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Tips: Painting and Staining

Staining Wood Cabinets and Furniture

Preparing the Wood

Once the piece is free of the old finish and has had time to dry, you are ready to sand the wood. Depending on how good a job you were able to do with the stripper, you may not have a lot of sanding to do. Just start with 120 grit paper to clean off any finish which may remain and to smooth out any bad places in the wood. Then smooth the whole piece down with 220 grit paper. Finishing sanders are particularly good for quickly achieving a uniform smoothness. When sanding by hand, be sure to sand with the grain.

The quality of your final finish depends largely upon the care you take when sanding. No amount of stain or varnish will correct a bad sanding job. In fact, stain will emphasize any rough places, swirl marks or other defects. Take the time to do a good job. It makes a big difference.

Filling the Grain

Some woods have a tight grain and do not require grain filler. Others, like oak and mahogany, have an open grain structure that must be filled if you hope to achieve a smooth, even finish.

Grain filler comes as a pigmented paste in a range of colors. If you want to emphasize the grain of the wood, select a color that contrasts with the natural color of the wood or the color you intend to stain it. If you want to de-emphasize the wood grain, select a color that closely matches the anticipated finish color of the wood. You may want to test your planned finish on a piece of a similar wood. Use the filler, stain and final finish just as you plan to do on the project. This will let you see if you are on the right track.

Grain filler may be applied before or after the stain. Consult the labels of the materials you are using for their recommendations.

Use a rag or stiff paint brush to apply the paste filler. Work it into the grain and let it dry as instructed on the product packaging. Then, remove the excess filler with a plastic scraper or a smooth, round-edged putty knife. Hold the putty knife at a slight angle to the wood surface. Be careful not to damage the wood. Allow the filler to dry completely and lightly sand with the grain. 

Applying Sanding Sealer

Applying sanding sealer is like priming the wood. The sealer reduces the tendency of some woods to absorb stain unevenly. Sealing end-grain prevents the wood from absorbing too much stain and creating very dark areas. Sealer can also be applied after staining and filling to reduce the number of finish coats which will be necessary.

Sanding sealers are available commercially, or you can create your own by thinning the material you intend to use for the final finish with an equal part of the appropriate thinner for that product.

Apply a heavy coat of sealer to your project, and allow it to soak into the wood for a few minutes. Wipe off any excess with a clean rag. Allow the sealer to dry completely before lightly sanding with fine (220 grit) sandpaper. 

What Kind of Stain Should I Use?

If you are refinishing furniture, you are almost certainly going to be using stain to achieve the color you desire and to reduce the contrasts between different wood varieties which may have been used in the construction of the furniture. There are several different types of stains and dyes which may be used to color wood. 

Oil-Based stain

Liquid oil-based stains penetrate into the wood without raising the wood grain. They are permanent, and when properly used, yield very good results. The color can be darkened by multiple applications and by lengthening the time the stain is allowed to penetrate the wood.

These stains do have a strong odor and must be cleaned up with mineral spirit type solvents. 

Water-Based stains

Liquid water-based stains are more environmentally friendly than traditional oil-based products. As with oil-based stains, you can deepen the color of the stain with multiple applications. Water-based stains are convenient and require only a soap and water cleanup.

The major drawback of water-based products is the fact that they can raise the grain of the wood. To minimize this possibility, dampen the wood with a moist rag. Allow the wood to dry completely, and finish sand again with fine sandpaper. Then, repeat the process. This conditions the wood to accept the water-based products with less raised grain. 

Gel Stains

Unlike liquid stains, gels are thick. They are usually oil-based, and allow excellent color control because of the thickness of the stain. They do not swell the wood grain, and cannot run like liquid stains. They do require that the wood piece be buffed between coats to remove any residual stain. Gel stains are also more expensive than liquid stains. 

One Step Stain/Finishes

One step stain/finishes are popular because of their ease of use. After all, the color and finish are applied to the piece at the same time, eliminating several steps and possibly several hours of work. It can be more difficult to achieve a very good finish with these products. The finish itself is tinted, so the color lies on top of the wood instead of being absorbed into it like penetrating stain. Thicker areas of finish will therefore have more color than thinner areas. Brush marks against the grain or other surface imperfections will be more evident in the final finish. Also, these finishes are less transparent and may obscure desirable grain characteristics. 

