Stain Wood Furniture Like a Pro

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 about how it's done, then this guide is just 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:

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.

After you've filled the cracks and holes, let the wood filler dry and then move on to the next step. You can learn more about this at

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 a 180 grit sandpaper. Then repeat using a 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 without sanding it 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 cloth.

A tack cloth is sticky, so it easily picks up dust that our eyes can't see.

4. Use Pre-stain Conditioners

Using pre-stain wood conditioners allows 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.

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 a 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.

Oil-based Pre-stain Conditioner

You can either use a rag or a brush to apply this 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, then doing this will help to know you got the right type of wood.

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

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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:

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:

Oil-based Stains

For this type, you can use a paint brush or just a rag to apply it. 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 the best idea 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, just 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 you see the color get lighter, that's your signal to re-dip the rag or brush. This careful observation will give your piece an even color and layer.

Water-based Stains

For this type of stain, you can use a synthetic bristle brush or a foam brush. Many people recommend—and we do too—to use the synthetic brush if you want an excellent result. 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

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

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.

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 once again, 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 yourself 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 Clean-up

Finally, we're at the end. After you're done with applying the stain, let's get to cleaning.

For those who've used a water-based stain, the cleanup will be easy. To clean your brushes and pads, just use soap and water.

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 spontaneously combust.

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.

Final Thoughts

This is it—all there is to know about staining wood furniture like a pro. If you follow these steps, we're sure you'll get the smoothest and cleanest finish. Just remember to read the instructions on the stain cans before you apply it as every brand has its own requirements.

Let us know in the comments how you've come into the world of staining and if our steps have helped you out or not. Happy staining!

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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.