How to Prepare Wood for Staining

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This is How to Prepare Wood for Staining, your complete guide to getting any project ready to stain. Are you new to wood staining and need a little help? By the end of this post, you will have everything you need to know to apply a great looking stain. Enjoy.

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Staining Wood for Beauty and Looks

How-to-Prepare-Wood-for-StainingWood stain is your best friend when you need to change the color of a project. You can instantly make one type of wood look like many others, and you can also make a new project match existing decor.

The wood that you stain can easily be made to match any room, and for a lot less than the price of natural wood in that color. There are also bold stains that you cannot replicate in nature, and these make some very creative woodworking projects.

Whatever your reason for applying wood stain, how you prepare the wood before you stain is where all the magic happens. No matter how good you apply a stain, your results are only going to be as good as the surface prep.

Bad prep means bad staining. There is no way around it. The preparation and the care that goes into your project before you apply the stain is very important, and that’s all because of one little myth that can make you apply a bad stain.

See Also: 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing

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Stains Don’t Mask Problems on the Wood

How-to-Prepare-Wood-for-Staining-applying-stainBeginners tend to think that finishing products hide defects in wood. They do not. In fact, a stain applied over a bad looking surface with scratches, dents, and other defects will actually magnify the problem.

Instead of very fine scratches that you can barely see, those formerly faint lines can now be seen from outer space. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can hide defects with stains and coloring.

You can’t, and you will actually make things worse. So, what do you do to prepare your wood before you apply the stain? Here are the steps, and I will explain each of them in more detail later in the post.

  • Fill Any Large Voids and Sand Flush
  • Sand the Surfaces to 220 Grit
  • Fill the Grain (Optional)
  • Check for Surface Scratches and Mark Them
  • Remove All Scratches Down to 220 Grit
  • Break Any Sharp Corners
  • Use a Pre-Stain if Needed

See Also: A Beginners Guide to Woodworking

Fill Any Large Voids and Sand Flush

The first step to preparing your project is to fill any large voids or defects. Sometimes, as you build a project, you end up with some bigger defects that need to be filled. These can come from a lot of places.

The most common are your joints. In the beginning, making really tight joints can seem like a lifelong challenge. It can be, but over time you will get better. Right now however, your fine lines can be made nearly invisible with a little bit of wood filler.

My favorite is two part wood filler that mixes and reacts like epoxy. This stuff is a little more expensive than the others, but you get the absolute best results. It’s easy to use, and you will never have to worry about it shrinking, cracking, or falling out. Never.

Follow the directions on the filler that you use, but the quick version is as follows:

  • Cut off a slice of the two part wood filler.
  • Kneed it together with your fingers until the coloring is even.
  • Smear some of it into the cavity, leaving a little excess over the surface.
  • Allow it to cure completely (10-30 minutes typically depending on the brand)
  • Sand the excess flush to the wood surface with a sanding block.

Do this for any surface issues that you can’t sand out. Smaller things like scratches, some minor dents, and very fine defects will not benefit from this kind of fill. focus on the bigger stuff, and fill everything that needs it at this stage.

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Give the product time to dry, and then come back with a sanding block to flatten out the excess filler. Work carefully with a really flat block and paper. Let the block do the work, and you will be left with a filled and very flat surface.

Sand the Surfaces to 220 Grit

How-to-Prepare-Wood-for-Staining-stainin-on-woodThe next step is to sand the wood down to 220 grit. Note, I did not say you should start sanding your wood with 220 grit. 220 is the stopping point. You start wherever you need to depending on how bad your surface is.

In most cases, wood from the hardware store that has been sanded already or planed will not need anything aggressive to begin with. In cases like this, start with 150 grit, and see if that improves the surface.

In most cases it will, and you can then switch to 220. If you have a really rough board, you may need to start with 80 grit, and then wok into 100, then 150, and then 220. Working through the grits progressively, you prepare the surface by continually making it smoother.

When the surface reaches 220 grit, and you can no longer improve it with the same kind of paper, you are done. Don’t sand any longer with the same grit, because you will never be able to improve the surface.

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On top of that, you only need to get to 220 in the vast majority of cases in order to apply a really good stain. The minor scratches that 220 leaves are barely visible, and the trick coming up later to hide them will make it nearly impossible to find a scratch.

See Also: 17 Important Tips on How to Sand Wood

Break Any Sharp Corers and Round Them

How-to-Prepare-Wood-for-Staining-adding-stain-to-a-boardWhile you do not need to put a big radius on all of your corners and edges, you do need to eliminate any sharp spots. This is for a couple reasons, with the first one being comfort. A sharp edge just doesn’t feel nice.

