How to Stain Wood

Whether you have new doors, unfinished furniture or a craft project, chances are you will need to stain and varnish it. With a multitude of new products on the market, including gel stains, all-in-one stain and varnishes, water-based and oil-based varnishes and brushing lacquer, it can be difficult to choose the right product for your job. A little know-how, however, will help you find just what you need to complete your project.

Extra Step, Extra Impact
Most interior wood projects call for wood to be stained, then varnished for protection. A semi-transparent oil-based stain, top-coated with acrylic varnish, is often the best combination for the job. By skipping all-in-one stain and varnish products in favor of a penetrating stain, you will better reveal the depth and beauty of the wood. The end result is more than worth the process of adding an additional coat of product.

If you have any spare pieces of wood, use them to test your stain color. If you need to match some existing stain, take pieces of the existing material, if possible, and some new wood to your paint store. Color experts will be able to create a perfect match to suit your needs.

Staining New Wood
The process of staining new wood begins before you apply that first stroke of product. For optimal results, the wood must be prepared.

  1. Sand with sandpaper (120 grit or finer). Always sand with the grain. Sanding against the grain can make little scratches that will show up when you apply the stain. For cleanup after sanding, used dryer sheets do a fabulous job of picking up the finest dust and particles.
  2. Follow the directions for applying the stain, using a soft-bristle brush and plenty of lint-free rags.
  3. Always dispose of the rags properly. Don't just toss them in the trash; oily rags can and do spontaneously combust. Dispose of used rags by putting them in a container of water before throwing them out.
  4. Let the stain dry completely. Remember, if you're going to apply varnish, this will intensify the color of the stain. Wet a little section of the dry piece to get an idea of what it will look like varnished. If you want to go darker, it's okay to do a second coat, but let the first one dry completely first.

Making the Wood Shine
After stain dries, you will be ready to apply varnish, which will lock in your color and protect the wood during future use. While there are many oil-based varnishes on the market, acrylic varnish is easier to use, less likely to yellow over time and just as tough as its oil counterpart. Be aware, however, that acrylic varnish is not as heavy-bodied as oil varnish and will require an extra coat during the varnishing process.

  1. Use a high-quality brush.
  2. Follow all directions on the can.
  3. Always brush with the grain of the wood. Thin, even coats are better than thick, gloopy ones.
  4. Like paint, water-based finishes can take up to a month to cure to their final hardness. So be a bit gentle with your project for a while.

Satin finishes are the most versatile and will be less likely to show surface imperfections, which should be absent if you are careful, than higher-gloss varnishes.

If you desire a low-gloss, antique look, consider tung oil finish. A rubbed-on finish, tung oil is most often available in a specialty paint store, but you can also ask a store to order some for you. Tung oil products dry to a hard, low luster and are very cleanable and easy to touch up or redo if required.

Brushing lacquers are not quite as durable, but they are very forgiving and easy to use. If you decide to use a brushing lacquer, however, be prepared: lacquer smells strong and requires a well-ventilated area. If such an area is not available, use a respirator. The fumes can make you quite woozy. Lacquer dries very fast and multiple coats can be done in a single day. If you are in a time crunch with your project and don't need a super-durable finish, brushing lacquer is a good choice.

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