barb blairbefore & after basicsbefore and after

before and after basics: staining tips

by Barb

hello friends! welcome to thursday and another edition of before and after basics where we are going to discuss staining furniture! the process of staining furniture is not a difficult process per se, but just like the other topics we’ve discussed, you need  time, patience, and a little sweat equity in order to reap great rewards in the end! are you ready to get started? let’s go! –barb

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!

you will need:

*sandpaper or a foam sanding block

*foam brushes/ or natural bristle brushes {preferred by me!}

*lots of lint-free rags

*a canvas or plastic drop cloth or tarp


*a small paint tray or flat pan

*finishing layer such as polyurethane or wax

*a can of stain in the color of your choice

*stir sticks


how to:

1. one of the first things you will want to nail down is your choice of stain and color {i prefer minwax stains}. stains come in so many colors, so feel free to expand beyond the natural wood tones! make sure that you do not choose a stain and varnish in one, as these have to be brushed on and cannot be wiped off like a regular stain can be. i totally tend to be a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of girl when it comes to color and texture, but if you are a little more on the cautious side you may want to test the stain you have chosen on a scrap piece of wood to ensure that you like the color and finish it will give you.

2. choose your applicator. you can use foam brushes or a staining pad but i really prefer a natural bristle brush. apply a pre stain sealer if needed for a smooth even finish. { ask the sales rep where you purchase your stain if they feel like this is a necessary step for your particular project, each project is different}

3. select your finishing coat. you can select a high-gloss, satin, eggshell, or matte finish depending on what you like { i am a matte girl all the way!}. remember that a high-gloss finish will accentuate any imperfections in the wood surface.  don’t panic when you see the finish in the can and it looks milky… i promise it will dry clear.  when you get to the finishing step, i would suggest at least 2-3 coats of a water based poly…sanding lightly between each coat and then a final coat of wax to seal the deal!

4. sand your piece entirely! you can use an orbital sander for the flat parts but you will want to use a sanding pad and/ or steel wool for detail areas such as spindles and decorative trim.

5.  vacuum and wipe down entire piece with a damp, lint free rag to remove all sanding dust.

6. place the drop cloth or tarp underneath your piece, and you can also add a layer of newspaper on top to catch all of the stain drips that you may have. stir your stain. make sure that you stir rather than shake as the shaking will cause bubbles in the stain that will transfer onto your piece.

7. apply the stain in smooth light strokes. it is better to do 2-3 light coats rather than one thick coat. make sure that you do one section at a time. i personally like to start with the most noticeable sections first. for example a table top, desk top, or sides of a piece, etc. then, make sure you have plenty of lint free rags on hand, and wipe off the excess stain after applying. if you don’t wipe off the excess your finish will become sticky and uneven. remember that the longer you leave your stain on, the stronger the color will be.

8. allow the stain to dry completely. i have found that it takes about 48 hrs in the humidity that i live in, but if you are in a drier climate it may only take 24 hrs. also, make sure your piece can dry in a traffic and dust free area as it will be sticky and collect whatever floats its way! i have a funny story here: one time i had just finished applying stain to a beautiful black painted piece, and i wanted to help the drying time, so i turned a fan on and pointed it right at the piece….. totally a bad move! everything, and i mean everything that was on the floor and floating around in the air blew all over the piece and it was a fuzzy, linty mess! i had to let it dry completely , sand it down and re apply the stain. so, lesson learned….no fans! :)

9. after your piece is completely dry and to your level of satisfaction use either your water based poly or wax { i prefer the wax} to finish your piece. make sure to follow the directions on the can for application. i like to apply the wax with a lint free cloth and then when it is dry, i buff it out with a pair of tights or hose . it gives a gorgeous finish….i promise!

there you have it friends!

* i did not have process images for the black desk piece of mine, so the two process images are courtesy of the fabulous centsational girl

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  • Thanks for the tips! I am working on re-finishing a rocking chair that is already stained pretty dark. Would sanding work best before I begin, or would you recommend something else before I begin? This is my first big furniture staining project! :)

  • That same thing happened to me, except with a rogue breeze. Was kicking myself for DAYS that I didn’t 1.) sweep the garage floor before applying the finish, and 2.) that I had the door completely open to begin with. Thankfully it all came out, and our bench/coffee table is fab!

    Piece looks great, Barb! Thanks for your lovely tips!

  • thanks so much for the tips. i’ve been putting of a big staining project because i have no idea what im doing! this is a huuge help.

