You want to stain some furniture but you don’t know where to start. I get it, I have been there. It is actually pretty easy when you follow the proper staining steps. Although, if you make one little mistake you could really mess up your final product. I have been staining furniture for years now and its easy to make mistakes, but taking action is the best way to learn from those mistakes.
So, how do you stain furniture?
To stain furniture effectively you must properly clean the piece, then sand the old finish away using a coarse grit sandpaper or use a paint stripper. After removing the old finish, use 220 grit sandpaper to make a smooth surface, then wipe the stain on and off with a lint-free rag.
Of course, there’s more to it than just that and I will go into much detail below to explain the full furniture staining process. First, let’s look at what tools are required to stain furniture.
Tools and Materials Needed To Stain Furniture
Although it isn’t technically required, having an electric sander will save you time and most importantly energy. You can sand by hand, but it is very difficult to remove a finish for staining. You can scuff sand for painitng by hand, but you will be working for hours to sand a surface down fully by hand. I recommend using a random orbital sander to sand away an old finish, I use the Bosch Palm Sander, and I have had it for 2 years and its still working great. I have replaced the pad a few times though, but thats easy.
I also use the BLACK+DECKER Mouse Detail Sander, but this sander is better for just scuff sanding for painting furniture.
You need sandpaper for your electric sander! I always order my sandpaper on Amazon because it is way more affordable than the local hardware stores, like the difference is crazy. You buy like 6 pieces at the hardware store for the same price a pack of 100 is online, isn’t that ridiculouis? Anyway, I use 5 inch sandpaper discs on my Bosch sander, here is a variety pack of 180 pieces of sandpaper, ranging from 60 to 600 grit. I usually buy one huge variety pack just to have the options, but then I order a 100 pack of 180-240 because this is what grit I use before staining.
What is sandpaper grit? I think of sandpaper grit as a rating that gives you either a smooth sanded surface or a rough one. The lower the grit the rougher the sandpaper, for example 60 grit sandpaper is “coarse”, it has a rough bumpy surface and it will remove finish faster than a higher grit sandpaper. However, the surface remaining after it strips away a finish is very rough, this is when I use a higher “fine” grit sandpaper such as 180-240 grit. This higher grit will leave a smooth and even surface, great to apply paint over or to stain over.
Although you don’t need paint stripper, when sanding thin projects like wood veneer it is nice for the stripper to do some of the work for you. Paint stripper will remove the old finish and any old stain colours in the wood. The process is a bit messy though, you pour stripper all over the area you want stripped, wipe it around using an old brush or rag. After anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours you can start scraping it off, this depends on the stripper you purchased. I like the 5 – 15 minute options because it really reduces your time.
After stripping the surface 1-2 times, because usually the first time it doesnt always fully come off, its important to clean off the remaining residue. Use mineral spirits and steel wool to rub the surface clean, after that I just take a rag and wipe everything clean/dry. After the mineral spirits have evaporate you sand the surface clean and smooth with a fine grit sandpaper, anything from 180-240 grit.
You can use other tools and materials in this process, and you may need some but honestly just having an electric sander can get you started. That is how I started my projects! You can also remove old finished with scrapers, I started using a card scraper and a carbide scraper, both are great in certain situations. If you are having a hard time removing old finish in one area just scrape it off! Having the ability to do so with a scraper speeds up sanding times.
I like to have a box of rags on me when staining projects, clean lint-free rags are great for staining, also old cotton t-shirts work amazing too but they may be expensive in large quanities. To clean before staining I love to use a tack cloth, which is like an almost sticky feeling rag that just grabs any dust on the surface, its great!
Of course, you will need stain to stain furniture, but I will get into the best furniture stains below in this article.
2 Types of Stains You Need To Know About
There are two types of stains that you need to know about, penetrating oil stains and gel stains. I won’t go into much detail here because I have a full article called “Gel Stain vs Regular Stain | What’s the Difference?” that you can read to get all the information you need.
Simply put, regular wood stain, also known as a oil-based penetrating wood stain, is a liquid product. It flows like water, so the easiest way to apply it is with a rag. You dip your rag into the product and wipe the surface you are staining. This is the most popular stain choice, if you think if wood stain you usually think of oil stains. These stains penetrate into the surface rather than sitting on top of the surface like a gel stain does.
