Staining Poplar Raised Panel Doors

Advice on staining poplar raised-panel doors. November 14, 2009

I'm building about 30 interior doors for my own home. I've got all parts ready to assemble except for the panels. The doors are typically 2/8 x 6/8 four panel doors at 1 3/8" thick with 1 1/8" thick double sided raised panels. I've held off on the panels because I'm waiting to decide if I'm going to paint or stain the doors. If painted I'll make MDF panels; if stained I'll make them out of poplar. I've gone ahead and completed one of the doors with poplar panels to see if I want to stain them. I have successfully stained and finished poplar in the past with oil stain and varnish, but am curious as to what procedures other may have used with good results.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor X:
I would use a pre-stain conditioner prior to staining. I would also use a thicker stain (not a dye based stain),to get a more even color. I would also use a good sanding sealer prior to top coating.

From contributor L:
I use a fairly drawn out, lengthy finish schedule on poplar. It provides excellent results. Depending on what you are looking for color wise it can look like a very good mahogany color. The lighter you want to go the more the poplar will cause problems.

From contributor R:
I might be tempted to go about finishing the doors a bit differently than contributor X is suggesting. In the "old" days many types of furniture were made from poplar and finished to look like mahogany or walnut or what have you. Since poplar can be a few different colors to begin with, I might suggest using a dye stain first and then following it up with an oil stain. I would apply the oil stain over the unsealed dye stain. Make sure to do a fine job of sanding the raw wood as this will make for a much cleaner looking finish. Personally, poplar would not be my first choice of woods since itís kind of soft. Even for a paint finish I think itís too soft. If you go the route of a dye stain followed up by an oil stain you might have a bit of toning to do in order to achieve the color youíre after.

From contributor F:
I think poplar is a beautiful wood stained. I do agree with the darker v. lighter idea. I haven't caught on to the wb idea yet, but I do stain a lot of poplar with oil. I typically sand to 150 grit. Any dark or "green" areas I will scuff with a quick pass of 220 grit paper to seal the grain, which absorbs less stain, and I'll open the grain with a scuffing of 120 on the sapwood. While applying the stain, if an extremely light area surfaces I'll rub it in with an 80 grit, and finish sand after drying. I then topcoat and very seldom have had to add toners. Did I mention I complicate everything I put my hands on?

From contributor M:
You didn't mention whether you'll be spraying or brushing your finish on. Most of the time it's assumed here you'll be spraying. If not, try this:

1. Washcoat - really dilute shellac or other finish, do a Knowledge Base search if youíre not familiar with making one. Ratios are very important for it to work properly.

2. Gel stain- I like Old Masters and Zar - nice even coverage (usually) and enough time to work. You need to work fast with doors though - one person applying and someone else right behind you wiping it off. Don't believe the old "let it soak in for 15 minutes deal.Ē

3. Topcoat. Lots of choices, but if you're not spraying try Zar's Ultra Max Poly (waterborne oil modified poly). I'm not very good with a brush but I still have had good results with this stuff. Just remember less is more - it's pretty forgiving, to a point. They even make a wipe on version which is same stuff just tweaked a bit to slow the dry time which is a good thing sometimes. It's got a hint of amber which is nice too for a warmer look.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
For the record, the above discussion is for yellow-poplar and not aspen poplar. In the northern US and Canada, poplar often means aspen.

From the original questioner:
Yes, Iím spraying on the top coats. I have the options of airless, pressure and HVLP although I use the HVLP more and more for these kinds of projects. Gene - by "northern" US you don't mean New England do you?

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Yellow poplar grows in the eastern U.S. from FL to MA to IL to LA. It is important to make sure that it is not confused with aspen poplar which is a northern species that is light weight and is not at all related. Aspen has finishing problems do to abundant tension wood and also due to permeability issues.

From contributor M:
We have used Aniline dyes with great success on poplar, aspen, or whatever you want to call it. The dyes get right down into the grain of the wood and give you a very bright finish. You have to wipe down the wood with water first to raise the grain, sand it, and then apply the dye. I have a headboard for our bed that I made using dyes and that was 15 years ago. We used a lot of bright colors, and the yellow, green and red are as bright as ever. The dark blue and almost purple we used have faded a little. We used a water based varathane to top coat, but I am not sure they have UV inhibitors. You should get some dyes and play around with them. We like them and they are easy to apply.

From the original questioner:
To contributor M: it does seem like a lot of doors now that you mention it - not a McMansion by any means though, just a 2500 square foot cape that I built for use as my shop about 15 years ago. It's out behind the house on our property. I built it as a "house" with no interior walls. It was a great shop building until I moved the business into a historic former schoolhouse commercial building I restored and then rented out for a while. Now we're converting the old shop into a house. There are three bedrooms, a bath and large closet upstairs and five rooms downstairs. Lots of closets on the first floor account for a lot of the doors.

From contributor N:
I recommend Campbell's Amazing Stain. It is a very low solids spray only stain that can be used under/over/or even in your sealer (up to 5%) to achieve different color varieties and depths. The benefit of using the Amazing Stain is the fact that the majority of the color stays on top of the substrate, while the stain base allows for a little bit of stain penetration, which in turn gives you grain definition. It can be tinted to any color, and if you choose to glaze your doors as well, they have a spray only glaze that dries in an instant, and can get some really nice smoked looks, faded warm antique looks, or dial it in the details for a crisp bold look.