How To Stain Wood – Unfinished Furniture

You bought this beautiful piece of unfinished furniture.  You need to stain the wood to make it look stunning and to protect the wood.  This is a simple step by step plan on how to stain wood to create a long-lasting classic piece of furniture. 

Even if you don’t have any experience with painting or staining, you can create a beautifully finished piece of wood furniture.  You just need a plan, your tools, and a good work-space for staining wood.

1 Unfinished Wood desk
This wood desk was purchased for our home office.  The wood is unfinished and needs pre-stain
and stain to protect the wood.  

Defining Wood Staining

Wood staining is the process of enhancing your wood’s color to bring out the natural grain while enhancing it’s visibility. Staining uses a tinted coating that is very similar to paint. Also, people technically use the word staining when they’re also talking about sealing or finishing, and this isn’t technically correct. Technically speaking, staining shouldn’t be interchangeable with wood painting or wood finishing. There are some finishes that have one-step staining and finishing solutions. 

Traditionally, people used finish solely to help provide more protection against the weather and daily wear and tear. A finish can give a surface a shiny or wet appearance too, and it all comes down to a matter of preference. So, your stain will change the wood’s color or tint while a finish offers protection while giving the wood a more enhanced look. 

Different Types Of Wood Stains

There are four common types of stains used today, and they are oil, water, gel, or varnish-based. All four have their purpose and place, depending on a few factors. To decide what stain you want to use, consider the condition of the wood, the type of wood, your project type, and the final resting place. 

If you plant to put your furniture outdoors only, you will most likely want a varnish-based stain. All you have to do is apply it, let it dry, and you’re done. When you use other types of stains, you have to match it to the sealing product you want to use to finish your furniture. You can apply an oil-based stain to any finish, except water-based ones. You can only use water-based stains with water-based finishes. 

Water-based stains are great for use on woods that resist rot like cedar while oil-based stains hold up much better under harsh conditions for people who live in different planting zones

Gel stains are another option that is thicker, so it won’t run like your water-based stains do when you apply it. It has a thicker consistency, and it gives you consistent transparent and saturated colors. It’s slightly similar to pigment-based paints, but gel-based stains have a thickening agent that makes it much easier to apply to your furniture pieces than other types of stains. 

One of the biggest things you want to remember with the gel-type stain is that it sits on top of the wood instead of being absorbed into the wood’s pores like oil or water-based stains. This makes it a good choice if you’re trying to finish sappy-type woods that can’t take traditional stains well. 

Gel stains work well on vertical surfaces because of the thickness. They also work well on woods that tend to botch with normal stains like pine, cherry, or birch. However, gel stains do tend to pool in any low spot on the wood. If there are cracks, grooves, crevices, or corners in your furniture, you have to clean the stain out. Wiping it consistently as you work will help you whisk away any drips to prevent pooling. If you don’t, it can look uneven. 

Varnish-Based Stains

Unlike oil or water-based stain, your varnish stain will give you a protective, clear, and transparent finish. This type of stain is very similar to alkyd paint, but they don’t color your wood furniture as much. A varnish stain can work well for a top-coat on a piece of wood you already stained. If you use it for a smooth application as a finish, you’ll get a mirror-like reflection if you stain correctly. 

  • Easier clean-up
  • Good mold and mildew resistance
  • Less maintenance in the long-term
  • Longer drying time with a smoother finish
  • Maintains color longer
  • No fumes
  • Non-flammable
  • Richer tint can be achieved
  • Shorter drying time
  • The oil penetrates the wood deeper than water-based and so has a deeper seal

The First Step – Picking Your Stain Color 

Picking your staining color is often the hardest part when you stain wood. You need to look at your room’s color scheme, the other furniture, and remember to pick what you like.  The stain will be just a bit darker than what the store sample shows. Keep in mind that if you buy oil-based pre-stain you need to buy oil-based wood finish as well to stain the wood.  And if you buy a water-based pre-stain you need to buy a water-based wood finish.  Always test out your wood stain in a staining spot you can’t see like the back of a drawer or the back of a dresser.

2 Stained Dresser showing grain of wood through stain
We picked this wood color for our bedroom.  It allows the naturally beautiful grain of the wood
to show through and complemented our dark walls.  

