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Applying Wood Stain on Hardwood and Softwood

Inexpensive Pine, Expensive Oak, or Cherry has More Character after a Coat of Stain

© 2012 by All rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission. Author’s Google profile

Minwax stain and polyurethane; photo courtesy Kelly Smith

Most woodworkers have great success staining deciduous hardwood species such as poplar, hickory, teak, beech, and pecan. But disappointment can set in when attempting to apply stain to softer species such as number 1 pine, fir, and others.

Why is this? Because softer wood is much more porous and tends to absorb too much stain, and in an unequal and uneven manner. It all has to do with the cell structure of the wood surface.

Hardwood has a dense and tight cell structure so it is more difficult for the stain to penetrate deeply or quickly. That gives you ample time to wipe down your woodworking project to fine tune your desired shading.

Softer woods, on the other hand, have bigger thirsty cells. Because of this, they soak in your stain quickly and deeply. This leaves you only a small window of time to work on the surface of your project. The result of this can be a darker shade than the picture on the can shows as well as resulting in irregular results.

So How do Paint Contractors and Carpenters Work their Magic?

The technique is not quite what you would consider a trade secret, but it is certainly not widely advertised either. Surprisingly, stain manufacturers don’t broadcast it much either. The trick to success?

It’s to make the softer wood species behave more like deciduous wood trim or boards in terms of absorption. Here’s how.

We know that the cell structure must be addressed, so the trick is to first apply a clear conditioner on the surface. When this clear solution enters the wood’s cells, it will behave similar to oak or walnut without altering the color.

The can of the product you buy will have manufacturer instructions, but generally they recommend a rather short window of time between the application of the clear conditioner and the stain itself.

A product I like to use is the Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner®. One reason this product is so popular is that almost all big box home improvement stores stock a full line of Minwax stains.

It is always advantageous to use as many products as you can on your project for the best results. Common sense really; they are more likely to be compatible with each other.

Tips for Success for all Your Projects

The key thing to remember is sanding your wood with the correct grades of sandpaper. The correct grade for the starting point really is dependent on how rough your surface is to start with. Remember, the smaller the number, the courser the grit. Not intuitive, but that’s the way it is.

As an example, #50 is quite coarse but #180 is a much finer grit. The basic idea is to get your surface as smooth as you can. The less amount of open grain you have, the more uniform your stain and finish absorption will be.

To apply the stain, use a pair of gloves and a soft, lint-free cloth or a brush. For quick jobs, I use those throw-away latex gloves or even a plastic bag in a crunch. For bigger jobs, use heavier grade gloves.

Apply and then immediately wipe off the the stain from the wood surface. Examine it to see if it is the desired shade. Needs to be darker? Do another application and wipe again.

finishing wood is not rocket science of course, but it is an acquired art form. One good thing is that it gives you as a woodworker complete control, unlike painting a wall. Always strive to bring out the beauty of your wood.

I’ve found two great choices when I’m finishing a woodworking project or some wood molding with a stain. First, I like to use a straight stain, let it dry, and finish with polyurethane or some other urethane product.

The second choice would be to combine the steps and use a product that combines the stain and polyurethane, like the Minwax product, if it lends itself to the project.

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© 2012 All rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission.