Staining Wood

Wood Stain and Finish Can Add Real Beauty to Wood

Staining wood is a straightforward process but skipping any of the steps can produce an unattractive outcome. Preparing the wood for stain is just as important as staining the wood. Inadequate preparation can lead to uneven color and unsightly blemishes in the wood.

The following steps are a guide for staining wood.

  • Identifying the type of wood
  • Filling holes and voids
  • Prep sanding
  • Applying pre-stain wood conditioner (for pigment stains )
  • Applying wood stain
  • Applying clear wood finishes

For the purpose of this discussion, wood staining only applies to unfinished wood surfaces. Previously finished wood can be stripped so a new stain finish can be applied.

Wood Refinishing

To refinish wood, with a new coat of wood stain, requires removing the existing coats of finish. Applying paint stripper chemically softens the old finish so that it can be scraped away. There are many different paint remover products available. Some paint strippers are formulated to break down varnish and lacquer while others perform best removing paint.

Type of Wood

An important first step is to identify what type (species) of wood you are working with. Different types of wood have their own unique characteristics, such as color, grain pattern, and hardness. Applying an identical wood stain onto different species of wood will usually deliver different results. For example, if you like a particular stain sample on a piece of oak, but you plan to use the same stain on pine, you may not get the outcome that you want. It is important to make a stain sample on an actual piece of wood, similar to the wood you are working with, so you can decide if you like the look and the color before you proceed with your wood staining project.

Wood Filling

There are two different approaches to filling holes and voids when staining wood. They are:

  • applying wood filler to raw, unstained wood before prep sanding
  • applying wood filler to prefinished wood

The types of wood fillers, used for raw, unstained wood, are partially composed of finely ground wood fibers. They dry to a hard finish that is easily sanded. Because these types of wood fillers contain actual wood fiber, they readily accept stain. They are available in different colors representing several wood species.

The types of wood fillers, used over prefinished wood surfaces, are pliable materials that do not require sanding. These include color matched oil base putty and colored wax sticks. These products are a great solution for wood mouldings, such as baseboards, that were prefinished before installation.

Prep Sanding

Prep sanding is an extremely important step in the wood staining process. Staining wood before prep sanding can result in an uneven appearance full of blemishes. Using sandpaper with the correct coarseness is the key to preparing the surface of the wood to receive the proper amount of stain. Using sandpaper that is too coarse will create more irregularities on the wood surface, allowing excessive amounts of pigment stain to collect. This will result in a stronger color with a more opaque look. Sanding with fine grit sandpaper will burnish or polish the wood surface, preventing enough stain to deposit. Medium coarseness sandpaper (150 grit) usually works well for the final prep sanding. Keep in mind that an initial sanding with coarser sandpaper may be necessary depending on the condition of the wood.

Prep sanding also accomplishes several additional things. Wood filler, applied to nail holes and voids, requires a thorough sanding to achieve a perfectly flush profile with the surrounding wood. Other visible defects such as blemishes, glue spots, and minor scratches and imperfections also need to be addressed.

The sanding motion should always be in the direction of the wood grain. Sanding across the wood grain will leave unsightly scratches that will become more noticeable when the wood stain is applied. Many wood surfaces are very thin veneers. Be careful not to sand through the veneer.

Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

Most soft and porous woods accept stain unevenly, resulting in a blotchy appearance. Pre-stain wood conditioner is a product designed to be used before staining wood with pigment type stains. Once applied, it is absorbed into the pores of the wood. This prevents the wood stain from over accumulating, resulting in a more consistent look.

Wood stain colors will generally appear lighter when applied over wood conditioner. It is best to make a sample to ensure that the stain color is acceptable.

Types of Wood Stain

There are two basic categories of wood stain.

  • Pigment stains
  • Dye stains

Pigment stains include oil base and water base wiping stains. They are made from finely ground mineral particles mixed with resin binders and are suspended in solvent. Pigment stains do not actually penetrate the wood fiber, but rather they deposit on the irregular surface of the wood. Pigment stains are widely used for staining wood because they are the easiest to apply.

Dye stains are available in powder or liquid form. They are made from smaller particles than that of pigment stains and are able to penetrate the wood fiber. Dye stains may be water, oil, acetone, or alcohol based. Wood dye stains are somewhat more difficult to use than pigment stains. Some care must be taken to avoid lap marks.

How to Stain Wood

Once all the preliminary steps have been taken, applying wood stain is not complicated. Wood staining techniques differ somewhat, depending on whether pigment stains and dye stains are used. Regardless of the method of stain application, the goal is to achieve even color distribution over the wood surface.

It is often difficult to see any defects in the wood surface, until the stain is applied. Constantly inspect your work as you apply the wood stain to be sure that the sanding prep was thorough.

Pigment stains, also known as wiping stains, are widely used by the painting industry as well as by do-it-yourself wood finishers. Staining wood is as easy as putting on the stain and wiping off the excess. Apply wood stain with a staining pad making sure to rub the stain into the pores of the wood. A lamb’s wool staining pad is a good choice for this task. Use a paint brush to get coverage into the difficult corners. Wipe away the surplus stain with clean, white, lint free knit rags. A staining block brush is an easy way to remove the excess stain in the corners.

Do not get ahead of yourself by working with too large of an area at one time. Be careful not to allow the stain to set up before wiping. Whatever the project may be, try to divide it into smaller sections. Finish staining one section before beginning another.

Because oil base wiping stains have a slower drying time than their water base counterparts, they afford the user more time to manipulate the stain before it sets up. On the other hand, the cleanup is a little more difficult. Local, State, and Federal regulations must always be followed for disposal of hazardous waste.

Dye stains are available in water, oil, acetone, and alcohol bases. These stains are often applied by spray. Water base and oil base dye stains may also be applied the same way as pigment stains.

Clear Wood Finishes

When staining wood with pigment stains or dye stains a protective top coat is usually required. A clear wood finish is a conventional way to shield the stain coat from normal wear and tear. There are many types of clear wood finishes available. They are typically penetrating oil or surface film coatings. The three points to consider when choosing a clear wood finish are:

  • type of use
  • look and feel
  • ease of application

Surface film coatings are usually more durable than penetrating oils. On the other hand, penetrating oil finishes offer a more natural look and feel. The oil finishes work best in low demand areas.

The following is a list of conventional clear wood finishes:

Rub on finish
  • penetrating oil

Brush or spray finish

  • water base urethane
  • oil base poly urethane
  • oil base varnish
  • shellac

Spray finish only

  • lacquer
  • lacquer – catalyzed
  • conversion varnish – catalyzed

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are quite a few steps involved with staining wood. A little planning will serve you well toward achieving good results. I would like to put extra emphasis on the prep sanding. A thorough sanding will result in a clean, blemish free wood surface. There is nothing more frustrating about staining wood than applying the stain only to find scratches, glue spots, water stains, etc. If you have the available time, make a stain sample on a similar piece of wood. This is the best way for you to know whether you will like the look. Remember to follow all necessary safety precautions because safety always comes first

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