Staining Wood Furniture

Staining Wood Furniture is more art than science.  The mechanics of it are by no means difficult, and you can get started with a minimal investment in supplies, but there are nuances to the process, and you’ll find yourself learning something new with each project!

Before we move into the mechanics of staining wood furniture, one thing should be understood:  It is messy!  Be sure you’re wearing clothes you don’t mind getting stain coated!

Also, before we go further, you’ll need a suitable workspace. It should be large enough to accommodate your piece,

(tip!  Note that some pieces (Bookcases and desks) take deceptively more space as you’ll need to have space for the shelves and drawers to sit out and dry!), and should be well ventilated and dry


(tip!  Bear in mind that your pieces will dry more slowly in high humidity).

One final note:  When staining wood furniture, always, sand, apply and remove stain WITH the grain of the wood!

As far as supplies go, you’ll need:

  • Several applicators (foam brushes)/ paint brushes
  • Rags for wiping the excess stain off, and for wiping the piece down after sanding

    (Tip!  Use an old tee-shirt for the former, and a tack cloth for the latter)

  • A good oil-based stain (in our own experiments with staining wood furniture, we’ve tried the water based and gel stains, and were unhappy with the results, but your mileage may vary!)
  • Fine grain sand paper

    (Tip!  We use #320 for our projects and it serves us well)

  • Polyurethane for finishing

    (Tip!  Comes in gloss and satin finishes – get some of both! When staining wood furniture, we use gloss for the undercoats, and wrap it up with a satin finish)

Step #1


Sanding is a key step in staining wood furniture, as it preps the wood to receive the stain.  The coarser the grain, the more stain the wood will absorb.  We have settled into #320 for our projects and have had excellent results, but experiment to see what works best for you.

Tip 1a:  Any time you experiment with wood stain, don’t risk your piece itself.  Go to your local home store and buy an unfinished shelf of the same type of wood, and conduct your experiment on that.


Tip 1b:  Hand sand, before staining your wood furniture!  You can use a belt sander, but you’ll find you get better results with hand sanding, and after you’ve sanded, wipe the furniture with a dry tack cloth to remove loose particles from the wood.

Step #2

Applying the First Coat

With your applicators/paintbrushes, apply stain to the wood, moving from the top of the piece to the bottom, always WITH the grain of the wood.  Spread evenly and be sure to wipe away all rivulets with your applicator.

The longer you leave the stain on before wiping it down, the more it will soak into the wood, and the deeper the color.  Experiment with this to find out what produces the best results for you, then wipe down accordingly.  This, and the grit of sandpaper, will have the largest visible impacts when staining wood furniture.

Tip 2a: In order to experiment with how long to leave your stain on before you actually start staining wood furniture, buy an unfinished shelf of the same wood type from your local home store, sand it and stain/wipe a small patch to see the results.

Once you’ve finished removing the excess, let dry overnight.  When fully dry, move to the next step.

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Tip 2b: Some people try to speed up the process of staining wood furniture by letting a fan blow across the piece, but I’ve never found this to produce satisfactory results.  You wind up embedding airborne particles into your piece and have to spend extra time sanding.  The fans don’t dry the piece evenly anyway, so while it might save you time in one area, it’ll cost you in others.

When staining a large piece, be methodical.  Stain and wipe down one side before moving to the other.  Stain and wipe drawers in a chest of drawers, or shelves in a book case one at a time (stain and wipe the first, then move onto the second, as opposed to staining all, then wiping all).

Step #3

More Sanding

Lightly sand the piece and wipe down.

Step #4

Applying the Second Coat

Follow the same steps you used when applying the first coat of stain.  Normally, two coats are plenty, but if you feel the need for a third, sand and apply a third after the second has dried.

Step #5

Polyurethane, Coat #1

“Poly” comes in two forms, gloss or satin, and whichever you use, I recommend satin for the final coat.  We use gloss undercoats, with a satin finish.  You’ll find that if you use gloss exclusively, the furniture looks cheap and shiny, and if you use satin exclusively, as the furniture ages, it begins to look dingy.  The gloss undercoating and satin finish gives us a good look that we’ve been very satisfied with, but again, experiment to find what works best for you.

Applying “Poly” is, from the same as applying stain, except that you’re not going to wipe any off.  Just apply evenly over the wood and let sit overnight.

Step #6

“Poly,” Second Coat

Lightly sand the piece and wipe down (this removes air bubbles and impurities that might be stuck in the coat).

Follow the same procedures you did in Step 5 and let dry.

Step #7

“Poly” Final Coat

The final step in staining wood furniture.  Follow the same procedures you used in steps 5 & 6 (lightly sand and apply the next coat).  If you used gloss earlier, use satin now.

Tip 7a:  When staining wood furniture that will see heavy “traffic,” you may want a 4th undercoat.

Let dry, and it’s ready to use!

As you can see, staining wood furniture is not a quick process, but neither is it difficult.    If you’ve never done it, I highly recommend giving it a go!

See also: Bare Wood Furniture and Unpainted Furniture for additional ideas on finishing out your piece.