How to Stain Wood Furniture

Bring out the natural splendor of wood grain with a fresh coat of stain. Here's how to achieve a professional finish.

By Jan Soults Walker

Wood furniture can last for years with a good finish and proper care. For wood pieces coated in paint, start by stripping away the old paint, then follow these steps for a stained finish that radiates warmth and beauty.

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Susan Fredman

Prepare the surface

Fill holes or cracks, if desired, with wood filler that's formulated to accept stain; let dry. Working with the grain, sand the entire wood surface with medium grit (such as #100 or #120) sandpaper. Graduate to a fine grit (such as #220) for a silky-smooth surface.

Vacuum sanding dust from the surface or wipe it away with a damp cloth or tack cloth.

So the wood accepts stain evenly, you may want to apply a wood conditioner—especially if you are staining soft wood, such as pine or maple. Allow the conditioner to set on the wood surface according to the manufacturer's directions, and wipe away the excess. This step helps fill wood pores so the stain absorbs evenly.

Select a stain

Next, decide which type of stain you'd like to use: oil-based stain, water-based stain, or gels.

Oil-based stains tend to dry slowly, giving you more time to wipe off excess and create a more even finish. These stains require a solvent for cleanup and also temporarily emit strong fumes that some people don't tolerate well.

Water-based stains dry more quickly, clean up easily with soap and water, and are low-odor.

As the name implies, gel stains are thicker and work especially well on vertical wood surfaces.

Apply the stain

Work out of direct sunlight and in a well-ventilated area where your wood-staining project won't be disturbed. Use a paintbrush, a sponge applicator, or a clean and lint-free cloth to apply a fairly thick coat of stain to the wood surface. Wipe away the excess with a clean cloth. If you want to darken the initial color, apply a second coat and wipe away excess.

Protect the finish

Once the stain dries, apply a clear sealer—such as polyurethane—to protect the finish. For long-lasting results, apply the number of coats recommended by the manufacturer.

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