How to Stain Wood

When I went to SNAP last year, I got to sit in a session with Minwax’s resident guru—my technical term.  Bruce Johnson has been on New Yankee Workshop people! Maybe that’s not cool to you, but Norm is like Tom Cruise status to me—minus the crazy—I really want to hang out in his workshop–my Norm-worship probably comes from my Dad & Grandpa, I grew up on that stuff, and if you saw the workshop my Grandpa has, you would die–it’s amazing!  Anyway, I thought I was a pretty expert stainer, but Bruce blew my mind with all of the stuff I didn’t know.  So today I’m going to show you how I finished up my kitchen table, gave new wood a more aged, rustic look, and let you in on all of those tips and tricks I learned from the, real expert.

How to stain wood. You won't believe how easy it really is. |

 After, I had the table all built, I sanded it down.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, a little $20 mouse sander is SOOOOO worth the money. I hand sanded for years because I was too cheap to throw down the $20, and when my mother-in-law bought me this for Christmas and I used it the first time, I think I wept.  LIFE. CHANGING.  You will never get the same results sanding by hand. For this project, it’s really a must if you want that rustic look, because no amount of hand sanding is going to achieve the same thing.  So, here’s tip number one from Bruce, and I found this so interesting:

1. ALWAYS sand, even if the wood is brand new and has no finish.  Stain is meant to soak down into the pores of the wood and sanding opens up those pores.  When a piece of lumber goes through a planer, it “smashes” the pores and closes them up andany sap on the wood sort of gets pushed around and can gunk it up in spots.  Sanding will open the pores back up and get any of that residual sap off of the wood.  Before I learned this, I almost never sanded new lumber because I figured, well, that it was new, no finish…you know, all of that stuff I just debunked.  Don’t you love learning new things?

So, I gave the entire top a light sanding, and on the edges and corners, gave them a really good sanding to round them off, create some divets, and make them uneven, again, something you won’t be able to do as well by hand. Rounding the corners and edges is as simple as going over the corners with your sander in, well I guess a sort of rounding motion (honestly, it’s sort of natural instinct when you start doing it).  I’m thinking I’ll try to do a video of this in the near future, because I mention the rounding thing all the time around here.  For now, here’s my best attempt at demonstrating it in the form of a picture (and pretend the wood hasn’t been stained yet):

Move down the edges with your sander, basically rocking it back and forth over the edge.  When you get to the corner, do the same rocking motion over the top, side, and bottom edges.  Hopefully that gave some clarification and didn’t just confuse you more :D

After you’ve sanded, vaccum or blow off the extra dust, wipe it down with a damp cloth, and let it dry.  Now you’re ready for the fun part:

Little sidenote: Early American by Minwax is my FAVORITE stain, although I’m looking for something to try their new gray stain on.  If you’re a dark stain person, their Dark Walnut (I believe that’s what it’s called) rocks too–it’s a great one for under paint if you’re distressing because it’s really dark–don’t tell Bruce I said that though, he’s not a fan of painted furniture as you can imagine.

Then comes the big question:
2.  RAG OR BRUSH?  Doesn’t really matter actually.  I prefer a rag.  There’s not really any particular reason why, other than the fact that I don’t have to clean a brush.  The rags in this picture are my FAVORITE.  They’re about $2.00 for a huge bag at Lowe’s, on the paint aisle. They’re basically ripped up t-shirts.

As far as type of stain: I’ve never used gel stain, but my understanding from Bruce’s staining elightenment session, is that there’s really no difference in finish.  Gel stain was created to be used more on vertical surfaces (like a table base or chair legs) so that it doesn’t run and drip.  I’ve heard rumor that you don’t have to sand before using gel stain, but when I asked Bruce, he said, and I quote, “YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SAND.” He also, just as sternly, said he’ll hunt any of us down who dare to paint that old antique buffet or dresser of our grandmother’s, so I guess there are several of us now living in hiding from Bruce. ;D


I used to find staining really intimidating, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.  You guys, it is FAR easier than painting!!  ANYONE can do it, and here’s how:

1.  STIR the stain.  DO NOT SHAKE IT!  You’ll get a frothy mess if you shake.  I use a wood skewer and stir it up (you can see it in the picture above).  Make sure you’re touching the bottom of the can with the stick when you stir too because a lot of the color settles to the bottom.

2.  SLOP THAT STAIN ON.  Before I took this class, I thought that you had to wipe or brush stain on in long, deliberate strokes.  I was surprised (and thrilled) to learn that the best way is to just dip your rag (or brush–like I said, I prefer wiping on with a rag) and basically just slop it on, either in the direction of the grain, or in large, circular motions along the grain.  Staining is a process of absorption–the wood will absorb what it needs and the rest you can wipe off.  You can wipe or brush on in thin coats (which is what I used to to pre-Bruce), but it’s just a longer process because the darker the finish you’re looking for, the more thin coats you’ll need.  Makes total sense, right?  If you sort of slop it on to begin with, you can just leave it and let the wood absorb all of that dark goodness and then wipe off the excess.

You can see that the arrows are pointing to some little puddles of stain, just leave it and let it soak in.  Hopefully this picture also gives you an idea of the circular motion, and how much stain I’m putting on the rag–man, I really need a video for this.  You can also see that you’ll need to push down into those little gaps between the boards (actually, staining before you build it would probably be the logical route, but who does logical?).  I just unfolded my rag, slipped it between the planks and ran it back and forth to get the stain in there.

4.  After you’ve let your stain absorb, you can wipe off the excess.  The longer you let it sit, the darker it will go.  Obviously, you’ll eventually reach a point where it’s not soaking in any more, but you get my drift.  I let mine sit for about an hour and then wiped it off with a clean rag.

I did two coats of stain, because I felt like the first one was a little too light for what I was going for.  Then I stared at it for a week and tried to figure out why I still wasn’t totally loving it.  I finally figured out that it was too “new” looking.  So, I went back at the edges with my sander:

You can see that some of it is actually back to the original wood color, especially that big spot.  The wood chipped off there, so I had to smooth it out, and after it was done, I decided I liked the look, so I just left it and didn’t re-stain.  If you do take off too much of the finish though, you can easily just wipe some stain right back over it.

And now you’re ready for the polyurethane, but there are a few things I want to cover there, and this post is crazy long already, so I’ll be back tomorrow to give you the rest!  In the meantime, if you have any questions, hit me up in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them!


  1. says

    Any tips on stripping existing stain? I used gel stain on a dresser and hate the color. Can I just sand and go over with a darker color, or does it need to be stripped? Thanks!

  2. Anonymous says

    My 21yr old dining room table top desperately needs to be refinished. I have an idea for the top. The problem is the legs and chairs… Barely damaged and look great once I recover the cloth seats, no hard work involved. We have switched most of our furniture from a light white washed Pine to dark espresso colored wood. So my question is, how do I change up the table without struggling with the very grooved legs and chairs that don’t need to be refinished?

  3. says

    So bbbeeeeeautiful! I miss stnppiog by your site. We are almost settled and working on our home. Once we get the floors done, I am getting a desk and will have ‘my space’ I hope to get back to crafting and stnppiog by here often to see your work.Cheers,Terri

    • says

      Thank you! I usually just use a matte finish polyurethane (I don’t like a lot of shine to mine), but you could finish it with a high gloss polyurethane if you want the shiny finish.

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