How to Finish Wood With Stain and a Polyurethane Finish

Stain adds beauty to wood, and polyurethane protects that beauty. The combination of stain and polyurethane ensures that your wood will have appeal and longevity. The application of stain and polyurethane is routine if wood is prepared properly.

Skip the Sealer

Wood finishing is more about preparation than application. Some manufactures recommend sealer before stain or polyurethane, but it's an extra step you don't need, and it lightens the color of stain by preventing it from penetrating.

Character Flaws

Stain highlights grain patterns. It also highlights scratches, saw marks, scuffs, dents and flaws. Remove them by sanding the wood with 120-grit sandpaper. Sand parallel with the grain only. Never sand across the grain. When it's smooth, it's ready for stain, and there are two types commonly used, oil-based and water-based.

Oil-Based Stain Traits

  • Requires 72 hours or more to dry.
  • Penetrates deeper than water-based.
  • Doesn't clean up with soap and water.
  • Won't raise grain.

Water-Based Stain Traits

  • Dries in 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Easy to clean up with water.
  • More available colors than oil-based.
  • Can raise grain.

Sanding Options

Production woodworkers stop at 120-grit sandpaper, but for the smoothest finish, it's fine to resand with 180 or 220, but it's not essential. Some people continue sanding with even higher grits, up to 400, but that can result in the polishing of the wood, which causes stain to appear blotchy.

Air Time

Apply the stain to the wood liberally with a sponge or soft cloth. Immediately wipe it off with a dry cloth. Work in manageable areas. If the stain begins to dry before you wipe it off, you're tackling too much area; this is more likely to happen using water-based stain. Overlapping stain on previously stained areas causes uneven colors. It's best to stain everything before stain begins to dry. If that's not possible, add stain to legs, arms, braces, panels, tabletops or individual pieces one at a time.

Serious Stuff: Polyurethane

Polyurethane is a serious finish. Old-school, oil-based polyurethane provides the warm glow and depth associated with polyurethane. Water-based products work the same way but lack the character and color of oil-based polyurethane.

Oil-Based Traits

  • Turns amber color with age.
  • Requires between four and six hours to recoat.
  • Can't be cleaned up with soap and water.
  • Requires natural bristle brush for application.
  • A gallon of oil-based costs about $25 at the time of publication.
  • Slightly flexible to move with wood.
  • Emits more fumes than water-based.

Water-Based Traits

  • Stays clear.
  • Can be recoated in two hours.
  • Cleans up with soap and water.
  • Dries harder than oil-based.
  • Costs about $40 per gallon, at the time of publication.
  • Emits fewer fumes than oil-based.

Application

Polyurethane is thick and typically brushed on. Apply it in thin coats after the stain is dry.

Step 1

Dip the brush about 1 inch deep into the can, and brush the wood with long, steady strokes from end to end, working parallel with the grain.

Step 2

Overlap each previous stroke by about 1/2 inch, keeping a wet edge until everything's coated.

Step 3

Sand polyurethane lightly between coats with 220- or higher-grit sandpaper. You should see a fine, white powder after sanding -- if not, allow it to dry longer between coats. For the smoothest finish, wipe the surface with a sticky tack cloth before adding another coat. Two coats are sufficient for polyurethane, but you can add one or two more if desired for more depth.