Our house will be built of unmilled timbers, which we selected from our woods (see  my post How to Peel Trees).  Most of them have been peeled and are starting to dry before they will be felled this winter.  Some are too tall to peel until they are felled.  It’s going to be an action-packed winter.

This black walnut is destined for the northeast corner of our house, and will fan across the bedroom wall.

I have been mulling how to finish these timbers. I spent a formative few years of my youth as bookkeeper in a Scandinavian furniture store and came to love the light finishes of every non-teak surface.  I’m also a sucker for the interiors I often see in dramas on BBC television, which have white-painted woodwork and deeply colored walls.  How would a timber frame structure look stained or painted white?

The timbers for our house have been chosen equally for their usefulness in the building process and to prune the woods, so they include pine, oak, black walnut, cherry, elm and others – each with its own subtle character, and it’s own response to white stain. Doug and I selected three small trees that were good culling candidates, peeled them a while ago, felled them last week and spent the weekend experimenting with a pickling white stain and a white paint.

Paint forms a thin film on top of wood and creates an entirely new appearace for the surface.  We started with a good primer, followed by white paint.   It hides those nicks and sanding blemishes to some extent.

Stains change the color of the surface while bringing out grain.  But grain is created by cutting across the ring patter of wood, and since our timbers are unmilled, they don’t really have grain.  They do have interesting color patterns that occurred when the surface molded after peeling and where a bit of the cambian is still attached.  More stain tones occur because the different woods have different porosity and natural color.  Stains penetrate into the fibers of wood, but the pigments – such as the white pigment in white stains – need something go grab onto.  They get caught in the irregularities of the wood surface, including nicks and sanding scratches and really highlight them.

For the sample pieces, we  tried out the angle grinder we recently inherited from Doug’s dad to smooth over spots where branches were chopped off.  The angle grinder, equipped with a tiny chainsaw blade is an intense tool, and will take some practice.

Then we scrubbed the timbers with soap and water to remove as much of the mold stain as possible.  (Freshly peeled trees make mold think it has died and gone to heaven.  Removing the bark exposes a moist, carb-rich  surface that reacts the same way those leftovers you forgot in the back of the fridge do.)

We had amazing weather last weekend for a paint/stain project.  It was very warm for early October – up into the 80s (F) with a constant breeze.  Both stain and paint dried in record time.  The man at the paint store told us to wipe on the stain and leave it for up to 5 minutes. In practice, we wiped it on and wiped it off again as fast as we could before it dried to a chalky film.

Black walnut with stain and paint

In the end, I stood there staring at the three sample timbers, walking around them, siting down them, leaning in close, striding away, carrying them in and out of the barn, and I’m quite perplexed.

If all the wood was walnut, I would call white stain the clear winner.  It gives the wood a quality of driftwood by moonlight – an ethereal homage to the tree.  The pine (which will make all the rafters) also looked good.


But the cherry pretty much dissed the stain.  Cherry must be much tighter, smoother grain and did not absorb much pigment into its surface.

The paint covered every tree type and erased their varying tonalities.  It abstracted the wood into something at once very beautiful like an alabaster statue of wood but also less approachable.

top to bottom: cherry, pine, black walnut


6 replies

  1. Yes, I’m leaning toward the stain myself. My architect/daughter hasn’t seen the samples yet, but her preference so far is for paint to pull all the various wood surfaces together, and also I think it’s kind of generation thing.
    I’m still mulling.

  2. Have you considered using a wood bleach, as opposed to a stain? They are not as easy to work with, but they might give you the finish you are after (as I sense you are not completely content with either finish).

    Also, you might want to just try using tung oil and see how they come up.

    • Thanks, Julian. I’m going to look into wood bleach. I’m not sure I want to add another step to the process, but I had not considered wood bleach as a way to get a brighter look. I really appreciate the idea. Have you had any experience in bleaching wood? How did it work for you?

    • Yes, there is something about a dappled coloration that is very natural and pleasing. I could have sat there and looked and the white-stained walnut for hours.

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