Applying Stains

Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the product you are using. In general, liquid stains are applied with a rag or brush and allowed to penetrate into the wood. The longer the stain is allowed to penetrate, the darker the color will be. This only works to a certain extent, however. The excess stain is then wiped off with a clean rag and the piece is allowed to dry. If a darker finish is desired, these steps are repeated.

Gel finishes are applied with a rag, rubbed on and wiped off as necessary to achieve the desired color and tone. The furniture piece should be buffed with a dry clean rag when the stain has been allowed to dry for the recommended time.

For best results when using water-based stains and finishes, follow the tips presented in water-based stains

The Final Finish

Your choice of top coating is a matter of personal preference. Penetrating oil finishes are easy to apply and look great with a soft, natural appearance. They afford less protection than varnish or lacquer finishes. Polyurethane creates a hard, durable finish, and is available in a range of sheens. Water-based polyurethanes are very easy to use and are environmentally friendly. Lacquer gives a durable and luscious finish, but requires more skill and effort to apply. Your decision about which finish to use will depend on your confidence level and the piece you are finishing.

Undisplayed Graphic

Water-based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethanes are becoming very popular because they are easy to use and are environmentally friendly. They do require a different finishing technique. Before applying the finish, rub down the project with a damp cloth. Allow the wood to dry and then sand to remove the raised grain. You may want to do this a couple of times to reduce the tendency of the water in the finish to raise the grain when it is applied. This should be unnecessary if you have already used this technique when applying water-based stain.

If you have never used water-based polyurethane before, do not be alarmed by the white, milky color of the product as it is applied. It will quickly dry to a completely transparent clear. Unlike solvent-based finishes, it will not lend an amber tint to the wood, which could be a positive, or a negative, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Water-based polyurethanes also dry quickly, requiring little time between coats. 


Polyurethane is an extremely durable finish that is resistant to both water and alcohol. It is available in a range of sheens to help you achieve the look you desire. When using satin or semi-gloss formulations, be sure to stir the product well to keep the flattening agents in suspension. Avoid creating bubbles when stirring and when applying with a brush. After loading the brush, tap it lightly against the side of the can instead of dragging it across the lip.

Brush polyurethane with the grain in long, overlapping strokes. Apply several thin coats, sanding between coats with 220 grit paper.

One of the most common mistakes people make when using polyurethane is trying to apply thick coats. This can cause running, wrinkling, and sagging, and is a sure way to ruin your finish. 


Lacquer can be used to achieve a beautiful finish. Lacquer is considered more difficult to apply than other clear finishes because it requires several coats with sanding in between. It dries very quickly and is usually sprayed rather than brushed. It cannot be used over paint or other topcoats since it will soften and lift the finish.

For the best finish, lacquer should be sprayed. There is at least one product available which combines a lacquer base with a sealer in an easily applied topcoat which can be sprayed or brushed. If you use a brush, work quickly and apply lacquer with the grain using a good, natural bristle brush.

A properly applied lacquer finish is a thing of beauty worthy of the finest furniture. A hand rubbed lacquer finish has a deep, soft gloss and does not have the plastic appearance of many polyurethanes. The final coat can be rubbed out with 0000 steel wool and paste wax, or it can be polished with polishing compound (automotive compound is fine) for a soft luster. 

Penetrating Oil Finishes

Penetrating oil finishes are easy to apply and produce handsome results. "Tung oil," "Danish oil" and "Antique oil" finishes fall in this category. They are good choices for antiques or fine furniture which will not be subject to a lot of wear and tear. Choose another type of finish if extreme durability is a requirement.

Oil finishes are applied to the wood, allowed to soak for a certain amount of time, and then any excess is removed by rubbing and buffing with a rag. Several coats are applied.

Small scratches and defects can be easily repaired by simply sanding the defect and rubbing more oil finish in the affected area. The entire finish can be renewed periodically by rubbing in an additional coat. It is also a good idea to use paste wax on furniture finished using penetrating oils. The wax will give additional protection while complementing the appearance of this finish.