Tips on Staining Wood Furniture

Learn how to revive and restore old wood furniture or apply a fresh coat of stain to new furniture.

June 08, 2021

basics of staining wood

You can save money by staining unfinished furniture. But staining is scary because it is permanent, so you have to be careful. There are also a lot of products to use, including oil-based and water-based stains and wood conditioners, so it can get confusing.

How to Stain Wood Furniture

  • When working with stain, protect eyes and skin by wearing safety glasses and disposable rubber gloves. Remember, anything that can permanently stain wood will also stain clothes, floors and work surfaces.

  • Always test stain on a piece of scrap wood before starting on the furniture.

  • So that the stain doesn’t leave blotches on the wood, apply a thin coat of wood conditioner first using an inexpensive brush. Give the conditioner about 15 minutes to dry before applying the stain, but don't sand it, there’s no need.

  • Oil-based stains consist of dyes and pigments mixed in with mineral spirits. Make sure to stir the stain thoroughly before staining so that the dyes and pigments are fully mixed together and you'll get the full intended color of the stain. There will be fumes when working with oil-based stains, so make sure to always work in a well-ventilated area.

  • Apply stain with a brush or a rag, depending on preference. With a staining brush, work both with the grain and against it. Don't worry about being neat; all that matters is getting a nice, even, liberal coat over the wood. Wipe the stain off immediately if you'd like a lighter tone. But for a deeper tone, leave the stain on the wood for 5 to 10 minutes before wiping it off.

  • Be sure to wipe off all the excess stain going in the direction of the grain of the wood. That will guarantee that the stain gets into the wood instead of laying on top, which will really show off the grain of the wood.

  • One of the advantages of water-based stains is that they come in a wide variety of colors, even more colors than oil-based ones. Apply the water-based stain in the same way as oil-based. To avoid fumes, go with a water-based stain.

  • If, after the stain has dried, you decide that you'd like it darker, simply apply more stain.

  • Stain only provides color, not a finish. Always apply a finish on top of stained wood. Another option is to use a formula that combines both stain and finish with one coat. The product will need to be brushed on more carefully to avoid streaking, so use a high-quality paintbrush and apply the formula with the grain of the wood.

  • It is possible to mix stain to make a customized color, provided both stains are made by the same manufacturer and both are either water-based or oil-based. Do not mix oil and water. Measure the amounts of each stain used and write it down, so you can duplicate it if necessary.

  • A water-based finish can be put over an oil-based stain, but only after waiting a full 24 hours for all of the mineral spirits to evaporate from the oil-based stain. If the weather is rainy, damp or cold, give it an additional 24 hours of curing time.

  • Keep old cans of stain. Stains can be expensive, and the nice thing about them is that they don’t tend to set up in the can like the finish will. If there is a skin coat on the top when the can is opened, toss it. But otherwise, it’s still good to use.

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