“What kind of wood is this?” In my work as a furniture restorer and conservator, I often hear this question. Red alder is especially hard to identify because it can be finished to closely resemble many other more expensive hardwoods. (It’s often referred to as “poor man’s cherry.”) This “chameleon” characteristic is one reason red alder is frequently used for factory-made furniture. That it’s stable, light in weight, uniform in color, machines cleanly, glues well and costs less than most other hardwoods are the other reasons.
Red alder is the most abundant hardwood timber in the Pacific Northwest. The lumber is widely available and typically sold in two grades, rustic (or knotty), and clear (or superior). Except for its slightly darker color, red alder resembles white birch in appearance (Photo 1). It turns to a more golden tone over time (Photo 2). Red alder has straight grain structure and its surface is evenly textured (two reasons it machines well). And unlike many other hardwoods, there’s virtually no difference in color between its sapwood and heartwood.
One of my favorite working properties is how easily red alder sands. This makes it especially easy to eliminate any minor imperfections that occur during construction. Sanding with 120 grit removes machine marks surprisingly quickly; 150 grit is perfect for final sanding before finishing.
My small, underpowered tablesaw and bandsaw cut 1″ red alder with ease. I don’t notice significant tearout when I run it through the planer or fuzziness when I rout it. However, as red alder is only moderately dense, similar to poplar and only two-thirds as dense as cherry, it’s relatively easy to dent. And too much clamping pressure when gluing up a panel can actually bend the boards. I’ve also learned to drill pilot holes and turn the screws carefully when installing them, so as not to strip the holes.
A Great Imposter
Surprisingly, even though red alder has many positive attributes and is very nice to work with, woodworkers seem to overlook it. Perhaps red alder is underappreciated because of its non-descript, medium texture, indistinct figure and neutral light color. However, it is exactly these properties that make it possible to use red alder to imitate a wide variety of woods. With very little work, red alder can look a lot like natural cherry, dark walnut, or deep red mahogany. Even clear finishes allow you to alter its appearance (Photo 3).
In a nutshell, red alder is great for finishing. It readily accepts all kinds of stains, so its light color can be altered to match just about any wood tone. More importantly, red alder’s middle-of-the-road grain pattern can be minimized or exaggerated by the type of stain or the way it’s applied.
Liquid pigment stains, for example, create coarse, grainy blotching on a small scale, because the pigments lodge in tiny crevices that cover every surface (Photo 4). These stains can also cause large scale blotching, because red alder’s surface is not uniformly porous, so the stain soaks in unevenly.
A gel stain limits both types of blotching, but leaves enough to result in a slightly muddy appearance (Photo 5). Gel stain applied immediately after an application of clear gel (used as a stain controller), reduces both types of blotching even further (Photo 6). This adds a step to the process, but the result shows the wood’s figure more clearly and is more lustrous than applying gel stain alone.
Water-based dyes work extremely well to provide intense rich dark color with very little blotching, so no stain controller is needed (Photo 7). Dyes work best when the goal is to minimize the wood’s figure and grain in order to show a texture so uniformly smooth that it can actually shimmer. Water-based dyes also work very well to create lighter tones on red alder, with luster and shimmer that resembles the look of maple or birch.
Combining water-based dye with gelled pigment stain and clear gel as stain controller adds richness and depth that can make red alder look like an expensive hardwood (Photo 8). In this process the dye is applied first, followed by the clear gel as a stain controller and then the gel stain.
Knowing how different stains and different processes create different effects is the secret to making red alder look like other woods. I’ve included recipes to give red alder four different looks (Photos 9-16). Hopefully, knowing how easy it is to create these looks will convince you to give red alder a try.