How to Stain Wood
Old, worn wood does have charm, but its appeal is limited. Picture frames and wall decorations? Maybe. Floors and furniture? Not so much.
Nothing brings new life to old wood than refinishing, but regardless of the size of the project — whether rejuvenating your hardwood floors or revitalizing your grandmother’s old chair — it is an intimidating prospect, even for those accustomed to do-it-yourself projects.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. In fact, with a few simple steps and a little patience, you can engage refinishing projects with excellent results, and the biggest cost to you is your time.
Preparing for your project
Choose the right wood stain: Unless you are planning to use paint to finish your floors or furniture, the final appearance of the wood will depend on two things: the type of wood and the stain. Following are tips for purchasing the right stain for your project.
- Make the right choice between water-based and oil stains: Stains are generally made with either water or oil, and it is important to choose the right type for your project.
- Water-based: Water-based stains are fast-drying, low-odor, and require less clean-up. These are generally best for smaller projects.
- Oil-based: Oil-based stains dry slower, but this makes them better for larger projects like floors and cabinets. They also require less sanding.
- Choose a color that will enhance the wood’s natural appearance: Stains are absorbed into the pores of the surface, so the final color is a combination of the wood’s natural appearance and that of the stain that you select. Following are a few popular woods and some general tips about how they stain:
- Oak: Oak is popular for good reason. It has strong, open pores and works well with stains. It is a perfect for canvas for any color stain.
- Maple: Since it is dense and tight-pored, maple doesn’t absorb much stain, and therefore is more suitable for light to medium colored stains.
- Pine: Pine will stain unevenly if you use darker colors, so if the natural beauty of pine doesn’t meet your aesthetic wants, consider light to medium colors.
- Cherry and mahogany: There are many wood types that are known for their natural beauty, and their make-up seems to imply that they shouldn’t be stained at all. Cherry and mahogany are two such woods. Attempts to stain these woods may be futile and will likely mar their rich, natural appearance.
Stock up on supplies: As with any do-it-yourself project, it is important to have the necessary tools on hand. Nothing is worse than having to stop mid-project for another trip to the hardware or painting supply store. Aside from the stain, make sure to purchase the following:
- Dust mask
- Thick and thin stripper
- Power sander
- Sandpaper in a variety of grains
- High-quality cloths
- Finishing supplies, like varnish, shellac or lacquer
Engaging the process
When you breakdown the actual process of staining wood, it is quite simple. That said there is one critical detail: safety. Be sure to wear a dust mask throughout the project to prevent inhalation of dust particles during sanding and toxic fumes during the staining and finishing steps in the process. You will also want to find a well-ventilated area to work, particularly if you are using oil-based products. This will ensure the safety of you, your family, and pets while your project is underway.
- Remove old paint, stain, or other debris from the wood: Before applying stain, make sure that you have removed any of the previous finish from the wood. This will not only allow for a smooth application of the new color, but it will open the pores of the wood to absorb the stain you have selected. For most jobs, you will want to use stripper to remove as much of the finish from the wood as possible. Then sand whatever remains to ensure a smooth, finish-free surface. Make sure to sand in the direction of the grain to avoid scratches.
- Stain the wood: Find a well-ventilated location for the staining and finishing. Using a cloth or rag, rub the stain onto the wood in the direction of the grain. Apply it liberally, and allow it to sit to full absorb the color. Remember that the longer that you leave it on, the darker and richer the color will be. Use a clean cloth to wipe off any excess stain. Allow it to dry, per the instructions on the can.
- Apply finish: To protect the surface, make sure to apply a clear finish once the stain has dried. Again, follow the instructions on the can. Keep in mind that finishes, particularly polyurethane, will emit a strong scent, called “off-gassing.” This lasts longer for oil-based products than it does for those that are water-based.
Tips for a perfect job
- When using chemicals to strip the old finish, be patient. Let the stripper do its job.
- Make sure to use a pre-stain conditioner when working with woods that don’t absorb stain evenly, like alder or birch. Keep in mind that the conditioner should be made of the same solvent as the stain and the finisher.
- Stir the can of stain well before using to ensure that all of the pigments have been mixed together.
- Don’t forget the importance of going with the grain in every step of the process, from sanding to finishing.
Although it can be daunting, a refinishing project can be quite easy. With the right stain, the appropriate supplies, and some patience, that old wood will appear as good as new.
Chris Long has been an on-the-floor Home Depot store associate in the Chicago suburbs since 2000. Chris frequently writes for the Home Depot website on painting topics, as well as tips on DIY wood stain projects.
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