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I'm working on a project involving a bed and cabinets. I'm using cedar 2x4s for the structure and plywood for the visible parts. I'm not sure what kind of plywood it is; I chose it because it had the fewest knots.

I think the color is just fine as it is, so I was planning just to polyurethane it without staining. Do I still need to use a pre-stain conditioner?

Also, will the poly eliminate the insect-repelling effects of cedar?

This is effectively my first woodworking project. I have no idea what I'm doing.

  • If you'd done a quick search here you'd have found the first part of your query is covered amply in previous Answers, probably most directly by Should you always use Pre-Stain?. Re. the poly and the cedar smell, yes it will cut it down significantly to completely depending on how much you apply. – Graphus Jan 31 '18 at 5:55
  • Re. applying the varnish, assuming you're using oil-based poly as a first-timer you'll probably struggle to get good results if you use it at full strength so I would recommend thinning some to turn it into what's called wiping varnish, see previous Answer for complete instructions. – Graphus Jan 31 '18 at 6:04
  • Possible duplicate of Should you always use Pre-Stain? – mmathis Jan 31 '18 at 16:46
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I was planning just to polyurethane it without staining. Do I still need to use a pre-stain conditioner?

No. The point of a pre-stain conditioner is to prevent stained wood from looking mottled or blotchy because some areas are more porous and absorb more stain than other areas. The conditioner reduces that effect by sealing the wood to some degree so that it absorbs stain more evenly.

Since you're not going to stain your project, there's no need to apply a pre-stain conditioner.

Perhaps you're worried about your polyurethane finish being absorbed into the wood unevenly? That might happen, but since the finish is clear I don't think you'll see an effect on the color. Don't take my word for it, though... apply some polyurethane to some scrap pieces of the wood you're using and see how it looks. In fact, unless you've used the same finish on the same wood in the past, it's always a good idea to try out the finish on some scraps before you do your whole project so that you know exactly how the finish will look. It's easier to switch to a different product before you've started finishing your project than in the middle of the process.

Also, will the poly eliminate the insect-repelling effects of cedar?

I'd expect it to significantly reduce any cedar scent coming from the wood. Polyurethane forms a film on the surface of the wood, and that film will most likely trap the oils that give cedar it's smell inside. If you want to finish the wood but still want some of that scent, then look for ways to incorporate some unfinished wood into the project. It's not a good idea to finish one side of a piece of wood without also doing the other, since the unfinished side will be more exposed to seasonal changes in humidity, and that can make the wood warp. But you could still line the inside of your cabinets with some unfinished cedar, for example, and you could use unfinished boards for the slats that the box spring and mattress will sit on.

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