Wood staining is actually one of the simpler procedures in the wood finishing process but screw this one up and there are few remedies after the fact. There are a few basic rules and tips to learn before you soak that rag or dip that brush.
Here I’ll teach you the proper steps, techniques and applicators for achieving the perfect stain to your wood project. You can also watch my YouTube video “Botch-Free Wood Stain Application Technique”.
APPLYING WOOD STAIN PROPERLY
What you should have on hand before starting:
New Wood – 2 Grades of Sand Paper (120 – 180)
Old Wood or Damaged Wood Surfaces – 3 Grades (80-120-180) and a mechanical sander
Applicator – (Rag – Cheap brush – foam brush)
Pre Satin Conditioner (Soft woods always – optional on hard woods)
Mineral spirits (Oil stains only)
WOOD STAIN OPTIONS:
First off there are three primary wood stains that a non-production or woodworker/hobbyist might consider. They are oil-based, water-based and gel stains. All have their fans and foes.
Professional production-based finishers often use the same three but may also choose a lacquer stain (dries extremely fast, good for production shops), varnish stains (used primarily to adjust the color of a prior stain), water-based dyes (used before modern stains became readily available, used today to obtain an antiquey look) and a metalized dye stain (used primarily to slow fading in sunny outdoor projects). So we will concentrate on the first three.
WOOD STAIN PROS AND CONS
Oil-based wood stain doesn’t raise the grain as much as water-based wood stain and is my choice for furniture and cabinetry. Water-based wood stain is more environmentally friendly and easier to clean up but with my technique there is really no clean-up because applicators are inexpensive and get thrown away. Gel wood stains are very messy but are an option primarily if you are staining soft woods or have a lot of vertical surfaces.
1 – PREPARE THE WOOD – (80)-120 -180
If you are refinishing an older piece all top coatings must be removed to bring the surface to a bare-wood condition. Chemical strippers can give you a good start. But chemical strippers play havoc with the wood surface. If your project requires restoration you need to watch my YouTube video “Chemical Strippers vs Heat Gun – Furniture Refinishing”.
Sanding will be required to bring the surface to an acceptable level. Sanding is best done in steps. Coarse sand paper removes a lot of surface imperfections but leaves it rough and scratchy. The scratches will grab more stain and result in a streaky appearance. Remove the scratches by using a medium grit sand paper. Then finish with finer grits stopping at 180 grit for the final sanding.
Most projects to be stained will require light sandings stepping up from 120 to 180. Restoration projects may require 80 to 180 (sometimes even lower if heavily gouged and damaged).
I use either a 180 or 220 grit paper for sanding after the stain has dried and before the finish coat is applied.
Don’t like sanding? Who does?
Most novices and many woodworker hobbyists do the work vs letting the sandpaper do the work. Sanding is really important as it is the foundation for a good finish. Over-sanding retards stain absorption, under-sanding creates stain blotches, too coarse sanding creates stain streaks. I have created a sanding efficiency rule that outlines using the right grade sandpaper, in the right sequence, for the right purpose. You can learn more about proper sanding procedures by watching:
“Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Your Woodworking Project”
2 – REMOVE ALL DUST
Sanding dust and shop dust ruins too many projects. Brush with a clean brush or rag, follow up with a light tack cloth wiping. I like to follow with a good vacuuming or filtered air from my air compressor. Do not wet the wood.
3 – KNOW YOUR WOOD
Not all wood is alike. Different woods accept wood stain differently. Find an old piece of scrap or a hidden area on your project and do a trial run. Set a timer and note the set-up time form flooding the surface to wiping off the stain.
If your wood is pine, fir, soft maple, cherry, birch, spruce, alder, poplar or cedar you will have to be careful with wood stains.
Softwoods (pine, fir, alder, spruce, poplar, cedar) tend to blotch so they require a pre-stain conditioner to even out the stain. Maple, cherry and birch are best left unstained. Dyes are an alternative but the use of wood dyes requires practice and experience.
It is safe to use conditioners on all woods but I typically don’t use it on hard woods. For most hard woods the stain tends to accentuate and darken the grain portion of the wood.
TIP: Wood stain tends to show differently color-wise on different woods. If you have a scrap piece practice on it , if not practice on a non-exposed area, the back-sides of doors or the inside surfaces.
APPLYING PRE-STAIN WOOD CONDITIONERS
If you elect to use a conditioner prep both the conditioner and the wood stain for use before applying the conditioner. Flood the surface with the conditioner so the surface is puddled. Let it sit for 5-15 minutes. If the puddle soaks in before 5 minutes add more conditioner. If it soaks in after 5 minutes wipe and immediately apply your wood stain.
FACT: A pre-stain conditioner will retard the absorption of wood stain making the coloration lighter than a non-conditioned surface. Allow stain to sit longer and anticipate a probable second application of stain. (Conditioner is only applied once).