The Second Step – Your Work Area

Plan out your workspace.  You need a dry flat surface.  If you stain inside your garage you need ventilation, so open windows or your garage door.  If you want to work outside you also need a flat surface. On the lawn is not a good spot because it can be so uneven. You want your items to lay on a smooth surface so that you can spread the stain on the wood evenly and wipe the stain off evenly.  You will not have unnecessary drips and build-up of the stain. A front porch, back porch or cement slab is a good option.

Spring and Fall are the best times to stain wood for the mild temperatures.  If you plan to work outside look at the weather forecast. Your newly stained furniture needs to dry for at least 24 hours but 48 is even better.  You can always stain outside and bring your furniture inside your garage to dry. Inside is best because the temperature is controlled and there is less chance for the wood to swell or shrink which can cause stress and cracks in the stain.

Make sure you have a tarp or some sort of covering to lay underneath the wood furniture.  The stain will discolor any surface it splashes on.

3 Workspace chaotic yet still organized
This looks chaotic but it is a well-planned work-space in the garage.  We have a flat surface 
and a ventilated place for our items to dry.  It is also temperature controlled so the wood does not expand from moisture.  

The Third Step – Your Supplies and Tools

  • Pre-stain – your local DIY store or on Amazon
  • Stain – your local DIY store or on Amazon-Make sure you have enough stain for your wood.  One can covers approximately 75-Square feet or two large dressers.  You might need more pre-stain depending on how many grooves or patterns are in the wood.

4 Bed showing grooves in wood
The bed has many grooves in the wood.  It soaks up a lot of the pre-stain and a lot of the wood stain. You may need two cans of pre-stain.  Unused stain can be stored for up to a year if the lid is put back on tightly and put in a temperature-controlled space.  

  • Paintbrushes-I buy new paint-brushes. New clean paint brushes have less of a chance of residual debris from your previous DIY jobs.
  • Paint stirring sticks -You can find these wherever you purchase your stain or paint.
  • Clean rags-I recommend buying a bag of rags.  You don’t want any residue on the rags. Residue from prior uses or even just traces of detergent from previous washing.
  • Tarp or old tablecloth large enough to cover the area under the furniture.

The Fourth Step – Your staff

You can do the job yourself but it is always good to have a partner.  My husband and I like to do our projects together. We check each other for missed spots of stain on the wood and necessary reapplications.   I also like to spend this time with my husband. I have learned many DIY tips from my very handy husband.

The Fifth Step – The Staining Process

  • Examine your furniture.  You may need to lightly sand it.  You want a very smooth finish.  Rough spots can change the color of the stain.  I like to use the small Rockwell 3.0 Amp Sonicrafter Oscillating Multi-Tool for small areas with more intricate trim or grooves.  I prefer this tool because it is small and easy to handle.  I use the DeWALT Random Orbit Sander if I am sanding larger flat areas.I like this DeWalt sander because it is a durable tool. It is large enough to do the job but small enough for me to easily manipulate.  I find that when I use a smaller tool it works much better for me. I have tried larger tools and have made mistakes. You can use different abrasive film discs with different grit depending on the roughness of the wood.  Grit between 120-220 is most likely what you will need.  

5 Sanders
Pictured on the right is the Rockwell ShopSeries 3.0 Amp Sonicrafter Oscillating Multi-Tool.  On the left is the DeWALT Random Orbit Sander.  

  • You need to wipe off your wood with a clean dry rag.  A clean surface makes a smooth application. This is important if you have sanded any part of the furniture where dust can collect.
  • Make sure to mix the pre-stain in the can with a paint mixing stick.  Small particles can settle on the bottom. You can find these at the DIY store where you purchase the stain.
  • Put the pre-stain on first. The directions say to put the pre-stain on, wait 15-20 minutes, and apply the stain. We have waited 24 hours before putting on the stain and did not notice any difference.   It is important to follow directions but this allows a bit of wiggle room between your pre-stain and stain applications.
  • Mix the stain when staining wood.  Make sure to mix the wood staining because the pigment settles to the bottom.  The color you see when you open the can is not the actually color. Wood has slightly different colors so the wood stains may look slightly different in different areas.  This is normal and still looks nice.
  • I recommend using a medium-sized paintbrush to brush the stain on the wood.  Be careful to not saturate the brush. Try to make your paintbrush strokes go with the grain of the wood for a professional look.
  • Next I use a rag to wipe off the excess.  You do not need to rub very hard. You should wipe it off in the same direction as the grain of the wood.
  • Make sure to cover every bit of wood with stain that your eye will see.  Don’t forget the under-edges. This is the time that it is beneficial to have a partner.  Staining every bit evenly is important. If you do happen to make a mistake it is ok! Don’t panic, just wipe off as much excess as you can.  You need to be careful when you apply the stain to the wood but also know that you can fix mistakes. If you need to you can use your paintbrush to apply more wood stain.

