How to Stain Unfinished Wood

Last Updated on October 18, 2023 by Ernest Godia

Wood stains can provide an easy way to protect the wood from fading while highlighting the natural grain pattern. Unfinished wood furniture allows you to create custom colors that match the rest of your home’s decor.

When used correctly, a stain can transform any piece of wood into a masterpiece. You’ll be surprised at how fast you can bring your vision to reality once you know how to stain unfinished wood.

This guide will walk you through the process of staining unfinished wood and provide you with helpful tips to make your work a breeze.

Types of wood stains to use on unfinished wood

Here’s a quick peek into the various types of wood stains available. Whichever types you need to use, you can easily find them in hardware stores near you.

Oil-Based Wood Stain 

Oil-based wood stains are popular for indoor and outdoor applications due to their ability to provide a durable, water-resistant finish. In addition, these stains are available in several tones to suit various wood surfaces. 

Unfortunately, they have the most toxic fumes that can cause serious health complications. Oil-based stains also dry pretty slowly, which can be a bummer for time-sensitive projects.

Water-Based Wood Stain

Water-based wood stains are eco-friendly and safer than their oil-based cousins. In addition, they dry fast, allowing for recoating in as little as 4 hours. You also get more wood stain colors with water-based stains than most other stain types.

Unfortunately, you may need to apply multiple coats to get the desired color depth with some brands.

Gel Stain

Gel stain is a heavily pigmented stain with a thick, paint-like consistency. It does not penetrate the wood like water-based or oil-based stains. 

Gel stain is mainly preferred on furniture, especially kitchen cabinets and laminated surfaces because it forms a film on the surface. Its composition is mainly varnish or oil-based, so you’ll need to use mineral spirits to clean it up. 

Varnish Stain

This is an oil-based stain, but the binding agent is like a resinous polyurethane varnish. It will penetrate the wood pores and color the wood with rich color depth.

When varnish stain cures, the seal is strong enough to protect interior wooden surfaces against regular wear and tear.

Dye stains

There are two types under this category; water-soluble and metal-complex dye stains. The former is a powder pigment you dissolve in water and apply on wood to give you the desired color.

On the other hand, the metalized dye stain is dissolved in evaporating solvents, and when applied to unfinished wood, it will leave behind a luxurious depth of color. It is also more durable than water-soluble dye stains.

How to stain unfinished wood furniture step by step

First, sand the wood using 120 grit and finish with 180 grit sandpaper. Clean up the sawdust. Next, apply a wood conditioner to raise the grain. Lightly sand the surface once the conditioner dries. After that, prep the stain and apply it to the wood using a foam brush. Finally, wipe off the excess.

Let the stain dry to touch and recoat if necessary. After the last coat, wait for the stain to cure fully before you begin using the furniture.

That’s the snippet process for those who just can’t wait to start the staining project. However, there’s a lot more to that procedure, which you’ll find out in a minute! But first, below is a list of the supplies you will need to complete the job.

Tools and materials for staining unfinished wood furniture

  • Wood stain
  • Pre stain conditioner
  • Clear topcoat sealer
  • Paintbrush or foam brush
  • Stain stirring sticks
  • Clean rags
  • Tarp or newspapers
  • Rubber gloves
  • Sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Tack cloth
  • Shop vacuum
  • Mineral spirits

Procedure for staining unfinished furniture  

Step 1: Safety preparation.

First, ensure the room is adequately ventilated if you’re working indoors. Also, line the floor and surrounding surfaces with a painter’s tape to catch stain spills and sawdust.

Also, consider wearing a coverall, protective gloves, a mask, and goggles to keep your skin from contact with staining products, dust, and fumes.

Step 2: Disassemble the furniture if you can.

If you can take apart the furniture, it will make your work a lot easier. This is especially true if you want to stain the various parts of the furniture with different colors.

For example, you can remove the padded seat of a wooden chair by unscrewing the screws and putting them aside. Pull out the drawers and unscrew the hardware if you’re working on a dresser. Also, remember to mark the parts so that it’s easy to return them when reassembling the piece.

However, go for it if you can work on the piece as a whole.

Step 3: Sand the bare wood smooth.

If your unfinished furniture came from the home center, it likely has a waxy coating that’s barely noticeable. Light sanding them won’t be enough to prepare the surface for staining. If you were to stain anyway, expect to have a splotchy stain finish.

