Unfinished Maple Bookcases: Paint v. Stain . . . ???

sailormassDecember 2, 2012

Hi, folks--

I have purchased some new, unfinished maple bookcases with beautiful molding that grouped together look like a nice built-in unit. The quality of the maple is excellent: it is cabinet-top-end-furniture grade with hardly any knots and very fine, light grain. They have been completely sanded.

My first instinct and desire, since I would like these to look built-in, would be to prime and paint them white. The guru at my local paint store, who thus far has never steered me wrong, told me I could paint them if I wanted--he advised that, since they have been "finish" sanded, to lightly sand them with 500 or 600 paper, use an oil-based white primer and them a 100 percent acrylic paint--he said that all the priming and staining could be applied with good foam rollers (not sure if the primer should be, since it's oil). That appeals to me because I'll be doing this mostly by myself. He thought that, if used with care and patience, the foam rollers could produce almost as good a result as spraying.

Another friend of mine, who used to restore furniture, advised against painting. He said it was extremely difficult even for the best professional to get a good white paint finish on unfinished furniture. He advised the same sanding (500 to 600) but strongly suggested I use lacquer or a stain with a polyurethane coat over it, as long as I was happy with the look of the "bare" maple or a stained maple.

Which advice should I follow?

Last questions:

Sand first even though they've been "finish" sanded?

If staining, should I prime before the first coat, then apply the stain, then sand, then apply a coat of polyurethane? I've had one person advise using a sealer between the stain and poly.

How many coats of stain and poly?

Thank you so much for your help!


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If you want to do it yourself, the paint store guru gave you good advice, however I would look at good quality rollers, and paint brushes rather than the foam ones.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 3:00PM
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Thanks! Would you suggest, say, Purdy rollers and brushes and, also, would you recommend an oil semi-gloss over the acrylic? Thanks!

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 3:25PM
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Purdy makes a good brush, and rollers.

The only issue with the oil semi-gloss over acrylic is that it will yellow in time, take longer to dry, but the oil base is a harder finish.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 10:06PM
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If you want the look of a sprayed catalyzed white finish (think Ikea) then you may not be happy with a hand-painted result. You will almost certainly have imperfections in the surface. That said, with a little care it will look quite good.

500-600 grit sanding is vast overkill for either paint or stain on wood, you can't get that kind of resolution on wood, it has more structure than that. Those grits are only useful on metal or for polishing out very high gloss finishes. 220 or 320 max is plenty. If you are using a waterborne finish (and even if you're not) as a last step I'd go over the surface with a damp sponge, let it dry, and then lightly final sand with the same grit. Wetting the wood will also show up any sanding scratches or areas that need additional attention. Sanding compresses the wood fibers, when you dampen the wood it will "fuzz up" and then you can knock the fuzz off with a light sanding, producing a very high quality surface.

I've used the Ben Moore enamel undercoater and impervo enamel to good effect, I'm a throwback so paint with a high quality bristle brush, but a roller would probably be easier, especially on large flat surfaces.

If you like the look of the bare maple then poly produces a durable finish. Use oil-based for an easier application but some yellowing over time, water-based for a completely clear finish.

Seems a shame to get a high quality real wood product then paint it, but that's just me.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 1:37PM
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Thank you all for excellent advice. I have a few extra shelves to experiment with, so I'll try painting v. staining, etc., and see what looks best.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 11:04PM
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Just out of curiosity, why aren't you staining such gorgeous-sounding wood?

You could try a stain and if you didn't like it, still paint.
It sounds beautiful with an enviable finish.

I'm new and still learning, but I know with my nice woods, I'm staining first. If I don't like it, the pieces are going to be painted. I've already started and some are turning out beautifully.

I can also tell you I'm not using the stain and poly combined, because you can't add stain if you want a darker or different hue.

Just a thought.

    Bookmark   December 11, 2012 at 11:04AM
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