The last thing you want is for one of your customers to pick up one of your projects and hurt themselves. You also don’t want them to stop buying from you, or give you a poor review because of sharpness.

Second, sharp corners take stain differently than rounded corners. The tips are super thin on sharp corners and edges, so they can take in more stain and look darker. They also break off more easily, which can result in stained areas going bare.

You don’t have to round the heck out of them, just break the sharpness and get rid of the corners. Do this with 220 grit sandpaper, working at a 45 degree angle to the edges at first, and then switching to parallel once you have rounded them a bit.

Use the sandpaper on your bare hand for the final rounding, because it will bend around your skin and round the entire surface. Be careful though, because if you are too aggressive, and your wood is not smooth, you can get a splinter.

See Also: 23 Easy Ways to Age Wood and Make Wood Look Old

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Check for Surface Scratches and Mark Them

After you finish sanding with 220 grit, the next step is to clean the board and take a look for any sanding issue that need to be addressed. In the sanding process, the wood surface becomes covered in sanding dust, and that can make it look better than it really is.

If you go right past this step, you are nearly certain to find more scratches after you apply the finish. At that point, it’s a lot more work to remove them and start the staining process over again. You don’t want to go through all that, so don’t skip this step.

First, wipe off the surface with a towel or cloth. You can also use an air line to blow off the wood and remove all the dust. Once you do, the surface will be exposed, and you can use a glancing light to look for scratches.

Hold the wood up between you and a light source, with the wood near eye level. Arrange the light so it bounces off the surface shallowly, and makes a shiny spot on the board. You almost hold the board up to your eye at the level of a rifle, but not all the way against your face.

As you move it and tilt it, you will see a shiny spot where the light glares off the wood. In this glare, you will find your scratches if there are any. Move the piece through the light glare, and mark any scratches with masking tape that you find.

After you mark them, go back with 220 grit and remove them. One last clean and check before you move on to the next step, and you can be assured that they are gone.

See Also: 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing

Make Your Final Sanding With the Grain

The trick that I alluded to earlier can be found right here. Sanding in general always leaves scratches. Always. Even when you sand with the grain, you still make scratches. So what’s the big difference and why is this a trick?

When you sand with the grain, your scratches run parallel with the grain, making them essentially look like grain. They blend in seamlessly, and they cannot be told apart from actual grain.

This is the secret to hiding those last scratches, and leaving a flawless surface for applying a stain. Hide those scratches by going with the grain.

See Also: The Best Time to Learn About Wood Finishing as a Beginner

Use a Pre-Stain if Needed

Some kinds of wood soak up stain at different rates. You end up with blotchy looking surfaces, and an uneven stain coloring. This is not a good look, especially after all the work you have done up to this point.

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One way to stop this problem is by using a pre-stain. Essentially this is a sealer coat that makes the wood surface less porous. It also makes the absorption rates along the entire surface even, and that’s the trick.

When the wood absorbs evenly, the stain applies evenly, and the color looks even. You can find pre-stain in the same place you find stain, and it goes on in about the same way. You just apply it to the surface, and let it dry completely before applying your stain coat.

Now, if you have a piece of wood that does not have hard and soft spots, then you don’t need pre-stain conditioner. Also, if you don’t care about a little variation in your final look, then you don’t need it either.

Lots of great looking projects have been stained without a pre-stain. You can also use a product called Gel Stain, and that can help with a more even absorption rate too. Essentially gel stain is a thicker product, and the stain does not penetrate as quickly.

This gives you more time to get it on and off, and thus a more even coating. If you want less steps in preparing your wood to be stained, then go with the gel stain in the next steps and skip on the pre-stain.

See Also: 9 Unbelievable Wood Finishing Myths for Beginners

How to Apply Wood Stain the Easy Way

Now that your surface is prepared well for taking a stain, and you have done everything you can to ensure the stain will come out great, you need to actually apply the stain. There are a lot of directions online for this, but many are too complicated.

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The essence of the process is getting the stain out of the can and onto the wood. While it’s a pinch more involved than that, don’t over complicate things. You just need to get the product out of the can, and onto the surface evenly. You are not building a rocket.

The easiest way to apply stain is with a rag. Fold up a clean, white cotton cloth, and make a small pad to apply your stain. The cloth from an undershirt is perfect for this, just skip the pits and the neck area if you are cutting up a shirt for the job.

Dip the center of the finishing pad into the stain (after you stir it and prepare it according to the directions on the can) and get a little on the pad. Then, wipe the stain on the surface evenly, working in a small section.

When the finish runs out, apply more, and keep wiping to blend it together. This is the trick, blending the stain and wiping it all around to make an even color. Also, you should not see piles or pools of stain on the surface.