Therefore, ensure that you sand thoroughly to get a crisp stain finish. Depending on the size of your furniture, you should do just fine with hand-sanding the project.

Get a sanding block and wrap 120 grit sandpaper on it and start sanding. Make even sanding passes along the wood grain. This grit will be great at opening the wood pores and removing any dirt and rough spots on the bare wood.

Wipe the sawdust using a clean, dry cloth. Continue sanding further with the same grit sandpaper. Avoid pressing the sandpaper on the wood to avoid creating divots.

Wipe the dust again and continue sanding using 150 or 180 grit. This will smooth the surface by removing tiny scratch marks from the previous sandpaper grit. It will also help to slightly close up the wood pores for better and more even stain absorption.

Step 4: Clean the sawdust.

Once you finish sanding and are pleased with the texture of your furniture, it’s time to remove the sawdust from the surface and the surrounding area. 

Suck up the sawdust using a shop vacuum or an air hose. Afterward, use a damp, lint-free, or oil-free tack cloth for the final wipe.

Step 5: Apply pre-stain wood conditioner.

Stir your pre-stain wood conditioner in a gentle circular motion and pour a bit of it into a plastic container. Dip your paintbrush in the conditioner and apply it to the wood. Ensure that you coat every inch of the wood.

Wait 15 minutes for the conditioner to soak into the wood and dry up.

Step 6: Sand down the raised grain.

Wood conditioners tend to raise the grain, creating a textured feel. The raised grain is coarse and will show through the stain if not removed. Therefore, you need to knock them down with 180-grit sandpaper.

Treat the raised grain like scuffing; you don’t need to apply much pressure. Remember to wipe the dust using a clean and dry cloth when the work is done.

Step 7: Mix the stain and apply it to the wooden furniture.

Now you’re ready to stain the wood. Stir the stain using a stir stick in a figure 8 motion. Dip the stir stick to the bottom of the can, and as you stir, scrape the pigment on the sides as well. Keep stirring gently but thoroughly until the stain is well mixed.

Whenever possible, avoid applying the stain directly from the stain can. Instead, transfer a bit of the stain into a plastic container and then reseal the stain can. This makes it easier to apply the stain without worrying about contaminating the entire product.

Dip your brush into the stain and begin staining your wooden furniture. Begin staining the underside first and work towards the face of the furniture. Apply the stain in long, even strokes, going with the grain.

Step 8: Wipe off the excess stain.

Let the stain soak into the wood for 5-10 minutes, and then wipe off the excess using a lint-free cloth. Pull the cloth on the surface using long wiping passes along the wood grain.

Once the stained surface appears uniform in color, resist the urge to over-wipe; you risk pulling the stain and causing a tacky stained surface.

Step 9: Let the stain dry.

Before applying the next coat, wait for the stain to dry to the touch. This can take anywhere between 4 and 24 hours, subject to the type of wood stain used.

How long the stain takes to dry depends on the type of stain used and the weather in your area. Oil-based stains tend to take longer to dry than water-based stains. Generally, wood stains dry faster under warm temperatures with low humidity, and delays can occur under cold and humid conditions.

If you’d like to layer the stain and deepen the pigment, recoat once the surface is completely dry. However, if you’re satisfied with one stain coat and are ready to seal your stained surface, proceed to the next step.

Step 10: Apply a protective finish.

A protective finish is optional but highly recommended. Sealing your stained furniture will protect it from water damage, UV damage, discoloration, and scratches from regular wear and tear. 

The most common top coat finishes for stains are oil-based polyurethane and lacquer. Still, you can use shellac, polycrylic, or oil finishes like Tung oil.

Here, we’ll show you how to use oil-based polyurethane over the wood stain. 

  • First, ensure the stain is fully dry before applying a top coat. Before applying polyurethane, allow 24 to 48 hours after the last stain coat.
  • Open the polyurethane can and stir the product to mix well. Move the stir stick in a figure 8 motion to ensure you get the product at the bottom and the sides of the can and have uniformly textured polyurethane.
  • Dip a natural bristle brush into the product and begin applying it to the stained wood. Again, begin with the underside and work your way to the surface. Apply it using long, even brush strokes and let the product sit for a while to self-level.
  • Wait for about 24 hours for the oil poly to dry enough for the following coat. Scuff sand the surface using 180 grit sandpaper and wipe off the sanding dust. 
  • Reapply another poly coat, and then let the wood dry and cure for 2-3 weeks.