  • Hi Barb,

    What grit sand paper do you suggest/use for projects like this?

    Thanks so much!

  • Thanks for the tips. I love your work.
    For the black finished piece was this a stain, if so do you recall how many coats you used. I wanted to acquire the same look for a bureau I have to go into my nursery. Thanks!

  • Do you have to start with wood that is pretty evenly colored? I have a coffee table where I accidentally rubbed off the stain in one area, and so there is a big light-colored splotch. I want to restain it. But will the lighter area show through still if I restain the entire surface? Thanks!

  • Thanks so much for this post! I have a desk that I’ve been wanting to tackle. This post gave me the inspiration to get the project started!

  • Thank you so much for the helpful how-to! Question: how can you achieve a distressed look using wood stain, as you have in the black desk photo above? Do you use different-colored stains, one on top of the other? Or leave some paint in the sanding stage, which will show through the stain…? Thanks again.

  • Jenny,

    Repairing stained furniture or cabinets to look perfect is an art. Mohawk makes an entire line of products for furniture repair. Plus they sell a nice instructional DVD. You might want to check whether there is a Mohawk dealer in your area. Not only do you need to repair the stain, you also need to use a top coat that is compatible with the finish you have. Since it is a coffee table I would assume that the finish is lacquer.

    As a professional cabinet maker I would strip the whole surface to get it perfect.

    Good luck!


  • Barb, do you poly AND wax your pieces? In Step 3, you mention polying 2-3 coats and then finishing with wax. Then, in Step 9, you say to poly OR wax. I have sanded down two lovely wooden chairs with armrests, and am trying to figure out the next step. Thanks in advance for your response! Hopefully you do respond to us commenters!!

  • danielle, depending on what color stain you are wanting to put on your chair….say if you are wanting to go lighter….you will need to sand it down for sure and get all of that dark stain off….but if you are just wanting to freshen up the dark stain, make sure that you lightly sand the surface to ensure that everything is smooth and even. you want the stain to go on as smoothly as possible and if the surface is uneven the stain will grab unevenly too.

    suzette, i always use a 120 grit fine sand paper or super fine because most woods are soft and if you use much more than that you can scratch the surface and make more work for yourself.

    carlina, this is an ebony stain and i used three coats and then sanded back to the wood for the distressing.

    lj…..you rock…:)

    jenny, joe gave you some really great tips , and i would suggest as well that you sand and/ or strip that surface down entirely …because if you do not it will stain unevenly. the raw wood is much more porous than the wood that still has the stain on it, and the finished effect will not be what you are wanting for your table.

    anacelie, on this particular piece i used an ebony stain that was pretty pigmented and was almost paint like…so even though the wood underneath was dark it was lighter than the top stain and showed through beautifully when distressed. a good rule of thumb if you want the distressed look is to choose a stain that will give you enough depth.

    catherine v, i try to always respond to questions my friend….so here goes! i do different finishes on different pieces….sometimes i choose to poly and wax….sometimes just wax ….it depends on your preference. both are good…and of course if you have 2-3 coats of poly and wax you have an even stronger finish. but sometimes you may want a different look that only wax can give… and that is a more muted shine…but still great protection as well… does that make sense?….i’m going to talk about waxes next week….so stay tuned.

  • I have a set of wood stairs in my house that need to be re-stained, can I use these steps to do that, or does it require a different method? Thanks!

  • d*s fan, you can totally use these same steps to refinish the stairs at your house! depending on what kind of stairs that you have, you may need to buy a special sander to get into all of the little nooks and crannies or around spindles.

  • i FINALLY became motivated by your pics to stain my project! thanks for the inspiration!

  • Is it possible to create a pattern using multiple shades of stain on a single piece? I love Catherine Weis’ floor in the Design Sponge Sneak Peek. A piece of furniture with that type of tonal pattern would be beautiful, but how practical is the idea?

  • Thank you so much for the tips! I have an old library cabinet that is in desperate need of some TLC and I’ve been a little scared of starting the project. This simple, easy-to-follow set of directions will hopefully help me get started.

    Also, Barb, who did the lovely stamped ceramic pieces on the wall? They are darling!

  • Can I please request a future how-to post? I have some slightly rusty (?)steel/ (?) aluminium outdoor furniture, painted white. I want to make the rust go away and not come back, and repaint the chair a different colour and I have no idea where to start!

