of lamb's wool to apply the stain, as you have to rub it in.

From contributor L:
I have switched to metal dyes. They are good with knotty alder. The pre-stain always helps, but is not necessary. The last job I did with alder was with Mohawk dyes (sprayed), no pre-stain, water based clear coat.

From contributor I:
We use water based spray-only stains and if the stain is dark, we use a toner first. You can't beat the look.

From contributor A:
I use a lot of alder since it's very cheap out here. Conditioner has never worked well for me. I find it changes the color altogether. To get a sort of even color I sand to at least 220. Don't let the oil stain penetrate too long, and then some toning works well. But alder has a busy grain, plus all the knots... It's not going to look like oak.

From contributor R:
I used the following method using ML Campbell's products. All were sprayed. The alder wood was a combination of plywood and solid stock. The work was done on site. Area was 12 feet long by 9 feet tall, all raised panels and a separate built in hutch. Plenty of knots. I sanded to 150 grit.

First coat: Clear Woodsong Stain (medium solids). Let dry for at least 30 minutes. Do not saturate. Use .08 or 1.0 nozzle.

Second coat: MLC Microton Yellow. Used same nozzle as above. Let dry for at least 15 minutes.

Third coat: MLC Woodsong Stain. Used Country Pine 10 percent solids. Let dry for 45 minutes. You must wipe the stain as you go along, as it is not their Amazing Spray Stain, or it will run on you!

My first sealer coat was MLC's Water White Vinyl Sealer since I was going for a glazed look. Next was MLC's Woodsong II Glaze called Mushroom (custom mix by the distributor) which is like Van Dyke Brown, but not as black. Next was another coat of vinyl sealer followed by two coats of Magnamax satin. Sealer and finish coats were shot with a Kremlin 10-14.

I am not crazy about alder. In my opinion, it's a poor man's cherry and is softer than cherry. The client wanted a somewhat rustic/distressed look and that is what I provided.

From the original questioner:
These folks want a rustic look with ample amount of distressing, scratches, imitation wormholes, and the like, so a little blotchiness might be acceptable. I will definitely experiment with the conditioner and stains.

From contributor B:
I've done a couple of knotty alder jobs (and lots and lots of alder jobs - it's real big here in Socal). One distressed/glazed, the other just stained. You won't need conditioner if they're using the knotty alder, then they're looking for a rustic look. I've used both Lockwood wb dyes and General Finish wb dyes and stains, and both worked great.

From contributor M:
A fourteen step process to handle a problem may be worse than the problem itself. If your customer doesn't want the rustic element of uneven staining in their alder, you can simply stain it with your oil stain and wipe off. Then take a cheap spray gun (I actually spray stain on even when wiping it off, so I already have a gun in hand) and spray more of the same spray over the surface to tone out the light spots. Do not wipe this toner off and let it air dry for 24 hours. Then just spray your clear coats on and finish the job with the usual steps.

From contributor P:
I agree with contributor M. I've done quite a few distressed kitchens in alder and use a similar technique. Use a gun to spray stain even when wiping, seal coat, then glaze to finish the look.

If you preassemble the kitchen before shipment, you can decide if a piece or two needs special attention. These rustic, distressed looks are fun projects. The way they seem to just come together color wise is a neat thing to see, and our high end customers ordering them are almost always more than happy with the results. Just keep it simple.

From the original questioner:

I showed my client a sample door in Ponderosa pine from a previous job, stained blotchy and heavily distressed. They love the blotchy look, thinking that it adds to the rustic look just as you said! I will work up samples in the knotty alder. What effect or benefit is glazing on the last step?

From contributor T:
Glazing will deepen the color and, to an extent, hide the blotch. It also adds quite a nice rustic accent to the stain, but I prefer a very dark glaze over a darker stain. That said, glazing is tedious work and I would not touch it unless the customer is paying for a specialty finish. If they like the blotchy look, then all I'm going to do is sand the wood to 150 or 180, stain, wipe, 2-3 coats of finish and done.

From contributor H:
We do a lot of alder. Old Masters stain control works wonders (let it dry good). You will have to use a dark stain, though, because it blocks a lot of color.