One of the posts I get the most questions about is How to Stain Wood Furniture. It was a pretty long post, but still didn’t cover everything it could have. So I’ve written a follow-up for it. It’s pretty long, so let’s get started!
10 Tips for Staining Wood
1. Read the can.
Yeah, this is a cheap “tip” considering that it should just be common sense. But I do get a lot of emails asking me questions that are easily answered by just reading (or rereading) the back of the can.
The first thing that comes to mind is drying time. Do not skimp on the drying time. I don’t care if it FEELS dry. It can start to FEEL dry 2 minutes after you put on the first coat. That doesn’t mean it is. If you skimp on the drying time, put on another coat too early, and end up with a tacky surface, you have only yourself to blame. These recommendations exist for a reason. (I know I sound super mean here, but I have received FAR too many emails asking, “Where did I go wrong?” or even flat out blaming me or the product. The fact is that they didn’t follow directions. End of story.)
Another important tip from the back of the can: if you’re using a regular stain (not Polyshades) remember to wipe off the excess. Don’t let it dry on top of the wood, it will only peel off later.
2. Test the stain on a spare piece of wood.
There is nothing worse than putting on a coat of stain that you think is what you want…and then finding out it, well, wasn’t. Now what do you do? There are products you can use to pull the stain from the wood before it dries. Or sand it down and start again. Both of those are a huge pain, though, so it’s best to just be absolutely sure it will look right.
For the purposes of testing, go with the same type of wood that my project is made out of, because stains can look different on different woods. If you’re not sure what type of wood it is, take a photo to show people at Lowe’s or Home Depot (or anywhere else that sells lumber). They can help you identify it.
Give yourself an extra day or two, so the test wood has plenty of time to dry. Dry stain looks much different than wet stain.
If you can, it’s better to give yourself a week, so you can see what the dried stain looks like under different lighting (as you would when picking out paint colors for a room). But it’s not completely necessary.
3. Don’t overload your brush.
This is a common error, and one a lot of people make when they’re used to using regular stains or gel stains. Because the excess gets wiped off with those, it doesn’t matter as much if you over-saturate the wood. However, it’s a problem if you’re using Polyshades. Basically, if you can see stain pooling on your brush (or dripping from it), you have too much.
Don’t think you can put a ton of stain on your brush, slap it on the wood, and then just thin it out as you go. First, you’ll risk brush strokes. Second, the stain will pool. Even if it looks like you’ve thinned it out, once you turn your back, it will have pooled together again, and usually in places that are difficult for you to see until it’s too late. Your options then are to either go over it once more (which will cause brush strokes, because stain gets tacky pretty quickly) or let it dry. If you let it dry, it will probably drip and you’ll need to sand out the drips. Depending on how bad it is, you may have to sand down the whole piece again.
It’s easier to just do it right the first time. Or use something besides Polyshades, if you know you’re a sloppy stainer. But it should be noted that I have had a lot of people complain to me about this product…and the problem always turns out to be that they used it wrong. They all seem to have luck with the gel stains, though, so check those out if you want to be completely sure.
When not using Polyshades, get as much stain on the wood as you can. Apply it with the grain and then, when you wipe the excess, also wipe in the direction of the grain. (Same with sealing it. Just…always go with the grain.)
4. Keep your brush in the fridge between coats.
This is something I do mostly because I don’t want to have to keep cleaning my brush when I know I’m using it again in an hour or two. If it’s a high quality, expensive brush, you should just clean it between coats. If it’s not a brush you care about, it’s fine to just put it in a sealed storage bag (like Ziploc) and put it in the fridge. This will keep the bristles from hardening for about a week.
Though this method is best if you’re going to do the next coat within a day or two. If you plan to wait a week…just clean the brush.
5. The cheaper the brush, the worse the finished product will look.
I know how tempting it is to get those $1 brushes at Home Depot, but trust me…the brush matters. With cheap brushes, the bristles fall out more easily and get stuck under your stain. They also create brush strokes and don’t even out the stain well enough (increasing your chances of pooling and dripping). My projects NEVER come out nice when I use a cheap brush.
You don’t have to go with the most expensive brushes, though. A $10 Wooster will do the job fine. Also if you’re using Polyshades, the brush quality matters more because the excess stain doesn’t get wiped off. There are also sponge brushes (which I HIGHLY recommend), staining pads (also nice), and rags.
If you’re OK with it being messier and taking longer, rags are a pretty cheap option. But once you’ve used it, you’re done. Toss it in the trash, because stained rags shouldn’t be washed like laundry. They’re highly combustible.
6. Use the right stain for your project.
Projects that take longer to complete (like floors) need a stain that takes longer to dry. Use oil-based stains for those.
For faster drying time and less odor, use a water-based stain.
To finish the stain, you can use water-based or oil-based polys, no matter what you used as your stain. I prefer water-based polycrylic because it doesn’t yellow over time like polyurethane can.
7. If you can’t find the color you’re looking for, try mixing stains.
Pour two stains into a spare container, mix together, and test on a piece of scrap wood until you’re happy with the color. If possible, measure how much of each you put in and write it down. Custom-made stains will dry very quickly if they’re not kept in the can that stain normally comes in. If you want to use the same stain again later and you don’t have an empty stain can to keep it in, you may have to duplicate the recipe. (Those plastic containers they sell at Home Depot don’t really cut it for keeping these stains for long periods of time.)
Just be sure to mix stains that are compatible with each other. Use the same brand, ideally, and make sure they’re the same base. Don’t mix oil-based and water-based together.
8. Seal the can when you’re not using it.
Don’t just put the lid on the can and walk away. It could get knocked over or, if left too long, the stain could dry out. Stains will keep for a long time if you seal them correctly. They may form a skin on the top, but you can remove that and use the stain as normal.
To reseal the can, just lay the lid on top and use a hammer to lock it back into place.
9. Sponges vs Brushes vs Rags
I know many of you are likely thinking, “Well, I’ll use a sponge so I don’t create brush strokes!” Which is a good point. Sponges are REALLY nice. However, check your wood before using one. If it’s got a lot of what my parents call “character marks”–rougher areas, nicks in the wood, etc. that you don’t want to sand out (some people like them)–it’s better to use a brush. The bristles are designed to get into those areas better without having to reload your brush.
With a sponge, you can squeeze the material in there, but remember that sponges hold a lot more stain than brushes do. So when you squeeze, all that stain will come out and you’ll have a mess.
Sponges can still work, but they won’t fix every problem for you.
Rags are a good option, as I said above, but you can’t load as much stain on them. Getting them into hard-to-reach spots is pretty much impossible. And they’re incredibly messy and take much longer.
10. Know the differences between types of stain.
When you’re looking at all the different stains, you’ll notice something. One brand will have multiple versions of the same stains. That’s because they’re made differently.
The biggest difference is with Polyshades. These are completely different from any other stain because they contain polyurethane. Meaning you don’t need to seal it when you’re done…but this also means it gets applied differently than normal stains. (I got into detail about this in my How to Stain Wood Furniture with Polyshades post.)
With normal stains, you apply the stain, wait 15 minutes (or whatever the can says), and then wipe off the excess.
With Polyshades, you don’t wipe it off. You apply the stain and you let it dry. If you want to add another coat, you give it a quick once-over with some steal wool or sand paper (to roughen the surface and give the stain something to latch on to) and then you add your second coat.
A lot of people complain about Polyshades coming out too light and it’s because they’re wiping off the excess stain…because they’re not reading the can. So it seems we’ve come full circle.
What tips would you give for staining?