Rather, it should look like you colored it with a dye, and not a slurry of goop on the surface of the wood. Near the end, switch to a new pad, and just wipe off any excess. Work on your blending on scraps, and after a couple sessions you will be a pro.

See Also: Rustic Wood Staining Technique

Apply Your Stain Well

Staining is a pretty easy process, once you know some tips. After that, practice a little and you will be able to confidently stain your next project. Here they are:

  • Don’t hose your piece with stain. You need just enough to coat it evenly.
  • Work quickly. Stain starts soaking in right away, and the longer you wait, the darker it gets.
  • Be careful overlapping, as it can darken the overlap area because it’s now two coats.
  • Spread the finish almost as if you were wiping it all off. Leave behind color, not product.
  • Find a finish maker that you enjoy using, and stick with their products for a while.
  • Make sure to use the right protective equipment when staining.
  • Apply your stain in a well ventilated area to prevent being overcome by fumes.
  • Give your stain more time than the can recommends to dry. The cans are always on the optimistic side.
  • Apply a nice top coat over the dried stain to bring out the color and seal in the look.

Apply a Clear Coat to Protect the Stain

After you prepare your boards, and apply your wood stain, the next step is to ply a clear coat to the project. This does a couple things. First, it seals in the finish, and helps prevent scratches and damage. Second, it reveals the true color of the stain.

Clear coats are beneficial for wood stain, because they bring out the color. You might notice when you apply your stain that it just doesn’t look like the color on the can. That’s because the can color has a clear coat over the top.

This changes the look slightly, and you will see it right away when you apply a top coat over your stain. The best part, applying a clear is easy, and you can use the same techniques from staining if you pick the right product.

You can also finish your project with an aerosol can lacquer product, and that’s an easy way to accomplish the goal as well. Either way you go, a clear coat is the best way to protect and bring out the true color of your stain.

See Also: Staining Wood with Steel Wool and Vinegar

Wiping on a Clear with Wiping Varnish

If you want to do the same thing as staining to apply your clear, then look for a good wiping varnish. This is a varnish that has a lot of thinner in the mixture. It allows you to do something that is not normally possible with varnish.

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You can apply it with a rag. Wiping varnish takes so long to dry that you can use a rag to put it on almost in the same way that you did the wood stain. Simply get a new pad, wet it with product, and wipe a thin and even coat on the surface.

Allow the product to dry according to the can plus a couple hours, and then go back for another coat. Repeat this a few times, and you will have a really nice looking, and close to the wood finish that was super easy to create.

Arm-R-Seal is a great example of a wiping varnish. This product comes in a number of sheens, and you can apply it really easily. It has a gorgeous, warm tone to the final look, and a very natural looking finish.

See Also: Understanding Wood Finishing

Using Aerosol Lacquer to Top Coat Your Stain

An alternative to wiping on another product is aerosol lacquer. Most beginners do not have a way to spray lacquer like the professionals in a spray booth. That’s ok. You can get excellent results using spray cans, you just need to buy the right lacquer.

Hardware store lacquer that is cheap, and mixed in with the spray cans on the bottom shelves is not good lacquer. Most cases, it’s not even lacquer, and it can cause all kinds of finishing problems. Don’t use this stuff.

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Instead, buy furniture grade lacquer. You can find really good cans of lacquer from around $6 to $12 each, and they are made by Mohawk, Deft, and Watco. There are more brands, but these are all very good, and they make the spraying process easy.

The basic version of spraying lacquer is to evenly wet the entire surface that you are spraying, and then let it dry. On vertical surfaces you can mist on several thin coats. Take care to wet the surface, but do not add so much that it runs.

On horizontal surfaces, you can spray a little more. The orientation of the surface will prevent any runs, and you can lay down a nice coating. When you apply a really even coat, allow it to cure, and you will have a well protected project that looks amazing.

See Also: 15 Important Tips on Woodworking With Pallets

Your Homework

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Now that you know how to get your projects ready for staining, put these ideas into practice in your own shop. Get out there and start making something. Select a stain, and do the best prep work you possibly can before adding the stain.

Just remember, the secret is in the prep work. No wood stain will save you from scratches, defects, and places you should have tried harder. The product does the very opposite. Anything you skip on during the prep will come right back in the final look.

Not many people know what really goes into being a woodworker. All they see is a surface with scratches. Make sure that when you proudly hand something over to another person to look at, scratches are the last thing they see.

Focus on your prep work. make a promise not to move forward until the prep is done. Find and remove all your scratches before applying any wood stain. You will have a much better look, and you will be glad you put in the effort that most wont. 

If you have any questions, please Post a Question in the Q&A Forum and I’ll be glad to help. Happy building.

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
  • 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
  • Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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I receive Commissions for Purchases Made Through the Links in This Post.

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