If you read through this and still have questions, check out my post 10 Tips for Staining Wood. You can also leave a comment or email me!
About twelve years ago, my mother went to an antique shop and bought an old farmhouse table. It had potential, but it was fairly ugly. The original stain was old. It had big burn marks all over it, scratches, scrapes, water marks, gum stuck to the bottom, etc. It was a mess. For twelve years, she’s been wanting it sanded and restained. With other house-related projects needing more immediate attention (plus a job that requires a lot of travel), the table was put on the bottom of my dad’s To-Do list.
Last week, I went to visit my mom. For some reason, we wound up on the topic of the table and how she wished it would get done. So I went into town, bought the supplies I needed, and had every intention of immediately getting to work.
But we couldn’t figure out how to get the stupid table outside. It was too big to go through the doors and neither of us is very strong. So I waited a couple days for my dad to come home from a job.
Mom had already explained our failed endeavor to him, so he knew immediately what I was going to ask (“Can you get the table outside?”) Turns out, it was a good thing that we were unsuccessful. What I didn’t realize (because I couldn’t get it out in the light to investigate, mostly–my mom’s kitchen light currently isn’t working) was that there was a crack in the side of it, making it a bigger project than it normally would have been. But I had already bought the supplies and Dad hated the way the table looked.
So he sent me to the hardware store to get him the tools he needed to fix the crack. (In case you’re curious, he used a 3-foot bar clamp, Gorilla wood glue, and some walnut wood putty/filler.) And then we got to sanding. Or Dad did. He only had one sander and we determined that he’s better at that than I am. 😛
On to the tutorial!
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How to Stain Wood Furniture
What you’ll need:
- 1 qt. Minwax Polyshades Satin Wood Stain, Antique Walnut (obviously the shade and finish you use are up to you)
- 5-inch random orbit sander
- 5-inch 8 hole sandpaper–fine grit and rough grit (the higher the number, the finer the grit)
- Walnut wood putty/filler (the shade will change depending on the type of wood or stain you’re using)
- Wood glue
- Stain brush
- Paint thinner/gasoline
I recommend getting all of this at an actual store, rather than Amazon. Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart, and Ace Hardware are usually cheaper. Especially for the stain.
Sand your table with the low grit paper, ridding it of any flaws you don’t want (Dad left a lot of flaws, since Mom wanted it to retain its “character” as an old table). Fill in any cracks, unwanted holes, etc. with your wood filler. Smooth it out. Sand the whole table again (wood filler included) with a higher grit paper until it’s smooth and even.
Those dark areas are where the wood filler is.
If you sand it correctly the second time, you won’t even be able to tell the filler is there once you’re ready to stain. It will look just like the rest of the table.
I forgot to get a picture of it after it was completely sanded. Moving on!
Before you begin staining, make sure you remove all of the saw dust from sanding…not just from the table, but from the rest of your area, as well. Otherwise, a gust of wind will come along and blow all of that dust into your nice, pretty stain. If that happens and you wind up with dust stuck in your stain, you’re going to just have to sand it out and put another layer of stain on it. (So having some foresight will save you a lot of extra work.)
3. Let’s Discuss Polyshades
Once your table is completely sanded, put on the first coat of stain. I used Polyshades, which comes with the the polyurethane (a sealer) mixed in with the stain. This means that each coat of stain will be sealed once it’s dry. A lot of people don’t like Polyshades because they find it difficult to get the shade they want after the first coat.
The two complaints I hear most often are:
1) it doesn’t go on dark enough, and
2) it turns out blotchy.
To put it bluntly, any problems like these that you may experience with Polyshades are likely because you’re doing it wrong. I found that a lot of people who complained about the stain never getting any darker were also rubbing it in with a rag like it’s a normal stain. That’s not how you’re supposed to use Polyshades.Polyshades isn't a normal stain, so don't treat it like one. Click To Tweet
With a normal stain and a separate poly, you will need a rag to wipe off any excess stain. If you’re using Polyshades, though, you do not use a rag. All you’ll wind up doing is rubbing off most of the stain, leaving you with a MUCH lighter color than you wanted.
As far as blotchiness, most of the people who complained about that were either putting it on too thick or they weren’t letting it dry long enough before applying the next coat. You must let it dry the full amount of time stated on the can. (I’ll be repeating this a lot.)
The best way to stain using Polyshades is to just make sure you’re using very thin, even strokes. If you do this correctly, you won’t need to worry about brush marks (though I like to use sponges instead of brushes). Also, make sure you put each coat on as quickly as possible because it doesn’t take long to get tacky (and brushing it while it’s tacky will leave permanent brush marks). So don’t stop in between strokes to admire your work or check the instructions. Just get it done.
To achieve a darker color with Polyshades all you do is wait for it to dry completely, do a light sand (the second coat needs something to grab on to), add your next coat, and repeat until it’s the color you want it to be.