  • The final result looks great! I like how the previous color comes through a little in the edges…
    In an unrelated note, the background wall itself has an enviable texture! :)

  • rebeca, i totally think it could be done on furniture! i have not personally tried it before, and i wonder about the crazy “bleeds” that go on with stain because of it’s composition….but the thought is intriguing:)

    jessica ann, you are so welcome! the ceramic platters are a little installation i did a while back with the phrase “perfect love casts out fear”….i’m glad you like them…thank you…

    clare, thanks for the request…i’ll see what i can do :)

    so glad this is helpful….so glad these columns are inspiring fantastic projects…..it’s just so good to hear….thank you all!


  • Great tutorial! I have a dresser that I’m getting ready to refinish and I have one quick question…for the 2-3 coats of stain in step 7, how long should I wait between coats? Does the first coat have to dry completely before I go over it again?
    Thanks..and I can’t wait to read about waxes…I’m trying to decided if I want to go poly or wax on this piece so I look forward to your post.

  • rebecca, thank you! i’m excited for your dresser project….and you will want to wait until your stain does not feel sticky or tacky before applying the next coat. also, for more depth of color ….the longer you leave the stain before wiping off, the more color will deposit! have fun!

  • Great instructions, as usual. But I’m probably showing my age and latent reading disorders by admitting that I just can’t read your prose without capital letters. Would you consider going back to standard punctuation rules for detailed stuff like this?

  • Hi Barb, really loving this series of tutorials! This might be a silly question but could you clarify the difference between staining and painting furniture? How do you decide which process to use? Thanks!

  • Well done. The desk is beautiful and yet it was the plates that grabbed my attention. Do you have/could you make available a picture of the entire installation?

    That verse is woven through my life.

  • Thank you so much for this! It has inspired me to tackle some of the projects on my to-do list!

    Also, where did you find that amazing lamp?

  • tami, oh dear…i’ll see what i can do:) i’m such a lower case girl!…

    katherine, this is a great question! the difference between staining and painting is that stain is more opaque and allows the wood grain to show through, whereas painting completely covers the surface of the wood. even though a few of the steps are the same in the process of painting and staining the outcomes are very different. as far as deciding which process you use, it is really all about your preference and the look you are going for. staining is typically done when you want to restore or refresh the actual wood finish and keep the piece looking like it’s original state or when using colored stains…a version of it’s original wood…. whereas painting is for altering the surface and composition of the piece entirely.

    alison, i’m so glad you like the plates…thank you! here is a link to my flickr page with a close up photo of the whole set of plates: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25064799@N08/3200201732/in/set-72157604245637537/

    erin and sarah, the lamp is from a local gallery here in greenville that sells lots of artwork and mid century finds. you can visit their website and inventory selections here: http://artandlightgallery.com/

  • what an amazing tutorial! i learned a few new tips and answers to specific “Barb Preference” type questions I havewondered about. Re: what you prefer etc.

    Giong in the Favorites for sure.

    :) leel

  • The finished piece is gorgeous! The way you described the piece makes if seem totally doable. Can’t wait to try it myself. I love finding old pieces and refurbishing them for my home or for displays in my flower shop. Thanks for the DYI tips.

  • Hey, just a tip, stain rags can become combustible so make sure to read the can, if it has any special instructions for stain rags. I store mine in a sealed/clean paint tin can with a little water at the bottom. that way no fires.

  • Wonderful! Thank you for breaking it down – and taking the mystery out of staining. :) Can’t wait to try this! I already have two side tables sanded down – but couldn’t decide if I wanted to paint them or stain them. I think I’ll go for the staining process. :)

  • Okay, I can’t help myself as I am a nerd … I believe @Barb meant to say that stain is _less_ opaque than paint. Opacity is the degree to which something covers something else; at the opposite end from opaque is translucent. So, paint is more opaque than stain.

    okay, un-nerding now :) Great post and super-informative! Thank you!

  • Great info! I hope you will consider how to “lime” a piece of furniture as a future post. I am dying to have that weathered, gray finish on a chest of drawers but don’t know how to do it and don’t want to get in over my head!

  • Great tips! I’m midway through staining a pine dresser black, and I learned one lesson the hard way, by taking advice from a hardware store worker who was apparently just a kid with a summer job. Applying a pre-treatment (as she recommended) will essentially even out and seal the wood, rather than simply “prep” it, making your wood far less absorbent. To achieve a deep black colour, I would have needed a dozen coats at that rate. I re-stripped the wood with an orbital sander and wound up doing three coats, but there was much cursing and wasted time. Of course, different woods will absorb differently and require different prep, but if you’re going dark and don’t really want the grain to show through, I would skip pre-treating.

