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Homework: How to stain wood like a professional

Varnishing a wooden shelf using paintbrush.

Varnishing a wooden shelf using paintbrush. Credit: iSTOCK.COM

Oftentimes, a homeowner with little or no experience in staining wood makes a critical error by skipping a step. One trick will ensure that a piece of wood is stained evenly and its grain really shows well.

You can watch a short video in which I show you how to use the magic trick when staining wood by going to woodconditioner

STEP 1: Assemble the tools and supplies you may need. When I stain wood, I use an electric palm sander, a hand sanding block, aluminum oxide sandpaper or sometimes red garnet sandpaper in grits from 60 to 220, a razor knife to cut sandpaper, mineral spirits, old rags, stain, various paint or stain brushes and wood conditioner.

STEP 2: If you desire professional results, the wood needs to be smooth. By smooth, I mean like or very close to glass. What most people may think is smooth, a professional may feel is more like a two-day beard growth. Smoothness is achieved by sanding the wood in steps, starting with coarse-grit sandpaper and resanding with finer and finer grits until the final sanding is done with 220-grit sandpaper.

STEP 3: Not all sandpapers are the same. Aluminum oxide paper contains mineral chips that self-sharpen. Red garnet sandpaper may be chosen for final sanding because the garnet particles round off slightly with wear, and this gives the wood a nice burnished effect. Test using red garnet sandpaper when you get to the 180- and 220-grit sanding stages.

STEP 4: As you sand your finished piece of lumber or furniture, sand a sample of the same wood using all the same sandpapers and techniques. You'll want to test the stain on this piece of wood before you apply it to your finished piece of furniture or wood. You can't afford to make a staining mistake. You only get one chance.

STEP 5: Once you feel the wood is smooth, remove all dust. Be sure the air is clear in the room by using an exhaust fan, and vacuum up any dust. Wiping the wood with a thin coat of mineral spirits on a rag will help get rid of dust, and it will not raise the grain.

STEP 6: Apply a coat of wood conditioner to your test piece. This is a clear liquid that helps limit the absorption of stain in softer woods. It works well on harder woods, too. Follow the directions on the label of the wood conditioner, paying attention to any notes about wood species.

STEP 7: When the wood conditioner is dry -- this often takes an hour or less -- you can then apply your wood stain. Remember, you're working with your test piece of wood. Apply the stain with a brush or rag and allow it to sit for a minute. Take a clean rag and lightly wipe off any excess stain. The wood should look gorgeous. The color of the wood while the stain is wet and after wiping is how it should appear once you apply a clear varnish or urethane finish.

STEP 8: If you make a mistake and the color of the wood is not exactly right once the stain is dry, you can sometimes get the color you want by adding pigment to the clear finish you'll apply once the stain is dry. This is a secret trick used by pros to match stain colors in older homes. Once you achieve a perfect match, apply a final coat of clear finish that has no pigment in it.

Summary: Staining wood is a true craft. Don't assume it's easy. It can take years of practice to match wood stains with an existing finish. Remember to stain test pieces of wood until you get acceptable results. Then, advance to the real project you wanted to stain from the get-go.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: One hammer out of five
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