Now let me explain gel stain, it is still a popular choice and it grows more and more on me. I think I use gel stain more on furniture now than I ever did. It is super forgiving and sometimes you don’t even have to remove all the old finish to make it work, that only works when the gel stain is darker than the current stain though. Gel stain isn’t like regular wood stain, it is a thick pudding and jelly like substance that you wipe on a surface. It does not penetrate the wood like a regular oil stain, it sits on top of the surface similarly to paint, but it looks like a stain. It’s cool. After wiping it on with a rag or foam brush, within minutes wipe off the remaining product with a clean rag. The application process is still the same as other stains, its just a different material. You need to wipe it down and make sure it’s even as you remove it.
How to Stain Furniture in 8 Steps
1. Cleaning and Degreasing
A beginner may not realize the importance of cleaning a piece of furniture when refinishing it. For the ones that don’t know, having dirt and grease on your wooden surface can cause a number of issues when staining. You could have an uneven stained surface or your clear coat may not adhere well causing your furniture to become unprotected, then it damages easy.
Cleaning is important because you don’y know what is or isn’t on your project, especially when you don’t own the piece, if you picked it up at the thrift store, who knows what is on it.
I like to do a quick cleaning process using warm water and dish soap, or a degreasing spray such as Krud Cutter. I just use a clean rag and wipe the entire piece of furniture. Once I used the degreasing products to clean, I then come back with a rag and warm water to make sure the cleaning agents are removed as well. After that I then use a dry rag to wipe it all down to make everything evaporate quicker.
2. Stripping the Old Finish (Sanding or Paint Stripper)
There are two different ways we can remove the old finish on wood furniture, we can use an electric sander or we can use a paint/varnish stripper.
How to Strip Furniture With a Sander:
I prefer a random orbital sander to strip an old finish off a piece of furniture. Another great option, but expensive is the Surf Prep sander. It has a soft foam pad that molds around curves, making it easy to sand the edges. No matter what your sanding method or tool is, start with coarse (low grit) sandpaper to begin stripping the surface. I take a 60 up to a medium grit 120 to remove the old finish. This depends on the condition of the furniture. Sometimes old furniture is brittle from sun damage and it will sand off super easy, this is when I use a medium grit like 100-120. However, most of the time the old finish is still strong so I start with a 60-80 grit and begin sanding through until it slowly removes itself. Apply a small amount of pressure with the sander, but not a lot, the idea is to let the sander do the work, not you. If you don’t apply any pressure it doesn’t work as effectively, but too much will damage your sander and potentially your furniture if you don’t pay enough attention.
It is extremely important to know what you are sanding when you plan on staining. Solid wood is very forgiving since you can sand it down for a long time without going through it, it would take hours to sand through actually. But wood veneer is a different story. Veneer is super thin, it can be found as thin as 1/128th of an inch, and up to 3/32 of an inch, it doesn’t really matter either is still super thin and it puts us, furniture refinishers, at risk. Sanding through veneer is easy and it happens extremely fast when using an electric sander, especially on the edges. I sometimes opt out just sanding to strip a veneer surface and I use a paint stripper to be safe. If you sand through veneer you can’t fix it that easy, and it will depend on how large of an area you sanded through. You will likely need to add pigmented shellac, multiple colors, and use a small brush to match it back to the wood grain. This is NOT easy and it takes a long time. That is why it is crucial you do not sand through the veneer.
How to Strip Furniture With a Paint Stripper:
Using a paint stripper may seem intimidating but it really isn’t. If anything, it is a bit messy if you are a messy person like myself.
To strip the old finish off of furniture, first shake your stripper product in the bottle, then you can pour it over the surface you want stripped. Apply a lot of stripper, if you don’t apply enough your stripper will dry up and it will be ten times harder to remove. Use a foam brush, old paintbrush, or a rag to rub it all over the surface. It is a good idea to wear protective gloves and glasses too.
According to the specific stripper product you are using, follow the time guidelines of how long you let the stripper sit on the finish before you can scrape it up. Try to buy a stripper that works under 20 minutes, any longer is just wasting your time.
After waiting the recommended time, using a scraper, plastic or metal, begin scraping the old finish off from one side to the other. I follow the wood grain if visible, this prevents damaging the wood underneath. I use a putty knife metal scraper because I find it easier, some say it’s riskier to damage your surface but I haven’t damaged any surface with a metal scraper yet. I used a plastic scraper once and it was a terrible experience, so I stick with metal.
When scraping off the old finish you are peeling up clumps of sticky residue, a mixture of stripper and old finish/dirt, and this needs to go somewhere. I place a bucket at the end of the piece of furniture, then dump the old junk into that bucket.
