Q: I bought a handsome bookcase made of white pine. It is well-made, but the wood is pale and unfinished. I'd like to make it resemble cherry wood to match some of my other furniture. Is that possible? — Sam
A: You can stain the pine to look like cherry, but you need to do some preliminary work to get good results. White pine is one of the least expensive and easily worked woods but can be beautiful if finished properly. Do all the finishing outdoors if possible; you'll create some dust and the materials have strong odors. Wear rubber or plastic gloves and eye protection when using solvents. Read the directions for all materials, of course. First, you want the wood to be very smooth.
If it is not well-sanded, go over the entire surface with sandpaper until it feels like satin to the fingertips. You can start with 100-grit sandpaper, on a hand-sanding block or a powered finished sander, then go to 150 grit. Pay special attention to any visible end grain (ends of boards). End grain should be perfectly smooth.
When you are satisfied with the smoothness, coat the entire surface with a pre-stain conditioner such as Minwax makes. The conditioner is simply a thin sealer that helps the stain to penetrate evenly.
Next, use either an oil-based, liquid wiping stain or a gel stain to give the wood a cherry color. In either case, you need a supply of soft, clean rags. I like liquid stains, which go on quickly and easily and penetrate well to bring out the wood grain, but some wood finishers prefer gels.
If you use a liquid, stir it and pour some in a pan for easy access. Complete one small section of the piece before moving to another. Moisten a clean rag with stain and wipe it on the wood, let it penetrate and wipe off excess before it dries. If you get splotches or uneven areas, wipe them smooth with another rag moistened with wood conditioner or mineral spirits. Staining will color the wood, but probably won't give you as much gloss as you want.
You also should apply a topcoat to protect the piece. A very easy choice to add gloss is a wiping varnish, which is simply wiped on after the stain dries thoroughly. Wiping varnish usually takes at least three coats to give good protection. There are other choices, such as brushed-on polyurethane. Another favorite of mine is Deft, a brushing lacquer that is easy to apply and dries quickly. Sand lightly between coats of the final finish, using extra-fine sandpaper (220-grit or finer).
Before applying a new coat, wipe off sanding dust with a sticky tack rag, sold at paint stores, or use a vacuum cleaner.