When building something with wood, oftentimes we find that the original color is too light for what we want. This is where staining comes in. Staining also helps to bring out the grain of the wood. If you like the natural color of the wood you’re using, then staining is unnecessary. Your finish will help to bring the grain out. But to change the color, you’ll need to stain it before you finish it. This process is fairly easy, but make sure you’ve got plenty of clean rags around. You can choose oil-based stains or water-based stains.
The difference between oil-based and water-based stains.
According to professional wood finisher Bruce Johnson, oil-based stains take awhile to dry, so you’ll have about 10 minutes to work with it before it starts to set in. They take about eight hours to dry, so if you need more than one coat, just staining can take the whole day, or even two. You probably won’t be able to apply the first coat of finish the same day. These stains can also give off fumes, so use these in well-ventilated areas.
Water-based stains, on the other hand, don’t give off harmful fumes. They’re preferable for people sensitive to fumes or who don’t really have a well-ventilated area to work in. These stains dry quickly enough so that you can apply two coats and probably your first coat of finish on the same day. Water-based stains also come in many more colors and hues than oil-based stains. Check out Bruce Johnson’s website here for more detailed information on oil and water-based stains.
Applying the stain
Before you begin, wipe down your project with a dry shop towel to remove any remaining dust from sanding, or that just settled on the surface.
I like to use sponge brushes to brush the stain onto the wood, and rags to wipe the excess off. Foam brushes absorb a lot of stain and distribute it evenly and quickly. This is essential if you’re using a water-based stain. However, others like to use rags to apply stain. Some, like Chris Baylor at About.com, like synthetic brushes for water-based stains and natural bristle brushes for oil-based stains. What you use depends on what works best for you.
Before you begin staining the actual piece, use small scraps of the wood you’re working with to test the stain. If you don’t have scraps, test it in a small, unnoticeable spot. The reason you want to test it is so that you know how long to let it set, and how many coats you should apply, to get the shade you want. Once you know what to do, apply the stain to the piece you’re working with in the exact same manner.
Apply the stain in the direction of the grain of the wood, and wipe it off in the same way. If you’re working on a large piece with water-based stain, stain small sections at a time because it will dry too quickly for you to stain the whole thing at once.
Also, if you use a water-based stain, you will probably have to sand the wood smooth again. Use fine-grain sandpaper (220-grit or finer, depending on how fine you originally sanded the wood), and very light pressure with your hand. Avoid using a power sander here, even for big pieces like tabletops. You’re just sanding away minor roughness now. Woods stained with oil-based stain don’t generally require more sanding.
Note: One method you can use that may make it so you get more clarity on the wood, as well as not having to sand again after using a water-based stain, is a process called “raising the grain” of the wood. For details on that, click here.
Let the stain dry completely, and then proceed with finishing.