What to do after stripping? You NEED to clean the remaining stripper residue that’s still on and in the grain of the wood. It may look clean after stripping, but there are small amounts of stripper residue that need to be cleaned up. Use mineral spirits and steel wool to clean, this removes the stripper residue within the grain and helps strip any last paint/varnish that may still be attached. After using fine steel wool, with a small amount of mineral spirits just wipe everything again with a rag to clean any steel wool flakes and remaining paint stripper residue gunk.
Don’t worry if you haven’t removed all the old finish, we will be doing our final sanding in the next step to prep the surface for stain.
3. Sand Using a Fine Grit Sandpaper
After stripping the old finish, whether you sanded it off or stripped it with a paint stripper, you need to do some final sanding. This step is what completes the preparation for staining a wooden surface. Attach a 180-240 grit sandpaper disc to your random orbital sander, or whatever sanding tool you are using. Do a small amount of sanding, over the full surface to make it smooth throughout. This will remove any final old finish if any remains, but most importantly it creates an evenly sanded surface ready for a stain. Making sure the surface is evenly sanded reduces blotchy staining.
If you sand with a high grit, over 240, it starts to risk sanding it so smoothly that you close the wood pores and stain does not penetrate as well. Avoid going above 240 grit sandpaper when sanding before you stain furniture.
4. Clean Dust Off the Surface
A simple but important step to not forget is to properly clean the sanding dust off of your furniture before staining. Dust in your stain can cause uneven staining and it can cause a bumpy finish when you apply a clear coat later on. I like to use a tack cloth to clean the surface, it is my preferred method.
Other ways to remove dust are to blow it off with an air compressor hose or wipe with a regular rag doing your best to remove the dust. Once completely clean we can move on to staining.
5. Apply the Stain
Whether you chose to apply regular stain or gel stain, the process is similar. Take a clean rag and dip it into your stain, scooping gel stain, and begin applying it over the areas you want stained. If you want to protect a piece of furniture from getting stain, such as the side or the drawers, tape them up with no leak painters tape, such as FrogTape.
Sometimes certain wood, such as pine, should be pre-stained with wood conditioner for a better staining experience. If not pre-stained it may look blotchy. I have used it before, but I wouldn’t say it’s required, it’s an option if you want an equal, but lighter, looking stain job.
6. Wipe off the Remaining Stain
After applying over every area you want stained, you start to wipe it off. You can wait the recommended time on your specific products can, but typically I wipe it on and wipe it off right away. Do not leave a puddle amount of stain on the surface, this will not dry properly and cause a sticky feeling, ruining your stain job. Make sure you wipe what you can off the furniture. Original oil stain will penetrate into the wood, so when you wipe everything off there is no stain liquid remaining. Similar to gel stain, you wipe gel stain until there is no gel remaining and no streak in the gel stain. Wipe until the surface looks even and no stain remains.
7. Let the Stain Dry
Now your stain is evenly applied, well as best as you could, now it’s time to sit back and relax. Go watch some Furniture Flippa YouTube videos and let your stain dry. Regular oil stains don’t take as long as gel stain to dry, gel stain can take up to 24-48 hours to actually dry. This is important that we wipe away the remaining gel stain in the wiping stage. If it’s thick it won’t dry!
The reason we let the stain dry is that we can then apply our topcoat sealer. If the stain is still wet and we cover it up, we may drastically increase the drying and curing times of our stain and sealer, this makes it extremely susceptible to scratching and peeling. Let it dry and then move on to sealing.
8. Apply a Protective Sealer
Our stain is dry, now we need to protect our beautiful wood grain. Stain is NOT a sealer on its own, the only exception is if you used a stain and poly combined formula, which I haven’t used before so I have no comments.
You need to decide what you are sealing your piece with. The best thing is, when staining, you have a number of options to choose from. I will start with one sealing option I don’t recommend as a sealer on its own to place over stain, and that is wax. Wax is known to seal chalk paints because the paint dries and applying wax won’t cause it to turn blotchy or become uneven. Wax can be used to polish the surface after it has been sealed with polyurethane or lacquer.
I like to spray my finishes on, I have brushed and wiped on polyurethane before, but it just leads to a potential blotchy finish or a noticeable brush stroke surface.
Depending on the project I will use these wood stain sealers for protection:
Spray Lacquer – Using a spray can, I pick up Watco or Minwax Lacquer and spray it on a stained surface for protection. Lacquer is a popular woodworking finish for cabinetry and other similar projects that need a high-traffic performance against scratches and other potential damages. Factory finished furniture is often sprayed with tinted lacquer, and if you noticed it is very durable.