6 Underside of dresser
This is the underside of the drawer.  You need to wood stain here also so that you don’t see any unfinished wood.  You don’t want to stain where the drawer slides into the slot.  

  • I use one coat.  You can use two coats but I have not found that it makes much of a difference.  If you like the way the wood stain looks after one coat then leave it. Remember this is your furniture and your choice.  If you prefer a bit darker then apply a second coat following all of the above steps. It is all about your own personal preference.

7 Finished wood stained nightstand
This is my finished nightstand.  It is just what I wanted.  When you wood stain you get what you want and don’t have to compromise.  

The Sixth Step – Finishing

The final step for staining wood is to finish your furniture. The finish can be another protective layer, and it can add a nice shine to the wood. How you finish the wood will depend on the type of stain you use. 

Oil-Based Stain

Oil-based polyurethane is the best thing to use if you used an oil-based stain on your furniture. The finish will add a warm tint to the piece, where a water-based finish topcoat should only go on if you used a water-based stain. An oil-based finish should use between two and three coats, but a water-based finish could require four or more thinner coats. You want to apply your finish in reflected light because this allows you to spot unflattering bush strokes or flaws easier. 

Choosing the correct applicator for your finish is essential. You don’t want to go out and get cheap bristle brushes because they shed their bristles as you work and stick into the finish. Foam brushes are a nice option that give you even strokes while being inexpensive. They’re also disposable. If you choose to go with a bristle brush, make sure that it’s very clean or brand new. You’ll apply your oil-based finish using long, even strokes that go along the grain. You should find a balance between a thick and thin coating. 

Spread a generous coat on your furniture while keeping an eye out for runs or drips. Each coat has to dry overnight after you apply it, but water-based topcoats only need a few hours between coats to dry. The end result is more than worth it though. Once everything dries, you want to sand it lightly using 320-grit sandpaper before wiping or vacuuming the dust and applying the next coat before letting it dry overnight. 

Two coats should be more than enough for oil-based finishes, unless you expect heavy traffic or weather abuse on your furniture. If this is the case, you’ll want to apply one or more coats and repeat the light sanding between the coats before you apply the final coat. Apply the final coat in reflected light to see any runs, drips, or flaws. Take a close look at your brush strokes and try to make them match up. You can feather the polyurethane and smooth out any bubbles. 

For applying a finish on vertical surfaces like your furniture legs should use several much thinner coats to stop it from running. It’s easy to get impatient near the end of the process, and it’s normal to speed up when you get near the end. However, you want to slow down and take your time. 

Water-Based Stain

If you choose to use a water-based stain on your furniture, you’ll need to get some 220-grit sandpaper and gently rough up the furniture’s surface a little bit. Don’t gouge the surface of the furniture when you do this, and remove the sanding dust before sealing it

Water-Based Polyurethane 

Applying a water-based polyurethane is just like applying an oil-based one. The only big difference in the process is that you don’t sand the furniture between coats. Never put a water-based polyurethane over an oil-based stain. Oil and water don’t mix well and the water-based polyurethane will bead up on your oil-based surface and look unprofessional. 

You should avoid using too much on a single coat or you could raise the grain on your wood furniture. You’ll get much better end results by putting on three to five thin coats. It dries in a few short hours after you apply it, so this can save you a lot over an oil-based application. 

Final Finishing Notes

Personally, I like to seal my wood furniture with an alkyd varnish directly on top of a good sanding sealer. It’s easy to apply, and you shouldn’t confuse it with the polyurethane varnish. Polyurethanes are a good choice for heavy traffic areas or if you’re planning on leaving your furniture outside in the element because it gives you a very protective, tough surface. 

