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Interior Wood Finishing Basics


Popular Woods Staining Guide



Alder & Aspen

These hardwoods are popular in the unfinished furniture industry. However, they absorb stain unevenly. Wood conditioner is recommended.



Ash & Chestnut

These hardwoods have strong grain patterns and large, open pores that absorb stain readily. Very attractive in nearly any color of stain




Often substituted for maple in furniture and kitchen cabinets because it is inexpensive. Does not absorb stain evenly. Wood conditioner is recommended.




Has a subtle grain pattern and small pores which do not absorb as much stain, making it difficult to make any significant changes to its color. Most woodworkers prefer to keep this wood natural in color.



Mahogany & Rosewood

Typically additional staining is not necessary. Always use an oil-based stain to ensure compatibility with the natural oils in these woods.





Is extremely dense, tight-pored wood that does not absorb stain well, even after the application of pre-stain conditioner. Not recommended to stain.




A popular hardwood with a strong grain pattern and large, open pores that absorb stain readily. Very attractive in nearly any color of stain.



Pine, Fir, & Cedar

These species absorb stain unevenly, especially around knots and blemishes. Always use a pre-stain wood conditioner to lessen the appearance of blotches.




Has a grain pattern similar to cherry, but lacks the same reddish hue. When stained with colors containing red dyes and pigments poplar can be made to look like cherry but is less expensive.




The Benefits of Applying Wood Finisher

Why bother applying wood finisher to your furniture or interior surfaces? There are two big reasons:

  • For one, wood is a naturally porous material regardless of species (although some wood types are more porous than others). Wood absorbs dirt, oil, and other moisture, which can eventually cause it to degrade. By applying a finisher, you protect your wood furniture and other surfaces for years to come. This protection boosts the appeal and usability of any wood item.

  • For another, wood finishers can alter or improve your furniture’s appearance. You can apply a wood stain, which adds color and highlights different aspects of your wood pieces, like the wood grain. Finishes also seal in this and any natural color, increasing your wood pieces’ longevity as well.

  • Most finishes also add warmth and a polished machine to wood furniture and surfaces.

All in all, it’s a great idea to add interior wood finishes to all of your home’s wooden pieces.


Types of Wood Finishes

Wood finishes come in several types.

  • Surface finishes dry on top of your wood pieces and create a protective coating. They can change wood’s appearance but are primarily used for outdoor or heavily used pieces that get a lot of regular wear and tear.

  • Penetrating finishes, which penetrate the wood and are fully absorbed over time. They change more of the wood’s character and are primarily aesthetic rather than protective.




Sanding is one of the most important steps in wood finishing. A thorough sanding is often what separates acceptable results from beautiful results.

Sand in the direction of the grain for a smooth, uniform finish and remove all sanding dust using a vacuum, tack cloth, dry paint brush or cloth.

End-grains (areas where the wood has been cut against the grain), such as the front side of a table, tend to soak up more stain than surfaces cut with the grain. With additional sanding to end-grain areas, you can better control the absorption of stain.

Rough sandpaper below 100-grit is only used to quickly remove wood or layers of old finish. Medium sandpaper 100-grit and 120-grit is ideal for removing shallow scratches, dents and rough edges that could cause splinters. Either of these two grits can be used for a first sanding of most projects. A final sanding with fine sandpaper 220-grit will remove any scratches left by the medium sandpaper and will eliminate any remaining loose fibers in the wood.


Choosing a Stain Color


When deciding on which stain color to use, don’t forget that each of the unique wood species will absorb the stains differently. The type of wood species you select will affect the way the stain may appear after it has been applied on the wood. As a best practice, it is always a good idea to first test the stain color on a hidden section of the wood you are using. This way, you will be able to see the way the stain affects your chosen wood before fully committing to applying the stain to the rest of the wood. The final color result you will achieve is determined by the color of the stain selected, the species of wood selected, how porous the wood species is, and how long the stain is left on the wood.


Popular Wood Finish Colors - Consider Wood Grain

You can find wood stain finishes in a wide range of colors. Note that most stains don't come in colors like white, red, blue, brown, and so on. Instead, they have more advanced color names to help distinguish them from one another.

Fortunately, many colors are similar to the basic hues above. Our experts can always help you identify the best wood finish color for your needs.

Popular stain colors include Rosewood, Fruitwood, Modern walnut, Salem maple, Black onyx, Moorish teak, Chestnut, Golden oak, Honey maple, Provincial, Cherry, Dark mahogany, Mocha, Teak natural, Early American, Amber varnish, Spanish oak, Merlot, Silk gray, and Slate gray.

In general, it's a good idea to think of the wood grain your piece has, which can affect what colors go best with it.


Choosing a Type of Wood Stain

You’ll also want to consider the type of stain you plan to use for your interior wood pieces. There are three primary types of wood stains.

What is an Oil-Based Stain?

Oil-based stains are the most common and easiest to use. They are best when you want to wood stain any large wooden furniture with lots of surface area. They have a slightly higher drying time than average, but this results in an even finish and rich color overall.