Lacquer is different than polyurethane, when you spray multiple coats, each layer of lacquer melts into the current coat of lacquer. This creates one bonded coat of lacquer that is eventually a super durable and water-resistant surface. I would spray 3-5 coats of lacquer on my stained furniture pieces. For some surfaces, if I want it ultra-smooth, I will buff wax into the final coat and it will look like and feel like a factory finish, super duper smooth.
Water-Based Polyurethane – I often spray water-based polyurethane using a spray gun, I will use this on painted surfaces and stained surfaces. This is my go-to sealer for furniture, I use my Wagner Flexio 590 or my HomeRight Super Finish Max, I add 10% water and it’s ready for spraying. I like using water-based products in my spray gun because I can use water to clean it all up.
I will spray 3-5 coats of water-based poly for durability, any less will scratch your stained surface rather easily.
My favorite water-based polyurethanes are Polycrylic by Minwax and Varathanes Diamond Wood Finish Water-Based Poly.
Oil-Based Polyurethane – I have used oil-based poly from a spray can many times, it’s the same process of spraying lacquer with a can. However, I have only used oil-based poly from a can a few times, this means I need to wipe it on, brush it, or put it in my own spray gun. All viable options, but I don’t use it in a spray gun because I would have to use mineral spirits to clean it up because it’s not water-based. I used a brush once, you need to apply it kinda thick with a brush, so it has time to level itself out. Lastly, I wiped it on a few times, sometimes it’s perfect, and other times it made the stain blotchy.
Oil-based poly needs to be applied with a minimum of 3 coats, the more durable it is of course. I recommend using Minwax Fast drying Spray Oil-Based Polyurethane. If you want to know if you should sand the final coat of polyurethane click here to read.
Now You Are Finished Staining Furniture!
After following the 8 steps to staining furniture you should have a durable stained surface. The first time around you may be overwhelmed, but doing your research and watching some of my videos can help you understand the process a bit better. I learned how to stain furniture from trial and error, without attempting to do the work you will not figure it out, which is sort of how most hobbies work.
Give it a try, practice on cheap or free furniture finds. That is how I learned the process, and after one or two tries you really get the hang of it. Staining furniture isn’t super hard, trust me!
Best Wood Stains for Staining Furniture
1. Minwax Wood Finish Penetrating Stain
Minwax is probably the most known brand name of wood stains and similar woodworking products. It is found at big box stores and easily ordered online, I have used minwax many times. It was the first stain I tried and I would still use it today. You can choose from a huge selection of colors, so there’s no problem finding one for your next project, take a look on Amazon to go through their can size options and their dozens of stain color options.
2. Varathan Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain
This is another great stain option I have used dozens of times. Varathane Premium Wood Stain can be found in big box stores and also online for order. I have used many of their color options, the stain to me is a bit thicker, but I like the color selections Varathane offers. Their weathered wood is very nice and goes well with barn-style furniture! Choose from a number of color options and as well can sizes, this is a perfect started stain for you to test out.
3. General Finishes Gel Stain
The best-known gel stain on the market is by General Finishes Gel Stain, I have to say I love their gel stain. It is super thick but it applies so easily. Just throw it on a rag and wipe it into your project! Their antique walnut gel stain is my go-to for restoring pieces, the color turns out like a new Mid Century Modern piece of furniture, which is super popular these days. They offer a number of colors you can choose from, check them out on Amazon.
4. Minwax Gel Stain
I like to use Minwax Gel Stain because it is easy to pick up locally when in a hurry. The product is similar to general finishes in my opinion, and it is more affordable. So if you are starting out with gel stain, I recommend you give Minwax gel stain a try. I used it in this Solid Wood Buffet project to stain the drawers and the top surface, I explain my steps in the article and there is a video as well.
5. General Finishes Water Based Wood Stain
General Finishes also has a water-based wood stain, I don’t typically use water-based stains but this formula stains wood nicely. They offer a number of great color options you can choose from. The water-based formula may not be as great as their oil-based, but this is an option you can use if you don’t want the clean-up to require mineral spirits. Water-based stains can be cleaned up with water!
After going over the most important information you need to know about staining furniture, you should now understand the steps and the materials you need to stain furniture. This detailed guide may or may not answer all of your staining questions, and if you do have any specific questions please feel free to ask them over on my YouTube channel. Throw them into a comments section on one of my videos and I will do my best to answer them. Also, find me on Instagram @FurnitureFlippa, and feel free to message me your questions there too.
After learning about the processes of staining, I also provide you 5 of the best wood stains for furniture. Either one of those options provided will be great as a beginner or a pro, I have used them when I started and I still use them today.
Good luck staining your wood furniture and enjoy refinishing!