How to Make Plywood Look Like Oak: A Step-by-Step Guide

Finishing plywood is the most important stage in your plywood project. For more visible woodworking projects, like tables, cabinets, and wall panels, choosing a nice finish (suitable to the type of plywood you have) can make a long-lasting difference to your home décor. 

Plywood can easily be finished to look like oak when you choose the right grade. Higher grade (and therefore higher quality) plywood is simpler to finish evenly and smoothly. You can make it look like grained or smooth oak without significant work. Lower-grade plywood can be stained and finished to look like oak, but it requires slightly more effort. 

Keep reading to learn how to make plywood look like oak (depending on the type of plywood you have) in this step-by-step finishing guide. 

Can You Wood Stain Plywood?

Yes, you can wood-stain plywood in any color using any suitable product. Other ways to finish plywood include painting, oiling, waxing, varnishing, distressing, or using a combination of methods. When finishing plywood, it’s important to choose a finish that suits your project and the type of plywood. For example, plywood comes in grades A-D and needs to be treated differently to achieve your desired finish. 

Here’s an overview of the plywood grades and how each type can/needs to be finished. 

GradeAppearanceBest Finishes
ASmooth, evenly sanded finish with almost no knots or imperfectionsCan be painted, sanded, varnished, stained, or oiled, without the need for filling
BMay have small tight knots, no larger than 1 inch in sizeCan be painted, sanded, varnished, stained, or oiled, with minor filling needed
CSome splits, discoloration, and tight knots up to 1.5 inches and knotholes around 1 inch in sizeCan be painted, sanded, varnished, stained, or oiled, with filling needed
DSome splits, knots, and knotholes between 2-2.5 inches in sizeCan be painted, sanded, varnished, stained, or oiled, with major filling needed to achieve a smooth finish

Can You Make Plywood Look Like Oak?

Yes, you can make plywood look like oak with the right finish. Plywood projects, like cabinets, tables, and shelving, can be finished in different ways to create a smooth, pleasant, and professional-looking surface. To make plywood look like oak, you’ll need to sand the piece evenly with a wire brush to raise the grain, and then apply a suitable wood stain or oil. 

What is the Best Finish For Plywood?

Choosing the best finish for plywood depends on the appearance of the wood after construction. Finished products with defects to the veneer, like splits, knots, holes, and dents will be trickier to finish.

The best sealing finishes for plywood are polyurethane, shellac, or varnish. To make plywood look like oak, it’s best to use stain in a natural, satin, white, or grey oak color. Applying several coats will make the wood appear darker and more like a rich oak.

You can also use oil to make plywood look nice. This penetrates the wood, lifts the grain, and gives it a more natural oak finish. Tung oil, Danish oil, or boiled linseed oil are the best oils for plywood.

How to Make Plywood Look Like Oak: A 6-Step Guide

Stain is best applied once your construction project has finished, rather than before assembly. This ensures any imperfections created during building can be smoothed out, leaving you with a clean, even, and aesthetically pleasing finish.

What You’ll Need:

  • Wood putty
  • Sandpaper (180-grit and 220-grit)
  • Drill with a wire brush attachment
  • Vacuum, brush, or cloth
  • Lint-free cloth
  • Paintbrush
  • Wood stain in your chosen color
  1. Fill Imperfections

Inspect your finished plywood project for any imperfections and fill any gaps, cracks, knotholes, or dents with wood putty. If you’ve used grade A plywood, you may not need to fill in any patches.

Use stainable wood putty to ensure you can’t see the fillings after finishing. Make sure you overfill dents, as wood putty shrinks after setting. Leave for 2-8 hours, or as recommended by the manufacturer. Once dry, sand lightly with 180-grit sandpaper. Repeat this process as needed.

If you’re not using stainable wood putty, fill imperfections after staining once. Otherwise, the wood putty can appear darker. If you’re unsure what’s best for your project, patch-test the putty and stain on a scrap piece of plywood to decide which you prefer.

  1. Rough Up the Surface to Raise the Grain

To make plywood look like oak, you want to create a grain effect. You can purchase grained plywood or you can create a grain yourself. If your plywood doesn’t have a visible or even grain, use a drill with a wire brush to gently sand the surface and raise the grain from the veneer. Follow the direction of the wood grain to achieve the best results.

  1. Sand Lightly

Even though you want a light grain, you still want your surface to be smooth to the touch. Use 180-grit sandpaper and lightly sand the surface by hand. This will smooth the surface and remove any loose pieces of wood. Be careful not to sand too aggressively as it can damage the top layer of veneer or remove the grain.

  1. Wipe Clean

Vacuum or brush away the dust. Then, using a clean cloth dampened with water or mineral spirits, wipe the surface clean so no wood shavings remain. 

  1. Apply the Wood Stain

Use a paintbrush and evenly apply the wood stain in the direction of the grain. Only apply a light amount of stain with each brush to avoid an uneven finish. If too much stain has been applied, use a lint-free cloth to remove it. Don’t let blots of stain remain on the surface for too long, as it will appear significantly darker than the rest of the wood once dry.

  1. Sand Lightly Again

Let your wood stain dry overnight before inspecting. If applied evenly, you shouldn’t need to sand it again. However, if you find bubbles or imperfections, sand them away with 220-grit sandpaper. Clean with a dampened cloth. If you want to darken the stain even further to look like oak, repeat the previous step until you’ve reached your desired color. 

Closing Summary: Things to Remember

Staining to make plywood look like oak is relatively simple, especially when you choose the right grade and type of plywood before starting your construction project. Remember, the most important things to do before finishing plywood are:

  • Plan which wood stain you’ll use in advance – Knowing how you want to finish your plywood and what product you’ll be using will help you construct the woodwork suitably 
  • Choose the right grade of plywood before beginning – Higher quality plywood (grades A-B) will be easier to finish than others
  • Consider what style you prefer before fixing imperfections – Some wood putty will appear darker when applied before initially staining the piece, so test a scrap first to ensure you like the coloration

Apply more coats to achieve a darker result – The more wood stain you apply, the darker your finished woodworking project will be

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