How To Turn New Wood Into Antique Beams

Completed mantel, ready for installation.

If you are looking for a way to work out your frustrations, boy do I have a job for you. It also helps if you are looking for a backache and blisters as a bonus. This job involves the simplest of tools and the weakest of minds. It’s simple. Take some wood and whack away at it. Then whack some more. Then a little more. That’s all there is to it (at least to the first part).

The fun part for me starts after the grunt work is done. That’s when I get to stop complaining about the backache and blisters and let my softer, more artsy side come out. I get to play with my paint brushes and spray gun and try to make my recent work look like it has been there for a long, long time.

I may not enjoy it as much as the finishing, but the work that leads up to the finishing is really just as important. I usually start with White Pine because it is easy to work, takes a nice dent, and if the log isn’t new, it can have a lot of character. From a lumber processing standpoint, I like that it is easy to mill, the boards stay flat, and it is quick to dry. I also use White Pine because I can get long logs and the wood is lightweight, which is good for big beams that need to be installed inside without a crane. In instances where I can use a hollow beam it is especially lightweight.

For the job that I specifically reference for this post, I used solid wood for the mantelpiece and made up hollow beams to be applied on the bottom side of an already-finished vaulted ceiling. The solid wood looks slightly more authentic because it benefits from deep cracks that occur during drying. After all the pieces are done, the cracks, or lack of them, are the only way to differentiate between the hollow and solid pieces.

The mantel beam prior to staining.

The mantel beam prior to staining.

The hollow beams (U-shaped) are made with three boards joined at the corner with miter-lock joints.

The hollow beams (U-shaped) are made with three boards joined at the corner with miter-lock joints.

The first step in making new wood look old is adding texture to the surface. From tool marks, to bug holes and cracks, old wood has texture. The more texture that you add, the more authentic the piece will look. It is easy to identify a piece that is not legitimately old because it doesn’t have enough texture. We have all seen cabinets that are distressed by adding a couple of bug holes and a few dents and then sent on their merry way. They might have the right overall feel, but no one will believe that they are old. In this case, don’t hold back and don’t get lazy.

For this project the surface was finished with an adze, but I often hand plane or use rough cut lumber with band saw or circular saw marks. After the pieces were worked with my new-to-me antique adze (that I got for $27 on ebay), I sanded the surface until it was smooth overall, but still had pronounced tool marks. Bigger pieces like these are usually viewed from a distance. Don’t be afraid to make obvious tool marks. If using a hand plane, set it deeper and stop at the end of the cut to tear off the chip.

My antique adze from ebay.

My antique adze from ebay.

Hewing the beams takes time and patience. The grain is especially tricky around the knots.

Hewing the beams takes time and patience. The grain is especially tricky around the knots.

In old pieces of wood like these the corners are usually rounded, dented or busted of. My favorite tool to use for the corners is a drawknife. It quickly removes material and you can change the depth of cut by adjusting the angle of attack. Be sure to pay attention to the grain of the wood. If the drawknife wants to dig in turn around and work from the opposite direction. The same holds true for the adze, especially around knots, where the direction of attack can make the difference between producing a chip and removing a giant chunk.

The center beam has been hewn with an adze.

The center beam has been hewn with an adze.

After the hand tools, I like to hit the surface with a sander to make the surface look slightly worn instead of freshly cut. Sand more where a piece would have been worn from hundreds of years of use. Tabletops are worn where people sit, posts are worn where people grab them, and furniture bases are worn where people kick them. In this case, all of the work was up high except for the mantelpiece, which was the only one that would have any wear from use.

Once the surface is prepped, it is time to start the staining. A truly old piece of wood has many different colors, and if you try to stain a new piece of wood with just one coat of stain, it will look flat. Even subtle differences in the colors can add a lot to the final effect. I like to use several colors of dye stains, on the surface of the wood and added to my finish, to build up to my final color. In this case the final color was fairly dark, so I had a lot of room to work before things got too dark.