IMPORTANT TIP: Do not let the conditioner dry on the wood. Wood stain should be applied over wood while it is still damp with conditioner.
4 – WOOD STAINING – FLOOD AND WIPE – Mix thoroughly as the pigment in wood stain separates easily and forms a glob on the cans bottom. Apply liberal amounts of stain so it actually forms a puddle covering the entire surface of your project. Wood stain can be wiped almost immediately for lighter staining. I typically do a test wipe on a small area once I see a spot of the surface where my stain has soaked-in. If too light I reapply more wood stain in that area and wait for the soak-in. Allow no longer than 15 minutes.
Flood and wipe obviously works on horizontal surfaces. But what if your project has a large vertical component or spindly legs, risers, etc? Here we alter our approach and start with the vertical surfaces. This is where a gel wood stain comes in handy but gel stains are very limited in color options and in my opinion messy. I typically use a conventional oil wood stain and apply as much as I can without flooding my shop floors. I then wait 5 minutes and do a test wipe. If too light I re-coat the test area and wait. At regular intervals I retest until I have an acceptable color. At this point I note the TIME and have a feel for the AMOUNT of stain applied and use this as a guide for all remaining surfaces.
TIP: You can always recoat if too light in color but can’t lighten if too dark. So wiping TOO SOON IS BETTER than wiping too late.
TIP: Stain adds color not protection. A clear finish is needed to protect your project. Most finishes come in High Gloss, Semi-Gloss and Satin sheens. Chose the sheen that fits your project. There is no difference in its ability to protect the surface. If polyurethane is your choice be sure to watch my video:
“Bubble Free Polyurethane Application Technique”
5 – TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Practice-Practice-Practice. The longer you leave a wood stain sit on the surface the deeper the penetration and the coloration. I always wipe standing wood stain off once I notice a dry spot. Understand wood stain soaks into the wood and you can always apply a second coat to darken but can only remove by deep and difficult sanding, acetone washes, strippers, etc. It’s best to be too lite and apply more.
That said, wood can be over-saturated with stain. I don’t recommend more than two coats of wood stain (most often one coating is enough) because there is a saturation point and going beyond that will cause the stain to bleed and impair the results your clear top coat.
Did I mention PRACTICE anywhere? I can’t emphasize this point enough. Expensive projects have been destroyed by not knowing how the wood stain will take to your project. I have a video on correcting bad polyurethane applications but I doubt I’ll ever have one on wood stain. It’s almost impossible to reverse and bad wood stain job.
TIP: Finishing takes time and patience but it’s what people notice. The truth is if they don’t notice the finish you’ve scored. A nice finishing job enhances the natural beauty of the surface below without drawing attention to itself.
FACT: WOOD STAIN IS NOT A FINISH. IT PROVIDES NO PROTECTION TO THE SURFACE OF THE WOOD. The next step is finishing. By far the most commonly used finish is polyurethane and 90% of the people who apply do it wrong. The end result is polyurethane surface bubbles, runs, brush marks and uneven surfaces from puddling.
My latest video is one I hoped I would have never had to make “Fixing Polyurethane Bubbles, Puddles, Runs and Brush Marks”. Trust me when I say its a lot easier to do it right in the first place “Bubble Free Polyurethane Application Technique”. All these plugs I feel like that My Pillow guy on TV!!
6 – LET DRY OVERNIGHT – Read manufacturers recommendations but I usually plan all my project steps as overnighters.
7 – SAND – Applying wood stain will raise the grain (kinda like split ends in hair). For a smooth surface and unflawed polyurethane finish they need a light sanding. If you are applying a clear non-penetrating top-coat (polyurethane, lacquer or shellac) you can light sand with a 220 grit paper. If you are using a penetrating oil (Tung Oil, Boiled Linseed Oil)(or combo hybrids: Danish Oil, Sam Maloof’s Wiping Oil, Tru Oil, etc.) you’ll need to sand to 300-400 grit. See my YouTube video “Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Your Woodworking Project”.
8 – APPLY A PROTECTIVE TOP COAT – Protective coatings come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are durable and provide a almost plastic-like barrier on the surface of the wood. These include polyurethane, lacquer and shellac. Polyurethane is by far the most durable and the most commonly used for the DIYer.
The next are penetrating oils. Penetrating oils afford the most natural and beautiful look to wood but offer minimal protection and require periodic maintenance. They are most often used for decorative, non-utilitarian surfaces.
Then there are the hybrids part varnish and part penetrating oils. The comparison is slated to be my next video. Aren’t asleep or blind yet? Want more?
Chemical Strippers vs Heat Gun – Furniture Refinishing
Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Your Woodworking Project
“Botch-Free Wood Stain Application Technique”
“Bubble Free Polyurethane Application Technique”
“Fixing Polyurethane Bubbles, Puddles, Runs and Brush Marks”
“Building a Fishing Line Winder and Despooler for Under $25“