Instructions for Staining Wooden Furniture

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How to Select the Right Stain

© 2006 Publications International To determine how the finished wood will look without a stain, apply a little finish on an inconspicuous area before staining the furniture.

Wood is a beautiful material, but not all wood is equally stunning. The most valuable woods are prized for their color and grain, while the common furniture woods are less desirable because of their appearance. Antiques, whether hardwood or softwood, are often lovely simply because the wood has acquired a patina that new wood lacks. In furniture refinishing, one great equalizer is used to make the wood look better: stain.

Staining is done for various reasons. When used correctly, stain can highlight the wood grain and impart character to light woods. It can make new wood look old or a common wood look rare. It can also unify a two-wood piece, revive color in bleached areas, and alter or deepen the color of any type of wood. Staining is not always advisable, but it can solve many problems.

Before staining any furniture piece, carefully examine it. If it’s made of cherry, maple, mahogany, rosewood, aged pine, or any rare woods, the wood should probably not be stained; these woods look best in their natural color. If the wood is light with an undistinguished grain, it may benefit significantly from a stain. Beech, birch, poplar, ash, gum, and new pine are usually stained before finishing. Some woods, such as oak, are attractive either stained or unstained. Generally speaking, it’s better not to stain if you’re unsure whether it would enhance the wood.

The type of wood is not the only criterion for staining; your personal preference should also be considered. To get an idea of how the furniture piece would look without a stain, test an inconspicuous spot, such as the bottom of a table, with the finish you plan to apply. The finish itself will darken the wood and bring out the grain. If you like the way it looks, you don’t need to stain the wood. If you want a darker color or more pronounced grain pattern, go ahead and stain it.

Once you know what type of wood you’re working with, selecting a stain that will enliven and restore the wood will be easier. There are many types of stains to choose from.

How to Choose a Stain

Several stain types are available, including wiping stains, water-based stains, varnish and sealer stains, and NGR stains. Some stains are combined with a sealer, and these are typically labeled as stain/sealers. Not all stains are easy to use or guaranteed to produce good results, so take a few minutes to plan and read the labels.

The first consideration is the finish you plan to use. Most finishes can be applied over most types of stain, but polyurethane varnish cannot be applied over some stains. If you want to use a polyurethane finish, which is both attractive and incredibly durable, look for a stain that’s compatible with polyurethane. If you can’t find a compatible stain, you’ll need to apply a clear penetrating resin sealer over a non-compatible stain. You can apply varnish over this sealer if you want a glossy finish.

When choosing a stain for furniture, it’s important to consider the purpose of the stain. The most commonly used stains are pigmented oil stains, aniline dye stains, varnish stains, sealer stains, and organic stains.

Pigmented oil stains are nonpenetrating and consist of pigments mixed in linseed oil, turpentine, mineral spirits, or a similar solvent. They are easy to apply, but may blur or mask the grain pattern unless the wood grain is very open. Pigmented oil stains are not ideal for hardwoods, but can be used on close-grained hardwoods for slight darkening. They are applied by wiping and removed after achieving the desired color. The intensity of the color is controlled by the length of time the stain is left on the wood. Drying time can be long, and the stain must be well sealed to prevent bleeding through the finish.

Penetrating oil stains are popular and consist of aniline dyes mixed with turpentine or a similar solvent. They are inexpensive and easy to apply, but may not penetrate evenly. They work best on softwoods and can be used for slight darkening on close-grained hardwoods. Penetrating oil stains are applied by wiping and removed after achieving the desired color. The intensity of the color is controlled by the length of time the stain is left on the wood. Drying time is relatively long, and the stain must be well sealed to prevent bleeding through the finish.

NGR (Non-Grain-Raising) stains consist of aniline dye mixed with denatured alcohol or a volatile spirit, such as methanol. They are expensive and can be difficult to use. Alcohol-base stains fade over time and must be sealed well to prevent bleeding. Spirit-base NGR stains don’t fade or bleed and produce a more uniform color. They dry very quickly and are recommended for use on hardwoods, especially close-grained woods.

Varnish stains are nonpenetrating and consist of aniline dye in a varnish base. They are inexpensive and are used by manufacturers to finish hidden parts of furniture, but are generally not recommended for refinishing.

Sealer stains are nonpenetrating mixtures of dye in a varnish, shellac, or lacquer base. Two coats are usually required, and the surface must often be protected with paste wax. No further finishing is required.

Natural Stains for Wood

If you want to use organic-based stains on pine and other types of wood, there are several options available. Although tobacco is the most common choice for creating organic stains, you can also use bark, roots, tea, berries, and other natural sources. However, it is important to note that these stains are not recommended for novice refinishers.

To save time and prevent staining mishaps, it is crucial to learn proper staining techniques. In the following section, we will discuss the most effective ways to mix and apply stains.


1. What is staining and why do I need to do it?

Staining is the process of adding color to wood furniture by applying a colored liquid to the surface. It is done to improve the appearance of the wood, protect it from damage, and give it a more polished look. Staining also helps to highlight the natural grain and texture of the wood, making it more visually appealing.

2. What materials do I need to stain wooden furniture?

You will need a few basic materials to stain wooden furniture, including the stain itself, a brush or sponge applicator, sandpaper, and a clean cloth to wipe away excess stain. You may also need wood filler if there are any cracks or holes in the furniture that need to be filled in before staining.

3. What is the best way to prepare the wood before staining?

The first step in preparing wood for staining is to sand it down to a smooth and even surface. You should start with a coarse grit sandpaper and gradually work your way up to a finer grit, making sure to remove any rough spots and imperfections along the way. Once the wood is sanded, it should be wiped clean with a damp cloth to remove any dust or debris.

4. How do I apply the stain?

Before applying the stain, it is important to test it on a small, inconspicuous area of the furniture to ensure that it is the desired color. If it is, you can begin applying the stain with a brush or sponge, making sure to work in the direction of the wood grain. Apply the stain in thin, even coats, wiping away any excess as you go. Allow the stain to dry completely before applying a second coat if desired.

5. How do I protect the wood after staining?

Once the stain has dried, you should apply a clear coat of finish to protect the wood from damage and give it a glossy, polished appearance. There are a variety of different finishes to choose from, including polyurethane, lacquer, and varnish. Apply the finish in thin, even coats, allowing each coat to dry completely before applying the next.

6. How long does the staining process take?

The length of time it takes to stain wooden furniture will depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the piece, the type of wood, and the number of coats of stain and finish you apply. In general, however, you should plan on spending at least a few hours to properly sand, stain, and finish a piece of furniture.

7. Can I stain furniture that has already been painted or varnished?

Yes, it is possible to stain furniture that has already been painted or varnished, but it may require some extra preparation. You will need to sand down the existing finish to create a smooth surface for the stain to adhere to. You may also need to use a wood stripper to remove any stubborn paint or varnish. It is important to note that staining over paint or varnish may not produce the same results as staining bare wood, so be sure to test the stain on a small area first.

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