Old, worn furniture or new, unpainted pieces benefit from staining — an alternative to painting and a process that exposes the grain of the wood. It’s a lovely way to show off the natural beauty of the furniture.
Staining is especially effective for hard, nicely grained woods such as oak, and not quite as successful with soft woods such as pine. In softer woods, the grain tends to be uneven and the stain may blotch when applied. This does not mean you can’t stain a pine chest or table; you simply have to be more careful.
In fact, care is the name of the game when you stain. Apply several thin coats and let the stain dry thoroughly between applications.
Choose the color stain you want. Stains come in all shades of brown and black and also pastels. They are thinner than paint and a little trickier to apply. You can create your own shade by mixing two stains together. To dull and darken any stain, you can stir in a few drops of black paint.
Test the color on a spare piece of like wood, or on a hidden portion of the furniture.
If you decide to mix your own shade, remember the proportions of the colors. It’s hard to replicate the color unless you know exactly what you did before — and unlike paint, stain is not forgiving.
The salespeople in paint stores can mix stains for you to achieve the shade you want.
Preparing to Stain
Clean and sand the furniture you plan to stain. If the piece was stained previously, use steel wool to smooth the surface. If you sand it instead, you might remove too much of the original stain and the new stain won’t cover the wood evenly.
Make sure the furniture is completely dry and completely free of sawdust or any other dirt and grime. If you wash the piece, it is a good idea to let it sit overnight to insure it dries thoroughly.
Pour the mixed stain into a paint tray or similar, shallow container. Using a small brush, foam pad or clean cloth, apply the stain to the wood, working with the grain. Use long, even strokes and work steadily.
When you have finished the first coat, let it dry completely (overnight is a safe bet). It will darken as it does. Before you start the next coat, lightly sand or rub the wood with steel wool.
Every coat of stain darkens the one before it. You will have to decide how many coats to apply once you see how the piece is drying.
If the stain seems blotchy in places, use a small, soft cloth to rub it smooth.
Finishing the Piece
Let the stained furniture dry for at least 24 hours and then apply a finishing coat or two. In days gone by, we tended to finish stained pieces with shellac. Nowadays, most folks prefer polyurethane. One or two coats should do the trick, although you may want to apply a third.
The finisher is sold as a matte, satin, or high gloss and you will have to decide which you want.
Wear rubber gloves when applying stain. Unlike latex paint, it is hard to wash off under running water.
Mix enough stain to do the entire job. It’s always a good idea to have too much than too little as it’s hard to duplicate the color balance.
When you dip the brush or cloth into the stain, squeeze it out before applying the stain. The goal is to rub only a thin coat on the wood as you go.