When I first started learning how to build furniture, I really didn’t know how to properly finish a piece and how to stain 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!
Note, this post contains some affiliate links. For more info see my disclosures here.
How to Stain Wood:
- Orbital palm sander
- Tack cloth
- Wood Stain
- Pre-stain wood conditioner
- Gloves (Rubber or Chemical resistant)
- Lint free rag
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! For a detailed step by step to sanding, check out my how to sand wood beginner’s guide.
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.
Note, this post contains some affiliate links for your convenience.
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!
Again if you need more details on the sanding process, sanding tools, tips, or are wondering why you need to sand the wood before staining be sure to check out my beginner’s guide to how to sand wood!
2. Prepare the Wood for Staining
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. Pick a wood stain
There are two, main types of stain, oil-based stain and water-based stain. Oil based stains are very common, affordable and popularly used. They create beautiful, enhanced wood grain colors. They do take longer to dry, but it makes it easier to apply. However, oil based stains are smelly, so make sure to apply in a well-ventilated area. Check out 10 favorite wood stain colors and 5 grey wood stain options for help picking out a stain color!
Water based stains are typically more expensive, but dry faster and are a lot less smelly! Since they dry faster, it can be more difficult to apply the stain evenly. They can be cleaned up with just water and soap (instead of mineral spirits like oil-based stain). However, they don’t quite provide the rich, wood color that oil based can provide. And water-based stains often have to be tinted with the color when purchased at the home improvement store instead of just buying it ready to go off the shelf.
In my example for this tutorial, I am using oil-based stain since it’s very commonly used for staining wood.
4. 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 staining wood with 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. Check out the best way to apply stain for more details!
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 lint free rag to wipe any excess stain off. If you want a darker color, let the stain sit a minute or two on the wood before wiping off the excess.
If you want a richer or deeper color, apply a second coat after the first coat has dried (usually around 3-4 hours).
Here are a few other tips for how to stain wood:
- Avoid staining in hot temperatures and direct sunlight, a shaded area is best when it’s hot out
- Stain takes longer to dry and doesn’t dry as well in more humid conditions, as well as very cold temperatures, so try to stain when it’s less humid out and temperatures are moderate
- Make sure to always wipe excess stain off of wood, don’t let any excess dry on the wood
- Let stain dry for at least 12 hours before adding a top coat (24 hours is even better)
- Don’t use a roller for applying stain, see the best way to apply wood stain for more details
5. 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!
Now that you know how to stain wood, you can also learn how to easily apply a weathered wood finish to your wood or make new wood look old! If you want to learn how to easily create different weathered wood finishes or learn more about surface preparation and protection (including more info on different top coats), check out Weathered Wood Recipes here! Weathered Wood Recipes includes easy and budget friendly tutorials on how to create weathered wood finishes like this:
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