However, polyurethane is a one-shot application. If you get it wrong on the first coat, you’re stuck with the results as there is no quick or easy way to remedy it. Alkyd varnish is much more forgiving, and it allows you to quickly and easily sand drips and runs to give you a flat surface to add a second coat. The most common choices you’ll find at your local hardware store are Satin and Gloss. Satin is flat and Gloss is shiny. If you want to have a sheen that isn’t as quiet as shiny as full Gloss, you can mix equal parts of Satin and Gloss to get a Semi-Gloss seal and finish. 

The best thing you can put on for the last undercoat is the sanding sealer, at least when you’re trying to get the perfect base for a wood varnish finishing topcoat. It features more solids over regular clear costs, and it’s much easier to sand a smooth surface. If you decide that you want to go with an alkyd wood varnish, you’ll have to visit a retail paint store like Sherwin-Wiliams since very few hardware stores carry it. 

Maintenance Tips for Stained Furniture or Flooring

After you stain your furniture or flooring, there are steps you have to take to maintain them and keep them looking nice for years to come. The most popular maintenance tips include: 

  • Don’t Mistreat Furniture  – To avoid heat damage or rings, use coasters when you set mugs or glasses on wooden tables. Never put hot food directly on them without protecting them with a potholder. Use decorative placemats or a tablecloth to protect from spills. 
  • Dust Often – No one likes to dust, but this is an excellent way to take care of your furniture. Airborne particles can cause a film to form that scratches the surface of the furniture. Dusting frequently keeps this from happening. Use a soft cloth to dust, and lambswool dusters are great for hard-to-reach places or ornate carvings because they attract and hold dust. 
  • Avoid Environmental Damage – Heat, sunlight, and other environmental factors can wreak havoc on any wooden furniture. Don’t put your newly stained furniture in front of vents, uncovered windows, or fireplaces as heat and light can cause damage and fade the look of your furniture. 
  • Protect the Finish – A lot of commercial sprays or polishes have silicone or petroleum distillates that give your furniture a shiny and fresh finish, and it offers minimal protection. Don’t use too much of these products because they can cause a buildup that contributes to a sticky, dull film when it combines with dirt. Buff well using soft cloths to help avoid this buildup, and never use these cleaning products with a was protectant because you’ll end up with a very unpleasant, gooey mess. 

Frequently Asked Questions

7 Staining FAQs
Before: Unfinished Pine by Robin Zebrowski / CC BY 2.0 Before you start your staining process on your furniture, it’s essential that you find answers for all of your questions to ensure you like the finished result. 

Having questions when you stain your furniture is common, and we’ve rounded up the most frequently asked questions for you to consider before you start this project. They include but are not limited to: 

1. Do you have to apply a top coat to stained furniture?

A topcoat works to protect the furniture’s surface. The real question is how many coats do you need and what should you use for a topcoat. We answered these questions in depth above under the Finishing section. 

2. How long should you let the stain sit before you wipe it away?

Once you apply a coat of stain to your wooden furniture, you want to immediately wipe it off if you want to get a lighter tone. If you want a darker hue or tone, you’ll leave it sit between 5 to 15 minutes before you wipe it off. 

3. Will stain darken as it dries?

When paint dries, it tends to look darker than when you applied it. However, stains tend to do the opposite. It will usually look lighter when it dries. 

4. What will your furniture look like if you don’t wipe the stain away?

Wood stain gets designed to penetrate deep into the wood grain, and it shouldn’t sit on the surface of the wood. If you spread your stain out too thickly or forget to wipe the excess away, the stain will get very sticky and look unprofessional. 

5. Can you apply stain over a varnish?

Applying stain over varnish is possible, but you need the correct expectations. Staining will always look better when you use it over untreated, fresh wood. For the best result, get rid of any dust, grime, or debris by roughing up and then cleaning the old varnish on. This will give you a more even texture for the stain to stick to. 

6. How many coats of stain should your furniture need?

The total amount of coats you need on your furniture will depend on the type of stain you use. Some will only require one or two coats, and other types of stain will require four or more coats before you finish. 

It is important to thoroughly let the furniture dry after your final coat.  Wood stain smells and your house will smell for a long time if you don’t let the wood stain dry.  After your simple plan you have a gorgeous finished product with the added touch of your personality.

Hope this guide on how to stain wood was helpful!

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