How To Stain Wood – Unfinished Furniture

You bought this beautiful piece of unfinished furniture.  You need to stain the wood to make it look stunning and to protect the wood.  This is a simple step by step plan on how to stain wood to create a long-lasting classic piece of furniture.  Even if you don’t have any experience with painting or staining, you can create a beautifully finished piece of furniture.  You just need a plan, your tools, and a good work-space.

1 Unfinished Wood desk
This desk was purchased for our home office.  It is unfinished and needs pre-stain 
and stain to protect it.  

The First Step – Picking Your Stain Color 

Picking your color is often the hardest part when you stain wood. You need to look at your room’s color scheme, the other furniture, and remember to pick what you like.  The stain will be just a bit darker than what the store sample shows. Keep in mind that if you buy oil-based pre-stain you need to buy oil-based wood finish as well to stain the wood.  And if you buy a water-based pre-stain you need to buy a water-based wood finish.  Always test out your stain in a spot you can’t see like the back of a drawer or the back of a dresser.

2 Stained Dresser showing grain of wood through stain
We picked this color for our bedroom.  It allows the naturally beautiful grain of the wood 
to show through and complemented our dark walls.  

The Second Step – Your Work Area

Plan out your workspace.  You need a dry flat surface.  If you stain inside your garage you need ventilation, so open windows or your garage door.  If you want to work outside you also need a flat surface. On the lawn is not a good spot because it can be so uneven. You want your items to lay on a smooth surface so that you can spread the stain on the wood evenly and wipe the stain off evenly.  You will not have unnecessary drips and build-up of the stain. A front porch, back porch or cement slab is a good option.

Spring and Fall are the best times to stain wood for the mild temperatures.  If you plan to work outside look at the weather forecast. Your newly stained furniture needs to dry for at least 24 hours but 48 is even better.  You can always stain outside and bring your furniture inside your garage to dry. Inside is best because the temperature is controlled and less chance for the wood to swell or shrink which can cause stress and cracks in the stain.

Make sure you have a tarp or some sort of covering to lay underneath the furniture.  The stain will discolor any surface it splashes on.

3 Workspace chaotic yet still organized
This looks chaotic but it is a well-planned work-space in the garage.  We have a flat surface 
and a ventilated place for our items to dry.  It is also temperature controlled so the wood does not expand from moisture.  

The Third Step – Your Supplies and Tools

  • Pre-stain – your local DIY store or on Amazon
  • Stain – your local DIY store or on Amazon-Make sure you have enough stain for your wood.  One can covers approximately 75-Square feet or two large dressers.  You might need more pre-stain depending on how many grooves or patterns are in the wood.

4 Bed showing grooves in wood
The bed has many grooves in the wood.  It soaks up a lot of the pre-stain and a lot of the wood stain. You may need two cans of pre-stain.  Unused stain can be stored for up to a year if the lid is put back on tightly and put in a temperature-controlled space.  

  • Paintbrushes-I buy new paint-brushes.   New clean paint brushes have less of a chance of residual debris from your previous DIY jobs.
  • Paint stirring sticks -You can find these wherever you purchase your stain or paint.
  • Clean rags-I recommend buying a bag of rags.  You don’t want any residue on the rags. Residue from prior uses or even just traces of detergent from previous washing.
  • Tarp or old tablecloth large enough to cover the area under the furniture.

The Fourth Step – Your staff

You can do the job yourself but it is always good to have a partner.  My husband and I like to do our projects together. We check each other for missed spots of stain on the wood and necessary reapplications.   I also like to spend this time with my husband. I have learned many DIY tips from my very handy husband.

The Fifth Step – The Staining Process

  • Examine your furniture.  You may need to lightly sand it.  You want a very smooth finish.  Rough spots can change the color of the stain.  I like to use the small Rockwell 3.0 Amp Sonicrafter Oscillating Multi-Tool for small areas with more intricate trim or grooves.  I prefer this tool because it is small and easy to handle.  I use the DeWALT Random Orbit Sander if I am sanding larger flat areas.  I like this DeWalt sander because it is a durable tool. It is large enough to do the job but small enough for me to easily manipulate.  I find that when I use a smaller tool it works much better for me. I have tried larger tools and have made mistakes. You can use different abrasive film discs with different grit depending on the roughness of the wood.  Grit between 120-220 is most likely what you will need.  

5 Sanders
Pictured on the right is the Rockwell ShopSeries 3.0 Amp Sonicrafter Oscillating Multi-Tool.  On the left is the DeWALT Random Orbit Sander.  

  • You need to wipe off your wood with a clean dry rag.  A clean surface makes a smooth application. This is important if you have sanded any part of the furniture where dust can collect.
  • Make sure to mix the pre-stain in the can with a paint mixing stick.  Small particles can settle on the bottom. You can find these at the DIY store where you purchase the stain.
  • Put the pre-stain on first. The directions say to put the pre-stain on, wait 15-20 minutes, and apply the stain. We have waited 24 hours before putting on the stain and did not notice any difference.   It is important to follow directions but this allows a bit of wiggle room between your pre-stain and stain applications.
  • Mix the stain.  Make sure to mix the stain because the pigment settles to the bottom.  The color you see when you open the can is not the actually color. Wood has slightly different colors so the stain may look slightly different in different areas.  This is normal and still looks nice.
  • I recommend using a medium-sized paintbrush to brush the stain on the wood.  Be careful to not saturate the brush. Try to make your paintbrush strokes go with the grain of the wood for a professional look.
  • Next I use a rag to wipe off the excess.  You do not need to rub very hard. You should wipe it off in the same direction as the grain of the wood.

6 Underside of dresser
This is the underside of the drawer.  You need to stain here also so that you don’t see any unfinished wood.  You don’t want to stain where the drawer slides into the slot.  

  • Make sure to cover every bit of wood with stain that your eye will see.  Don’t forget the under-edges. This is the time that it is beneficial to have a partner.  Staining every bit evenly is important. If you do happen to make mistake it is ok! Don’t panic just wipe off as much excess as you can.  You need to be careful when you apply the stain to the wood but also know that you can fix mistakes. If you need to you can use your paintbrush to apply more stain.
  • I use one coat.  You can use two coats but I have not found that it makes much of a difference.  If you like the way the stain looks after one coat then leave it. Remember this is your furniture and your choice.  If you prefer a bit darker then apply a second coat following all of the above steps. It is all about your own personal preference.

7 Finished wood stained nightstand
This is my finished nightstand.  It is just what I wanted.  When you stain you get what you want and don’t have to compromise.  

It is important to thoroughly let the furniture dry after your final coat.  Stain smells and your house will smell for a long time if you don’t let the stain dry.  After your simple plan you have a gorgeous finished product with the added touch of your personality.