Under 2 hours
Interior wood stains and finishes are coatings that protect the surface of furniture while promoting a dramatic look from the natural grain. Learning how to apply wood stain allows you to bring out the rich colors and textures of the wood. This guide will show you how to stain wood and include tips for staining wood furniture.
Repair As Needed with Wood Putty
The steps to staining wood begin with examining what you plan to stain. If the wood has damage on the surface, use wood putty or filler to fill in any holes or divets.
Sand and clean the surface of the wood. Then, apply wood filler using a putty knife. Once filler is dry, sand the area until the surface is level and smooth. Then apply stain or other finish as desired.
Tip: As the name suggests, stain can leave permanent discolorations on whatever it touches. Put down drop cloths and take all other precautions when staining wood. Follow these steps to learn how to apply wood stain like a pro.
- When preparing wood for stain, you’ll need to sand its surface. Use a sanding sponge or orbital sander. Sandpaper with a lower grit number will make wood rougher, allowing more stain to absorb and creating a darker color.
- Start with 120-grit sandpaper for pieces that already have a finish. With unfinished wood, start with 80-grit sandpaper and then treat it as if you're refinishing it.
- When you have removed imperfections and sanded the entire surface, wipe off the dust and loose sandpaper grit.
- Sand with 180-grit until you've removed all the marks left by the 120-grit and the surface appears level.
- Brush clean.
Tip: When learning how to stain furniture, remember that a chemical wood stain remover can extract stain from places the sander can't reach. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for using chemical stain removers.
Wet the Wood
- Wipe down the wood to raise the grain. If you don't raise the grain at this point in the process, the stain will raise it later. However, re-sanding to get the wood smooth again removes much of the stain.
- Let the wood dry, then sand with 180 to 220-grit paper.
- Remove dust with a clean cloth.
Apply Conditioner or Filler as Needed
As you continue to learn how to stain wood, take the type of wood you’re working with into account.
- Some softwoods, like pine, and some hardwoods, such as cherry, turn blotchy when stained. In this case, consider applying a pre-stain wood conditioner, which seeps into the wood fibers to seal the material and prevent the uneven absorption that causes blotching.
- If you use a gel stain, you can apply it without needing a conditioner.
- Some woods such as mahogany and oak have an open-grain structure that needs filling to provide a smooth finish. Grain filler is a pigmented paste that comes in a variety of colors. Choose one to match the wood or stain color and apply with paint brushes or rags to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Remove excess with a scraper and lightly sand after drying.
Stain the Wood
- Thoroughly stir the wood stain before applying.
- Use a rag or cloth instead of a sponge, which may absorb the stain. When applying, the cloth should be wet but not dripping. Test on a piece of scrap wood.
- You can apply stain across the grain of the wood or with the grain of the wood. The way you apply the stain onto the wood is less important than applying plenty of it. Follow manufacturer’s directions for the staining application instructions.
- Stain usually cannot be removed after application. It's better to apply thinner coats and add more as needed, rather than apply too much and have a darker color than you want.
Remove Excess Stain
- Remove the excess stain with paint rags by wiping with the grain. You can use old T-shirts as rags, if that's what you have.
- If the stain has dried too much, it will be difficult to remove. Loosen it by applying more stain and rubbing vigorously. If it dries hard, paint thinner will loosen it.
Apply Sealant as Needed
- Applying a topcoat sealer is not required, but a finish protects the stained wood from scratches and keeps it from fading over time.
- If applying a polyurethane wood finish with a brush, apply one to two coats.
- If using a spray can, hold 8 to 12 inches from the surface and apply two or three light coats.
- Be prepared for drying time to take at least a day.
Wood Stain Types
Types of wood stains include oil-based, water-based and gel-based. Use safety equipment and follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using any wood stain. Don’t mix different types of stains while working on a project.
If you’re focusing on how to stain a wood table or other large pieces of furniture, oil-based stain is typically a good choice. Because they take more time to dry, oil-based wood stains come out more evenly. They’re also more durable. Oil-based stains contain harsh chemicals. Work outdoors or in a well-ventilated space, like a room with the windows open.
To clean rags and brushes used with oil-based stain, use mineral spirits. Follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions when working with mineral spirits, especially when it comes to disposing of the rags you use. When not dried and properly discarded, they can burst into flames.
Water-based stains dry quickly and work well for smaller projects. Because they penetrate the surface, water-based stains raise the grain of the wood. Water-based stains are more environmentally friendly than oil-based ones, though you should still take safety precautions. Also, all you need to clean up after using water-based stain is soap and water.
Gel-based stains are a cross between a wood stain and paint. These stains are thicker and provide better control of the color. They are messier to work with than water-based or oil-based products. To clean up after using gel-based stains, use mineral spirits.
Learning how to apply wood stain provides an alternative to painting a piece of furniture while emphasizing its natural color and texture. When using interior wood stains, mastering how to apply stain can give any wood surface a whole new look. As you figure out how to stain wood, remember that stains add color, but don’t protect the wood. To prevent damage from water, light and everyday use, you’ll need to add a finish to the wood.
To find all the stains you need to complete your project, shop using The Home Depot Mobile App.