  • Hi Barb,

    I’m wondering where you find a matte finish? I looked at Minwax’s finishing coats and they seem to only come in glossy, semi gloss, and satin. Is there another source?


  • amelia, the stains do only come in those finishes, but the water based poly that i use is a matte finish, and i can only find it at my woodcraft store. it is worth it though…i love it!

  • Thanks for the great tips! Can you explain why one should not use a stain/varnish in one? The guy at my local paint store actually suggested using this, as it significantly cuts down on time. Does this just reduce the control you have over the opacity of the stain?

    • lane, for me personally the “workability” if you will of the varnish/stain combos are more difficult than just the regular stains. Varnish is very thick and fast drying making it difficult to really work with the finish like you need to for an authentic look.

  • Love everything u do!!!!
    I have a question tho… what finish should I do for a piece that will go in a bathroom and will be getting wet? I have a vanity project that I’m going to start soon…thx :)

  • Barb, you have inspired me to start some wonderful projects. I am working on one table in particular where I am using minwax stains in onyx and charcoal gray to create a diamond harlequin type effect. I’ll let you know how the design with stain turns out and you can forward to Rebeca if you like. Thanks for the tutorial! It has saved me from making many mistakes

  • I stained an antique dresser with minwax and used an old t-shirt to wipe the stain afterwards. It left lint on the wood. Is there something that will remove the lint without removing all the stain/finish? I sure don’t want to start all over again. I have used t-shirts in the past and never had this problem.

  • So I recently sanded a kitchen table and some areas I have sanded deep to get rid of deep scraps and stained the top and it looks like a blob in the areas that got sanded more than others,, any ideas how i can fix this??

  • I’m getting ready to move into my new house and I have several pieces of furniture that really need a facelift (and a new color to match my decor). I haven’t ever stained anything before, so I’ve been on the hunt for some good tips, tricks, and instructions on how to go about this. I’m sure I’ll still make some mistakes that I’ll need to learn from, but these are great tips!

  • This may have already been answered in the comments or in another thread – sorry if it’s a duplicate. What kind of wax do you recommend for the topcoat? My husband and I used General Finishes Gel Stain to refinish a dresser/bookcase/toybox/crib for our nursery and now just need a top coat – wondering what might be the best option. Any info/tips you can give me would be great! Thank you in advance.

  • I am working on a dresser right now. I have already sanded the piece. It had few chips and cracks on top and on drawers. So i used wood filler and sanded it to get a smoth look. Now i am not sure if i can still use stain or i should go with paint to cover the wood fillers.
    I look forward to hear your suggestions.

    • If it’s a wood color you should be able to stain over it
      Without it being noticeable. The filler you used should say if it’s able to be stained.

  • Hello,
    I was wondering why are you using water based poly when you are using oil based stain? thank you

  • Hi,
    I am refinishing an old deakon’s bench and after sanding, using an antique varnish remover, conditioning and then staining, I am noticing that in some places the wood looks dull and in other places that colour is vibrant. What am I doing wrong. Will applying the final satin clear coat correct this or will I have to start over? Thank you :)

  • I am staining a table top and have two coats on it but it is looking very streaky. What am I doing wrong. I have not sanded between coats.

  • Thanks for these tips for staining wood. I have a few pieces of wood furniture that I would like to restore by staining them. It helps that you pointed out how long I should allow it to dry after applying the stain if I live in a humid environment. I live in a town that has really high humidity all year round, so I’ll keep in mind that it will take about forty eight hours for it to dry. Knowing that will help me feel more patient and get a better result out of my wood furniture.

    • Kelly

      No, you don’t have to seal it. But if you’d like it to stay protected and be handed down as a family piece, sealing is a great idea and worth the time.


  • I sanded and re-stained the underside of a drop leaf mahogany table. To keep the mahogany from bleeding through to my final finish coat, I applied a sealer. It has been three days since I did the seal. The table still is not dry. What do you think is the problem?

  • Great tips, I do have a question, how long should one wait to use a piece of furniture after it has been stained?

  • Recently I have been getting into woodworking and I wanted to look up some information about sanding tables. I really appreciated how this talked about finding the right stain and color before sanding for the flat parts. I will have to keep this in mind when I look for a sanding table.