How to make white painted wood look like real wood

Updated March 23, 2017

If you live in a tract house, the contractor probably painted all the woodwork white before anyone ever lived there. The wood is probably pine or maybe a composite material and not worth the trouble of stripping. But with a little effort, you can make it look like more expensive wood by using a faux wood-graining technique.

Prepare the surface. This is crucial in any faux painting project, so don't rush. Wash the surface with a good household cleaner or trisodium phosphate solution and let it dry. Look for chips and peeling paint. Sand them off and fill with wood putty. Let the putty cure according to the manufacturer's instructions. Then sand it. A rough surface will be hard to work with and may make your wood grain look odd.

Choose the wood colour. Old oak? New oak? Mahogany? Visit a home improvement store and look at cabinetry to make a choice you know you will like.

Buy paint and gel stain. You will need more paint than gel stain. Unlike paint, gel stain is sold in oz, not gallons. Read the label or ask a staff member who knows the product to find out how many square feet a particular brand of gel stain covers. The gel stain will be darker than the paint colour and when dry should approximate the dominant wood colour you want.

Have a store staff member help you choose if you're unsure which shade to buy. If you're in a big-box home improvement store, you can take the clerk to the cabinetry department and point at the colour you want.

The paint colour should approximate the background tones you see in the wood cabinetry, often a shade of orange or mustard yellow. You can use acrylic or oil paint.

Apply the paint to your clean, smooth surface. Let it dry to ensure that it doesn't lift off when you use the wood-grain tool. Read the label to find out the recommended drying time for your paint.

Brush on the gel stain, then use the wood-grain tool to transform the gel stain into a faux wood grain. Wood-grain tools are rounded and work by rolling them slowly as you pull them toward yourself. They also have a toothed edge that you can drag to create a stretch of finer lines. Read the instructions and practice.

Work in manageable sections and take your time, always pulling the tool along the natural grain of the wood. You may want to tape off sections that go in different directions. For example, a door is built in sections, with some pieces running horizontally and some running vertically.

Allow the stain to dry completely, which will take at least 24 hours.

Paint on three coats of a clear satin topcoat. Allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next.


Try the entire process on a sample piece of wood of the same kind that you have in your house, or practice on the back of a door. The worst that will happen? You'll repaint it white. For a richer look, use a lighter gel coat to dry-brush the entire painted surface, going with the grain in long, continuing strokes. Then comb it with the toothed edge of the wood-grain tool, let it dry, apply the darker gel stain and wood-grain it.

Things You'll Need

  • Paint and brush
  • Gel stain
  • Wood-grain tool
  • Painter's tape
  • Household cleaner or trisodium phosphate
  • Wood putty
  • Satin topcoat
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About the Author

Cat Reynolds has written professionally since 1990. She has worked in academe (teaching and administration), real estate and has owned a private tutoring business. She is also a poet and recipient of the Discover/The Nation Award. Her work can be found in literary publications and on various blogs. Reynolds holds a Master of Arts in writing and literature from Purdue University.