A Guide On How To Stain Wood Furniture Like A Pro

Ian Mutuli
Updated on
Ian Mutuli

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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If you want to give your furniture a new life, then wood staining just might be the thing for you. Check out this guide to learn more about it!

Staining wood can unquestionably bring out a whole new and different side to an old, boring furniture piece. If you think it’s time for them to get a change, then you’ve come to the right place.

If you’ve never stained something before and have little to no idea how it’s done, this guide is perfect for you. We’ll be discussing how to prime and stain your wooden furniture to get professional results.

So without further ado, let’s get started!

5 Steps to Take Before Staining Wood Furniture

No matter what kind of wood your furniture is made of, these steps can be used. So if you’re looking to get that fresh, even finish, following these five steps before staining will give you the best results:

1. Fill In Cracks or Holes

The first step is to fill in any seams, holes, or small cracks that are present in your wood. For this, you’ll need a stainable wood filler. Keep in mind that a paintable wood filler won’t work.

start by filling the holes or cracks

Image source: minwaxblog.com

After filling the cracks and holes, let the wood filler dry and move on to the next step. You can learn more about this at woodhappen.com.

2. Time to Get Sanding

We recommend starting with a lower grit, such as 80 or 120, first. Sand evenly and remove any scratches, dents, wood filler, and excess glue that’s not filling a crack or a hole.

After the first sanding, repeat it, this time using 180-grit sandpaper. Then repeat using 220-grit sandpaper. It’s necessary to use a higher-level grit paper to sand the wood if you’ve decided to stain it.

While you can stain wood surfaces without sanding them first, the results will not be the same. In fact, the stain might even make it look patchy. It’ll darken any dings or scratches and highlight any glue or sticker residue more clearly. 

This is because the stain won’t take as well as it might have if the piece was sanded beforehand. But if you want a rustic look, you can skip this step entirely and get your desired results.

3. Do a Full Wipe

After you’re done with the sanding, it’s time to do a full wipe of your wood furniture. Remove any dust from the surface using a tack or drop cloth.

clean the wood well after sanding

Image source: woodburncorner.com

A tack cloth is sticky, so it easily picks up dust that our eyes can’t see. You can use any lint-free cloth if you don’t have a tack cloth.

4. Use Pre-Stain Conditioners

Using pre-stain wood conditioners allow the stain to absorb evenly, and the best part is it prevents patchiness. Naturally, you’ll have to select the pre-stain conditioner that matches the type of stain you’re going to use – oil- or water-based stains.

pre-stain wood conditioner allows the stain to absorb evenly

Image source: homemadelovely.com

a) Water-Based Pre-Stain Conditioner

If you’ve chosen a water-based pre-stain, be prepared because you’re going to have to brush on a hefty amount. Let it sit for 2-5 minutes, and wipe away the excess. Next, let it dry for another 15-30 minutes and sand again with 220 sand grit paper.

This conditioner will help to raise the grain when you use the actual stain later, giving you the smoothest finish you’ve ever seen. After the sanding is done, use the tack cloth to wipe and move on to staining.

b) Oil-Based Pre-Stain Conditioner

You can either use a rag or a brush to apply the oil-based pre-stain wood conditioner. All you have to do is brush on the pre-stain, wait for 5-15 minutes, and use a clean rag to wipe off the excess. Remember, you have to apply the stain within two hours of wiping off the excess.

5. Do a Stain Test

Possibly the most vital step is doing a stain test. Every piece of wood will react differently to stains, so if you want a specific color, doing this will help you know you got the right type of wood.

do a wood test to ensure you get your desired results

Image credits: pipsisland.com

Test the stain on a scrap piece of wood and see how it works. For instance, stains on plywood get absorbed more quickly, so you have to let it sit longer or use a second coat to get the color right.

4 Steps on How to Stain Wood Furniture

Finally, we’ve come to the point you’ve all been waiting for—staining. As ominous as that might sound, it’s actually quite the opposite and a very fun project you can take up in your spare time.

Here are four steps on how to stain your wood furniture like a pro:

1. Stir, Stir, Stir!

The first step is always the most crucial one when it comes to staining a wood piece. If you don’t mix the stain before applying it, chances are it’ll be a bad experience. Time and time again, it’s been seen that pigments in some stains will sink to the bottom of the can.

So, mixing the stain well is key every time you use it. Otherwise, the color won’t be the same the next time you break open the can.

2. Finally, Apply the Stain

Now that we’ve done the mixing, it’s time to apply the stain. But before that, you have to know which type of stain will suit your wooden furniture best:

use a paintbrush to apply oil-based stains and a synthetic bristle or foam brush to apply water based stains

Image credits: furnitureclinic.com

a) Oil-Based Stains

You can use a paintbrush or just a rag to apply this type. If you use a rag, then make sure to use a good amount, but not so much that the rag is dripping.

Going in a circular motion is best if your wood piece is a deep-grain wood type like oak. It’ll help to get the stain absorbed fully. In the case of a different type of wood, wipe the stain in the direction of where the grain is. 

Focus on how much you’re wiping on rather than worrying about how you’re doing it. When the color gets lighter, that’s your signal to re-dip the rag or brush. This careful observation will give your piece an even color and layer.

b) Water-Based Stains

You can use a synthetic bristle or foam brush for this type of stain. Many people recommend—and we do too—to use the synthetic brush if you want excellent results. It gives amazing coverage and minimizes streaks.