Oil-based stains also penetrate more deeply than other types. For aesthetic stains, this results in a much richer color. Oil-based stains are easy to refresh and are very resistant to peeling, improving wood pieces’ durability over time.

However, oil-based stains can only be applied after you remove any existing finish. They also typically require the use of a respirator mask since they contain many noxious chemicals.

What is a Water-Based Stain?

Water-based stains are the second most common option. They are particularly easy to clean up and are very quick to dry, making them the best choice for fast application to interior wood pieces.

Water-based stains are very resistant to both mold and mildew, plus are more environmentally friendly than oil-based stains. Water-based stains are primarily good for smaller projects since they dry quickly, but keep in mind that they do not penetrate wood as deeply as other types of stains.

The resulting colors from water-based stains are usually softer, although you can make darker colors by applying successive coats.

What is a Gel Stain?

Gel-based stains are the final type of wood stain and can be thought of as a finished between a stain and a regular paint.

You have to clean up gel stains with mineral spirits, and gel stains are also quite thick and messier when applying. But these stains produce a smooth finish most of the time and are great for preserving an interior wood piece’s unique character or markings. These stains are so penetrating that they can even be applied to wood pieces that are not perfectly sanded for one reason or another. Their rich colors are prized by many.

Example Projects for Wood Stain Types

  • Finishing an antique? Stain your antique with a gel stain or oil stain for the best results

  • What about a weathered chair or exterior surface? In that case, give your weathered wood pieces an oil-based stain for the best results.

  • Interior surfaces are best suited to a water-based interior stain


Preparing a Wood Stain

It’s never a good idea to just apply wood stain without adequate prep work.

For starters, you should use a wood conditioner. Wood conditioner helps any wood species except a new stain color consistently and evenly. This results in a smooth finished product without blotching or dark spots. Wood conditioner is a particularly good choice with soft wood species like pine or maple, which is also quite porous.

Use an oil-based conditioner with your wood furniture if you also plan to use an oil-based stain. Similarly, water-based conditioners are best combined with water-based stains. An added benefit of water-based conditioners is that they stop the woodgrain from “rising” or forming bumps when you apply the stain later.

What if Wood Has Cracks or Breaks?

In this case, you can purchase sustainable wood filler. This essentially fills in the gap and allows the wood to be stained as an entire piece.

To use wood filler, take a putty knife and apply the filler carefully. Sand the putty smooth before applying any stain or finisher.




So the stain doesn't leave blotches on the wood, always apply a thin coat of wood conditioner first, using an inexpensive brush. Give the conditioner about 15 minutes to dry before applying the stain – but don’t sand it; there’s no need.

Apply stain with a brush or a rag, depending on preference. All that matters is applying a nice, even, liberal coat over the wood.

Be sure to wipe off all the excess stain going in the direction of the grain of the wood. That will guarantee that the stain gets into the wood, instead of laying on top – and it really shows off the grain of the wood to advantage. Grab another clean dry cloth often to prevent swirl marks from wiping with stain-saturated cloth.

Stain only provides color, not a finish. Always apply a finish on top of stained wood.



  1. Never store rags in a pile. Used rags should be spread out in a safe flat area to dry. If you lay them out on your garage floor or driveway, weight them down so the wind does not blow them away. Once they are dry, check with your city or municipality for disposal instructions. Do not store near other flammable material.

  2. Store the rags in an airtight, non-combustible metal container. If you plan to use your rags later, this step is critical. The metal container should be filled with a solution of water and an oil breakdown detergent.

  3. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Since manufacturers use different oils in their products, it is important to follow their warnings and disposal instructions. They may differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.


Protective Finishes


Whether you choose to stain your wood or not, you must apply a clear protective finish. It will add richness and depth while protecting the wood from nicks, scrapes, splits and everyday wear.

Choose the right brush. Use natural brushes for oil-based finishes and synthetic-bristle brushes for water-based and water-based oil finishes. Always brush with the grain. It's the best way to work the finish into the wood pores and ensure an even appearance.

Smooth a dry coating with fine sandpaper between finish coat.

Apply thin coats. Thick ones take longer to dry and are more likely to drip or wrinkle. Do not overwork the finish. Simply apply a thin coat and move on to the next area to prevent brush marks.


Tip – Shake Finishes, Don’t Stir Them

People often make the mistake of trying to mix finish ingredients by shaking them. Don’t do this! When you shake your clear protective finish, you’ll add a bunch of unwanted bubbles and the ingredients may not be thoroughly mixed anyway.

Instead, stir your protective finish to make sure that everything is evenly dispersed. Stirring your finish will also make it easier to apply to your finished wood furniture or other surface.


Types of Protective Wood Finishes

Clear, protective finishes will come in a few major types. Gloss finishes at a glossy sheen to the finished product, while semi-gloss finishes added just a slight shine without being as noticeable. Satin sheens are ideal for smoother, more relaxed finish. Ultimately, the choice of protective wood finishes up to you. Remember that the type of finish you pick only affects its appearance, not its durability.


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