Let the first coat dry for 6 hours. Do not skimp on the drying time. Just because it feels dry to the touch does NOT mean that it is ready for another coat. Trust me. Let it dry the full 6 hours. If it still feels tacky or there are still blotchy areas, give it an extra 2 hours.Just because your stain feels dry to the touch, that does not mean it is! Click To Tweet
What happens if I put another coat on too soon? Two things could happen. First, you could wind up with nasty brush marks and the only way to get rid of those is to sand them out. Second, your table will always be sticky. Always. If you use nail polish, you’ve probably learned this lesson hundreds of times–if you don’t let the first coat completely dry before adding another, it will never dry. Your nails will be tacky, marks will show up in the paint easier, socks will leave fiber indentations, etc. The same thing will happen with your table.Stain is like nail polish. If you don't let the first coat dry, it will always feel tacky. Click To Tweet
However, you will notice that I still had some blotches. This isn’t partially because of how different parts of the table absorbed the stain. Mom got this table at an antique shop and it had been through a lot. There were deep scratches and black burn marks in multiple areas. We had to sand really deeply in order to get some of those marks out completely. This means that the wood wasn’t quite the same in all areas. But I felt the blotches gave it more character. And they’re not very noticeable.
Here it is after the first coat:
5. Getting the stain into those dents and crevices
If you have little “character marks” throughout your wood, simply running the brush over them will not get the stain in there. You’ll need to actually rub the brush into those marks.
Don’t load your brush with stain before doing that, just use the excess that’s already on the brush.
Every time you get to an area with character marks, rub the brush into them until the stain goes in.
Don’t wait to do this at the end of the coat or your stain will be tacky and you’ll leave brush marks. Plus you’ll probably miss a few of them because they’re easier to see as you stain. Rub them as you find them, then run your brush over it again quickly to smooth it out.
6. Keeping my brush from drying between coats
Six hours will give it enough time for the stain to dry and completely destroy your brush, so use the paint thinner/gasoline is to clean off your brush in between coats.
Put some paint thinner in a small container you don’t mind destroying (we used gasoline because it was what we had and we put it in the lid to an empty can of spray paint). Swirl your brush around in it, rub it with a towel or rag, and then rinse it off. Shake off the excess water, and let it air dry.
If you don’t have any paint thinner or gasoline on hand, find a plastic baggie (something that seals completely). Put the brush in there and then put the baggie in the fridge. I use this method a lot and it keeps my brushes from drying out for weeks. It also works with paint.To keep stain brushes from drying, put them in a baggie and stick them in the fridge. Click To Tweet
7. Preparing the table for another coat
Once the first coat has completely dried, gently run steel wool over it. As I said earlier, Polyshades has polyurethane in it, which seals each coat. To give the next coat something to latch on to (and keep it from looking blotchy), you need to rough it up a bit. Don’t overdo it or you’ll just wind up removing all of the stain.
For the record, I did not put a second coat on the legs. They didn’t need any extra protection, so I only put a second coat on the top.
Note: If you’re using stain without poly mixed in, then you don’t really need to use steel wool on the first coat. I recommend using steel wool only if you need to get rid of any bubbles, lint, hair, etc. that tend to get trapped in the stain. This usually doesn’t happen until after the second coat, though.
8. Adding the next coat
After you’ve finished with the steel wool, put on another coat. How you do this will depend on what you want the color to look like.
If you want it really dark, but you intend to add more coats after the second one, put it on the same way as you did the first coat (or even slightly thicker). From there, you will repeat the process of dry time, steel wool, and stain.
If you want it to be just a little bit darker and don’t want to put on more than two coats, then put it on thick. Really thick. And do it VERY FAST.
Go from end-to-end (very important), instead of doing one half and then the other (which is how I did my first coat). You want to do this in sections. Put it on really thick, all the way down the table, and then run your brush back across it in a straight line, end-to-end, at a 45 degree angle to even it out.
This is why you have to put it on very fast and in sections. If you waste time, it will start to dry and get tacky, which will leave brush marks. Do this until you’ve finished that coat.
Once you’ve put on your last coat, let it dry completely. If you used stain and poly separately, add the coat of poly after the stain has dried. Once the poly dries, move it back inside.
Don’t set anything on it for about 24-48 hours. (If this will be a problem in your household, then leave it outside in a garage or another place where it won’t get wet or dirty.)
I’d go for 48, if you can. I tried to restain my own kitchen table and put my tablecloth on too soon. Everything stuck to it–lint, loose threads (I had to cut those, or else risk unraveling the tablecloth), and, naturally, cat hair. It also left a little pattern in some areas. I wound up having to redo the whole thing.
MUCH better! As soon as she gets new chairs (those are from a table she used to have in the kitchen), it will look even nicer. It also goes very well with the new floors she wants to install. Maybe that will be a project for another day. Whenever Dad gets more time off to show me how, that is. 😛
Update 11/18/13: I never got a picture of the table with its new chairs! These were done back in September and they’re so much nicer than those ugly purple ones.
We got Ivar chairs from Ikea and I stained them with the same Antique Walnut stain that’s on the table.
I stained the chairs after I put them together. I recommend not doing that. Instead, open the boxes, make sure nothing is missing and everything fits (I’d even go as far as to put them together and take them apart again), and then stain each individual piece of the chairs. Once they’re dry, put them together. Your stain will look more even and you’ll be able to actually see what you’re doing.
I’ll update this again after I get a picture of all the chairs and the bench Dad and I put together. 🙂