When I first started learning how to build furniture, I really didn’t know how to properly finish a piece and how to stain the wood. I remember my very first build, a 4ft. chalkboard, I was so excited about it that I didn’t even sand the wood before I stained it! Fortunately, with stain, it hides a lot of imperfections!
As I continued with my DIY furniture building, I learned a lot through trial and error as well as some research on the best way to stain wood. Today I am sharing my process on how I stain wood and what I have found works best. I hope it helps if you are wanting to easily learn how to stain wood!
1. Sand the wood
The key to a beautiful finish is all in preparation of the wood, mainly the sanding! Now I will admit, I really don’t like sanding! Getting covered in saw dust is no fun, but it is one of the most important preparation steps to creating a beautiful finish, so I deal with it!
Always wear goggles because sawdust in the eyes is annoying as I have experienced first hand. You can also wear a face mask/sanding respirator too if you desire. For most projects, I recommend an orbital palm sander. For really light projects, a sanding block will work and when extreme amounts of sanding are needed, a belt sander will be most helpful to start with on the project.
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It’s best to start with 80 grit sand paper to sand your whole project and this usually takes the longest amount of time as it really gets all the rough stuff off of the wood. As you move up in the grit number of sand paper, the smoother the finish will be on your project piece, and the less material is removed. I usually start with 80 grit, then use 120 or 150 grit, and finish sanding with 220 grit for a very smooth finish on the wood. I really like these hook and loop sanding discs for my orbital sander, they stick right on the sander and remove very easily. Just make sure to line up the holes correctly to avoid extra scratches!
In the photo below, you can see the difference sanding makes in the finish of the wood!
2. Prepare the Wood
The final preparation step is to remove the saw dust from your wood. There are many ways to do this like using a shop vac, a damp cloth, etc. My favorite way is to use a soft bristled brush or broom and sweep off the saw dust, then to remove the rest of it I always wipe down my wood with tack cloth. It’s sticky so I like to wear latex or rubber gloves when cutting/handling it, but it works wonderfully for removing the saw dust and you don’t need to use a lot of it, so it lasts awhile!
After all the saw dust is removed, the next key step is using a pre-stain wood conditioner (when you are going to be using an oil based stain). This can easily be applied to the wood with a lint free rag. Follow the directions on the can, but basically you apply this to your clean wood surface and let it sit 5 – 10 minutes before applying your stain.
This wood conditioner makes a HUGE difference in the final look of my furniture finishes! It prevents blotching and streaking on the wood surface. Here is a photo showing the difference after just one coat of stain has been applied. The wood piece with no wood conditioner is much more blotchy.
3. Apply your stain!
Time for the stain! It’s important to note that all wood takes stain differently, therefore it’s best to test some different stains on a scrap piece of wood (that is the same kind of wood as your project) in order to make the best decision about what stain color you want to use!
When using oil-based stain, the most common type, always apply it outside or in a well ventilated area because it is smelly and make sure to put some plastic or cardboard down to protect your work surface! Wear gloves (chemical resistant or rubber) and make sure to stir the stain in the can before using (don’t shake it).
I prefer applying my stain with a lint free rag or cloth because I find that it’s easiest to control how much is applied and it can be thrown away after use. You can also use a foam brush, but it goes on heavier, however they do work well for getting in tiny crevices. Another option is to use a natural bristle brush, but the brush can’t just be cleaned with soap and water, it has to be cleaned with mineral spirits, which then have to be properly disposed, and this adds lots of extra time and effort. That’s why I stick with the rag/cloth!
Apply one coat of stain with the grain of the wood and use the rag to wipe any excess stain off. If you want a richer or deeper color, apply a second coat after the first coat has dried (usually around 3-4 hours).
4. All Finished Staining! Decide on a top coat.
Yay! That’s it for staining! You can either leave your project as is or add a top coat or sealant for the best durability finish and enhancing of the wood finish. There are many types of top coats/sealants you can use including polyurethane (water or oil based), furniture wax, oils, lacquers, shellac, etc. There are pros and cons of each, but what I’ve used most often is a fast drying oil-based polyurethane in a satin finish because it provides strong durability and really brings out the beauty and grain of the wood. For application, I use a foam brush (for easy disposal) and apply it very lightly in long strokes to avoid foam brush strokes. I know it looks like I used a lot in this photo below but it’s just the glare! These foam brushes work great and hold up well with the poly in my experience.
After your first poly coat is applied and has dried, the wood grain may rise some, simply use a 220 grit sand block and lightly hand sand over the piece. Then, use tack cloth to wipe away the saw dust. Apply a second coat with a new foam brush and let dry. You can apply a 3rd coat if necessary.
Once your top coat has been applied, let your newly finished piece sit for at least a day with no use (preferably 3 days) which allows the top coat to cure to a hard, durable finish. Then, you can enjoy! I hope this how to stain guide has been helpful! For building projects, where you can implement these staining steps, check out my building projects!
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