Step 11: Reassemble your stained furniture.

When the stained wood has fully cured, assemble the stained parts and put them back together to get your gorgeous furniture in one piece. This step is only relevant if you have disassembled your wooden furniture.

How to Stain Unfinished Wood Furniture: Tips and Tricks

These are some of the valuable tips that will help you avoid some common staining pitfalls. 

  • Always test stains on scrap wood before staining your entire furniture. That way, you get a feel of the expected final result. 
  • Keep stirring the stain during application to ensure you get consistent coloring. 
  • Use a synthetic paint brush for water-based stains and a natural bristle brush for oil-based stains. Alternatively, you can use a foam brush to apply either type of wood stain.
  • Always apply the stain going in the direction of the wood grain. This helps to conceal any minor flaws and accentuate the grain pattern.
  • You can mix different stain colors to get a custom color. Of course, you can only do this if both stains have a similar formulation: water or oil-based.
  • Always ensure you’re using the right stain designed for your staining surface. That is, use interior stain indoors and exterior stain outdoors. 

How to Stain Unfinished Wood FAQs

How do you prepare unfinished wood for staining?

First, clean the surface to eliminate debris. Next, sand the surface using an orbital sander or sanding block with 120-grit sandpaper and finish with 180-grit. Next, collect the sawdust using a shop vacuum and then wipe the surface with a tack cloth. Finally, prime the surface (or skip it), and your unfinished wood is ready for staining.

how to stain unfinished wood furniture

Alternatively, here is a detailed article on preparing unfinished wood for staining.

What is the best way to apply stain to bare wood?

A foam brush is the best way to apply stain to bare wood. Just dip the brush in the stain and brush it on bare wood. The advantage is that you can use it to apply all wood stain formulations. In addition, foam brushes do not leave brush marks and cause the least stain drips, making them ideal for staining wood for beginners.

Do I need to prime bare wood before staining?

You need to prime bare softwood before staining. This is because most softwoods are unevenly porous, and staining without priming may result in a splotchy appearance. On the other hand, you do not have to prime most hardwoods before staining because they naturally absorb stain evenly.

Does unfinished wood need to be sanded before staining?

Yes, unfinished wood requires sanding before staining. Even though unfinished wood planks are usually pre-sanded by the manufacturer, they can have rough spots that will show through the stain. Therefore, you must smoothen it to achieve a crisp and flawless stain finish.

What is the Best Type of Wood for Staining?

Choosing the right type of wood is crucial for a successful staining project. Hardwoods like oak, maple, and cherry are excellent choices, as they absorb stains evenly and result in a rich, beautiful finish. Softwoods like pine and cedar can also be stained but may require additional steps to achieve the desired look.

Do I Need to Sand the Wood Before Staining?

Yes, sanding is a critical step in the wood staining process. It smoothens the surface, removes imperfections, and allows the stain to penetrate evenly. Start with a coarse grit sandpaper and gradually work your way to finer grits for a polished finish.

Should I Apply a Wood Conditioner?

Using a wood conditioner is recommended, especially for softwoods. It helps prevent blotching and ensures that the stain is absorbed uniformly. Apply the conditioner, let it sit for a few minutes, and then proceed with staining.

What Tools Do I Need for Staining?

To stain unfinished wood, you’ll need essential tools like brushes, stain, and a clean cloth. Additionally, having a sander, sandpaper, wood conditioner, and protective gear such as gloves and goggles is advisable for a safe and efficient staining process.

How Many Coats of Stain Should I Apply?

The number of stain coats depends on the desired color and the wood’s porosity. Typically, one or two coats are sufficient, but you can apply more to achieve a deeper hue. Ensure that each coat dries completely before applying the next one.

Can I Stain Over an Existing Finish?

Staining over an existing finish is possible, but it requires thorough preparation. You must remove the previous finish, sand the surface, and clean it before applying the new stain. Keep in mind that this process can be time-consuming.

Final Thoughts on How to Stain Unfinished Wood

Now that you’ve learned the theoretical part of how to stain unfinished wood floors, actualizing it will be a walk in the park! Save this piece so you can always refer to it while working on your staining project.

One critical step in preparing unfinished wood for staining is sanding. If you skimp on it, best believe that flaws will show through the stain; no one wants that.

Feel free to share this post with your networks if you find it helpful. Also, if there are staining tips we missed, do leave them in the comment section below.

Happy Staining!

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