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I'm trying to refurbish the posts and beams in my house. They're quite beat up in some spots and have water damage streaks in the existing finish(es) in others, so I've decided to strip the existing finishes and re-build them rather than just paint over. The beams are also solid timbers up to 40' in length, which I think is a unique feature of the house and shouldn't be covered with paint.

I've tried to refurbish a few beams already and, unfortunately, the results haven't met my standards. The unique challenges of this project are:

  1. The members must be refinished in place, with most surfaces vertical, and some surfaces upside-down (the underside of beams). I've concluded this means I can't use anything water-based as it will run too much, though I'm open-minded here.
  2. Douglas Fir is blotchy and has a high contrast grain pattern. This is a problem because the house is very modern and minimal and loud grain patterns clash.

Given the above, how can I achieve an even, semi-opaque, medium tone finish on large, vertical surfaces of douglas fir?

Ideally, the result looks something like these beams:

enter image description here
Image Source: Galerie Magazine

enter image description here
Image Source: Dwell.com

Existing Finishes:

Many of the posts look like this beam finish. This is actually pretty close to what I want the new finish to look like but with a higher sheen, and without the damage of 70 years!

And the beams look like this beam finish

Attempt #1 General Finishes Seal-A-Cell, Gel Stain, and Arm-R-Seal

My first attempt was to sand down the paint off the beams, sand to 180, and use Seal-A-Cell (de-waxed shellac) to seal the beam. Then I applied 1 coat of General Finishes gel stain (5pt Brown Mahogany 1pt Georgian Cherry). Then I applied 3 coats of semi-gloss Arm-R-Seal (poly). The results look like this in the best case good result stain and this in the worst case enter image description here. You can see that despite sealing the wood with shellac there was still considerable blotchiness, and even when the stain is "even", the grain pattern is extremely loud.

I'm probably going to sand down attempt #1 and try again either using many coats of dye-tinted shellac, or a paint cut with glaze or paint thinner. I'd love yall's perspectives and thoughts on this!

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    Bravo for taking this on yourself, this is quite a project. Two words: "gel stain". It might as well have been purpose-designed for your project requirements. Now I realise that is exactly what you did use (and with General Finishes, which is far and away not the worst choice) so I'm wondering what might have been done that your results weren't better. You didn't by any chance thin the "gel stain" mix did you, to make it go further or to be easier to apply?
    – Graphus
    Apr 16 at 7:03
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    I embedded your linked images since links tend to go dead in an internet minute. Very well done for your first post here, otherwise! And I'll second the congrats for taking this on. Graphus is definitely the go to finishing guy 'round here, so you'll get good info from him.
    – FreeMan
    Apr 16 at 15:54
  • @Graphus thanks! The bad beam pictured last we didn't cut the gel stain, for the others, which got better results we did cut with a little mineral spirits and it seemed to help. We struggled with how hard to wipe the gel stain off. In test pieces we found that if we really tried to scrub it off it was hard to get an even finish, so here we tried to get an even removal of the material, but I think that was a factor that contributed to the beams being so dark, and the pith being too high-contrast. Maybe its worth another attempt with a heavier spirits cut and harder wiping pressure? Apr 16 at 16:37
  • And yes, its an absurd amount of work 😭. I'm definitely eyeing my paint can at this point lol Apr 16 at 16:39
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    Whatever you end up doing, please come back and post the results in an answer and give us a write up of your efforts. I'm most interested in seeing how this turns out!
    – FreeMan
    Apr 22 at 17:23

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