It’s important to remember that water-based stains are much thicker than the usual wood stains and can be applied like paint. Use the brush to stain in the direction of the wood grain, but be careful not to use a heavy coat. It should be just enough so that everything is covered.

3. Wipe Away the Excess Stain

After the application, it’s time to wait and then move on to wipe away the excess. Here’s how you do it with the two types of stains:

use a clean piece of cloth to wipe off the excess stain

Image credits: dunndiy.com

a) Oil-Based Stains

Let the stain soak for 5-15 minutes before you wipe off the excess. Use a clean, white cloth and start wiping in the direction of the grain.

That being said, it’s totally up to you how long you want to let the stain sit before you start wiping. As long as it’s within the 15-minute time frame, you should be good to go. The longer you let it sit, the darker and richer the color will get.

Usually, people let it sit for a full 15 minutes in order to get that deep color. Use a timer and try to be consistent with how long you’re letting the wood furniture sit before your every wiping session.

b) Water-Based Stains

You have to be quick when you’re using a water-based stain because they dry really quickly. A 2-minute window is plenty for you to wait to wipe away the excess.

To get rid of the stain, you’ll need a synthetic pad and wipe the stain away in the direction of the grain. Whichever stain you end up using, it’s vital you wipe off the excess. If you don’t, then you’ll have a sticky surface and excess staining to deal with.

Not to mention, when you try to seal it, the color will just brush right off, making it look like a horrible mess.

4. Time for a Clean-Up

Finally, we’re at the end. After you’re done applying the stain, let’s get to cleaning. The clean-up will be easy for those who’ve used a water-based stain. To clean your brushes and pads, just use soap and water.

wash the brushes and all equipment used

Image credits: thehomedepot.com

For oil-based stains, you have to use a mineral spirit to wash out your brushes and rags. Be very careful because rags with stain or pre-stain on them have a chance to combust spontaneously.

Disposing of them properly is essential. Soak the rags in water and allow them to dry flat outside. Once they’ve dried, you can throw them away in the trash.

Why Should You Stain Wood Furniture?

If you’re wondering whether or not you should stain your wood furniture, don’t worry. We have discussed the benefits of staining wood in the section below so you can decide if the benefits are worth making you stain your wood surface.

1. Prevents Rotting

Staining your wood projects ensures your furniture does not rot, and this lengthens its lifespan.

2. Protects from Sunlight and Moisture

Too much exposure to direct sunlight can also damage unsealed wood, making it discolored. However, if you steal furniture with wood stains, it will last longer.

3. Preserves Aesthetics

The aesthetics of wood lies in its natural appearance. Unlike painting, staining allows the wood grain to remain visible.

4. Simplicity

Most surfaces look beautiful when painted, but applying and maintaining the paint requires a lot of time and effort. On the other hand, wood staining is simpler and does not take so much.

5. Saves You Money

Wood stain is cheaper and more cost-effective than paint for high-traffic areas.

Frequently Asked Questions on How to Stain Wood Furniture

1. How do you stain wood furniture for beginners?

Staining wood furniture can be confusing if you are a beginner and need help figuring out what to do. So, here’s what you need to do.

  1. Fill all holes and cracks and let the wood filler dry
  2. Sand the wood surface to achieve a smooth finish
  3. Wipe the surface to remove any loose particles
  4. Apply a wood conditioner to prevent patchiness
  5. Do a stain test to ensure you know how your wood surface will react with the given stain
  6. Mix the stain to ensure you have a uniform pigment
  7. Use a paintbrush or a synthetic bristle brush (depending on the type of stain you use) to apply stain on the furniture.
  8. Let it rest and wipe the excess stain
  9. Finish by cleaning up your equipment

2. What is the best way to apply stain to wood furniture?

The best way to apply stain to wood furniture is by using a lint-free rag to wipe into the grain of the wood. A lint-free rag controls the amount of stain applied and is suitable for removing the excess stain.

3. What kind of stain do you use on wood furniture?

Oil-based stains are the best if you plan to stain your wood furniture. Oil-based stains take more time to dry, which is why they are the best, as the slower drying time gives furniture and any other large wood surfaces a more even finish. These stains penetrate deeper, leaving a richer color that would be easier to refresh with another coat.

4. Can you stain wood without sanding?

Yes, it is possible to stain wood well without sanding. But to do this, you first clean the wood properly and apply gel stain. You can also apply gel stain over finished wood without sanding. Gel stain can either darken the wood color or remain the same. However, for bare wood, you may need to sand it a little before staining.

5. What happens if stains are not wiped off?

Wood stains are meant to go deep into the wood’s grain, not just to cover the top layer. Spreading it too thickly or failing to remove the excess may cause the material to stick and spoil the job.

6. Can you stain over varnish?

When staining new, untreated wood, the results are always superior. For the best results, rough up and clean the previous varnish coat to eliminate any dirt, dust, or debris. By doing this, you’ll give the stain more surface texture to stick to.

Final Thoughts

This is all there is to know about staining wood furniture like a pro. Following these steps will make you the smoothest and cleanest finish. Just read the instructions on the stain cans before you apply them, as every brand has its requirements.

Let us know in the comments how you’ve come into the world of staining and whether our steps have helped you. Happy staining!

Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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