The first coat of stain was TransTint Dark Mission Brown mixed with a little water and applied with a brush to the dry wood. I worked the corners along the length of the beams to simulate the sapwood, which is naturally darker in the older pine. The extra effort on the corners also helps camouflage the seam on the hollow beams. The next coat was a very diluted mixture of Honey Amber and Medium Brown TransTint that I quickly sprayed with my hvlp gun to make the new pine color similar to antique pine. This is where the water-based stains shine. The lighter color and darker color bleed into each other and start to blend. If the color is too dark it can be lightened with more water, if it is too light just add more stain.

The edges of the hollow beams are stained dark to simulate the sapwood. This treatment also unifies the corners and makes the individual boards look like one beam.

The edges of the hollow beams are stained dark to simulate the sapwood. This treatment also unifies the corners and makes the individual boards look like one beam.

The second coat of stain darkens the wood and blends the dark spot stains.

The second coat of stain darkens the wood and blends the dark spot stains.

The next step was to seal the surface with two coats of tinted sanding sealer. For these coats, I added a little Medium Brown TransTint to the sanding sealer. This darkens the color overall, helping me sneak up on the final color. It also seals the surface for the next step.

The seal coats are also tinted to darken the color slowly and add depth.

The seal coats are also tinted to darken the color slowly and add depth.

After the sealer dried, I used a Walnut Minwax gel stain. The gel stain (glazing) over the sealer only slightly darkens the surface, but it will get into, and highlight, the cracks and crevices. This is a good spot to add even more contrast by varying the amount that you leave on the surface.

Glazing brings out the tool marks and irregularities in the surface.

Glazing brings out the tool marks and irregularities in the surface.

The gel stain officially takes a day to dry, but I spray lacquer over it almost immediately with no problems. This last coat can be clear if the color looks good already or TransTint can be added to darken it. In my case, all of the coats of lacquer, sealer and topcoats, were lightly tinted.

This entire process takes a little more effort than just applying one coat of stain, but I think the results are more than worthwhile, and now I can’t do it any other way. Once you see how authentic this process looks, especially in person, you won’t want to do it any other way either.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

25 responses to “How To Turn New Wood Into Antique Beams”

  1. Chris Perron says :


  2. Cindy Hansen says :

    Do yo have any suggestions for beams that are already installed?

    • wunderwoods says :

      Nothing easy. I have never worked on beams that were already installed. The only change I imagine could be reasonably made would be with the finish. With different stains, glazes and topcoats they could be made to look older. The shortfall is that any surface changes like a hand-hewn finish really can’t be done on the ceiling.

  3. Bruce says :

    Scott, Thank you for taking the time to create this post, this is a great tutorial and exactly what I have been looking for! Bruce

  4. Wendy says :

    Is the sanding sealer sprayed on? Thank you

  5. Doug Houser says :

    Where do you get the Trans Tint products? Thanks so much for these posts. I enjoy all of them.

  6. Elise says :

    Thank you for your advice, it’s been invaluable. We’re restoring the 140 year old pine beams in our vaulted ceiling, which were painted with a thick dark reddish stain. Now stripped back they have texture and colour variations galore but are disturbingly bright orange. Can you recommend something to tone it down please? We’re aiming for a medium oak finish leaving the grain and darker aged marks visible. Many thanks

    • wunderwoods says :

      Whenever I am working on matching colors I keep around different colors of TransTint stains. I use them to push colors towards a color I want or to kill colors I don’t want. To kill the orange color, you will need to stain with a color that is opposite on the color wheel, in this case, blue/green. Once you kill the orange, then you can stain a darker brown, if necessary.

  7. emjbush says :

    this is amazing! I bought an adze and I have a few questions:
    1) how much do you recommend doing to the wood? The entire thing and all sides?

    2) what is the best way to sharpen the adze?

