Beautifully finished wood adds a richness and warmth no man-made material can rival. And it's a look you can achieve yourself with the right materials and technique. Stains come in a full range of wood tones, and such finishes as varnish and polyurethane give your piece either a matte or glossy shine. Sanding is one of the keys to an excellent result, beginning with coarse-grit paper and ending with a steel-wool substitute between coats.
Use the Right Tools
Assemble a selection of sandpaper ranging from very fine to very coarse grit. Have your stained mixed and ready to apply. Use a natural-bristle brush for oil-based stains and finishes and a synthetic one for water-based stains and finishes. Mix some solvent into the stain to thin it, if you'd like, and make it easier to spread. For super-fine, between-coat sanding, use a non-rusting, non-flaking substitute for authentic steel wool to keep your finish free of steel particles and eventual rust stains.
Prepare the Surface
Prepare the wood surface by sanding with sandpaper that's gritty enough to remove imperfections but no grittier than is necessary. Wet the wood before you start if you'll be using a water-based stain. Moisture raises the wood fibers and allows you to sand them off in order to achieve a smoother finish. When the surface is even, sand the wood with increasingly finer sandpapers until the wood takes on a smooth, satiny finish. Remember to sand the wood with the grain in order to avoid introducing scratches.
Tips for Applying Stain
Brush on the stain with smooth strokes that go with the grain of the wood. Work on one surface at a time -- the top or the sides, for example -- so that you won't have to overlap stain and risk building up too much color in the overlap. Let the the stain sit for a moment. Then wipe it off, again working in the same direction as the grain. Allow the stain to dry between coats.
Sanding with a steel-wool substitute between coats of stain is useful for two reasons. First, it evens out the finish from the previous coat. In addition, it adds some "tooth" to the surface that helps the next coat of stain adhere and absorb better and more uniformly. Wipe the surface with tack cloth to remove dust before you begin the next coat of stain.
Finishing the Wood
Follow the manufacturer's instructions for the finishing product you've chosen to protect your piece's surface. Sand the wood between coats with the steel wool substitute in the same way you sanded between coats of stain. This sanding serves the same purpose: It evens the finish and helps the next coat adhere better. Sand carefully, however, to avoid sanding through the finish and marring the stained surface.