    • wunderwoods says :

      I use the adze on all visible surfaces.
      I sharpen the adze with a 12″ disc sander to remove big nicks and a sharpening stone or sandpaper spray adhesived to a wood block for fine sharpening.

  8. emjbush says :

    When you say topcoat, are you referring to laquer? And what color did you use to tint your topcoats?

    • wunderwoods says :

      Topcoat can be any clear coat used as the final finish (not stain or sealer). I often use lacquer, but it could also be polyurethane, varnish, shellac, etc. On these beams I did use lacquer. For tinting the topcoat, I use TransTint dye stains. They can be used with water, alcohol or lacquer thinner, but do not mix with oil-based products like mineral spirits.

      • emjbush says :

        I cannot thank you enough. First, for your amazing post that inspired me to try to create something similar. Second, your your help and guidance. Thanks!

  9. Jeremy says :

    How colorfast is the Transtint? Once topcoat is applied will sunbleaching become an issue with time?

    • wunderwoods says :

      It will fade like everything else with exposure to the sun, depending on how much it gets. I haven’t had any jobs where it was an issue. With that said, most of my work is in wine cellars and not in atrium situations to give it a good test. If it is in a window, expect fading. If it isn’t in a window, fading shouldn’t be a problem.

  10. emjbush says :

    Hopefully this is my last question lol. I cannot thank you enough for your help. My beams are constructed and fitted to the ceiling and I am now ready to stain them.

    Having never done anything like this before, I was wondering whether I need to wipe the stain off with a towel after each application? Or, do you stain and leave it alone? I don’t have a sprayer, so I’ll be painting it on.

    Finally, do you suggest I paint over the edges of dark mission brown with the medium brown and honey Amber? or do I keep the mission brown and honey Amber to the middle and let it bleed to the edges?


    • emjbush says :

      Fyi…We fitted them and will be taking them down to stain:)

    • wunderwoods says :

      The Transtint stains work like watercolors. Think of it as a watercolor painting (it wouldn’t hurt if you have painted with watercolors before). I paint the dark edges, let them dry a bit, and then start to do the lighter colors. The dark and light colors are going to overlap and start to mix. If you are getting hard lines where the colors change then it dried a little too long. If the colors completely mix and the color change is hard to see then everything is too wet. The good news is there is no right or wrong way to do it. Just work with your colors leaning towards the lighter end of the spectrum. You can always add more color, but it is harder to remove it.
      When I work on the beams, I do them all a little bit different to make them look more natural. I usually have out a bucket of water, different-sized brushes, rags, hairdryers and sometimes even paint. Usually the shop get very messy because I am not scared to let the stain and paint fly. I remember one day we were making new wood look like old barn boards and we were throwing around white paint to look like bird poop, and even using some greens to look like mold or moss.
      The secret for me is to not be scared. If you only do one thing it will look fake. If you do two things it will look less fake, and so on, until it looks like something real. Worst case scenario, you will have to do some sanding to undo the work you don’t like. Just try to do less of that.

  11. emjbush says :

    Reblogged this on ourhousenow and commented:
    Love this!

  12. Kyle says :

    Those look very good. I’m in the process of making some beams out of cedar. When you say that use sanded. What grit sand paper do you use. I’ve used a wire wheel and some 220 grit. Does that make it to smooth for the way you did that mantle?

    • wunderwoods says :

      On raw wood, in my shop nothing but 150 for finish sanding. I might use a more coarse grit when shaping a piece, but 150 other than that. 320 between finish coats. A wire wheel will make a pattern in the wood that you may or may not want. It isn’t for finishing the wood.

  13. Mindy says :

    hi, can you please tell me what sanding sealer you used and do you know if old masters (oil based) sanding sealer can be tinted with oil stain? Thanks

    • wunderwoods says :

      I use ML Campbell products, and I use their lacquer sanding sealer. Oil-based sanding sealer should be able to be tinted with oil-based stain. I use the lacquer sanding sealer because it dries quickly.

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