How To Prep Wood for Stain & Finish

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How to Prep Old Furniture and Wood for Stain & Finish


One of my favorite ways to restyle furniture is to stain it. When I find a wonderful piece of furniture made of nice enough wood that I can sand it all the way down to raw wood then restyle it I get really really excited because that's when you get wonderful pieces like these...

projects restyled using stain and paint

I start by sanding down the part of the project I plan to stain. In many cases when it is a piece of vintage furniture I am restyling it is only the 'top' of the piece that is going to get the stain.

sand your piece down to raw wood when planning to stain & finish your painted furniture


Sanding all the way down to raw wood on legs and drawers and other detailed areas is quite challenging without the right tools.  

best sanding tools to prepare your wood furniture project for stain & finish by cece's

I have a Dewalt Orbital Sander, a Black and Decker Mini-Mouse and a Porter Cable Profile Sander I use for these jobs. It is also a good idea to wear a mask and eye protection for this job. I always sand outside so I am usually wearing sunglasses which is enough eye protection for sanding fine furniture. The mask is to protect your lungs from the particles and also from any chemicals in and amongst those particles. Not so long ago many of the products used to finish furniture contained lead and other chemicals that are no longer even legal ingredients in most countries. If you are refinishing 'old' furniture you have no way of knowing what kinds of products have been used on it in the past so protect yourself!

If the piece has a decent amount of finish remaining on it I begin with 80-120 grit sandpaper on my orbital sander and begin sanding off all the finish and stain. If the piece is particularly dry and the finish is nearly gone I sometimes start with my Mouse, which is less powerful than the orbital, or with 220-grit paper. If you start with the higher grit/less powerful tool and it is taking a long time to get down to raw wood you can always switch to a more powerful tool and/or a lower grit sandpaper. I try to stay as high with the grit and as low with the power as possible to preserve as much of the wood as I can. I might want to sand it back down and re-stain it again someday!

It is important as you are sanding to ALWAYS, ALWAYS, sand WITH the grain of the wood. If you sand in circles like you are buffing you will end up with circles in your stain and finish and it will look bad. It is also important to always keep the sander flat and moving along the grain of the wood while applying an even amount of pressure. If you pause in one spot with an orbital sander it will leave a circle. I also begin my initial stroke off the object and introduce the sander as I am moving with the there isn't a circle where I set the tool down. I wouldn't recommend using anything more 'powerful' than a hand-held orbital sander for furniture as you can easily ruin a piece of fine furniture with a belt sander.

Once the entire piece is down to raw wood I switch to 220-grit sandpaper with either my orbital sander or my Mouse. The same rules apply for working with the grain of the wood and for keeping your tool moving. This will ensure your surface is perfectly smooth and even and ready for stain.

Next sweep off your piece with a hand broom or vacuum it with it shop vac to get the bulk of the dust off. I feel all over the wood with my bare hands to ensure I don't have any spots I missed or that are scratchy. It helps to actually touch it with your hands and feel the surface. You will probably not have to really do much but I usually find one or two spots I can hit with a small piece of 220 grit to make sure it is perfect!

tack cloth is a great tool for prepping furniture for stain & finish or for paint by cece's

The last step is to ensure your project is completely free of all dust. I do this with a tack cloth. They are sticky and the first time I open and use a new one I usually put on latex gloves because I really really detest the feeling of it on my hands but after it is 'broken in' a bit I can use it without gloves. When it ceases to be sticky it is time to toss it and get a new one. You can make your own using cheesecloth and tung oil but they are very inexpensive to buy ready to use. I have, in a pinch, also used a damp micro-fiber cloth. If you do this, though, you have to be sure to wait until the wood is completely dry before applying any stain or paint to it.

You are now ready to apply stain to your project. I always stain before painting when I am doing a two-tone look. I can paint over the stain if it isn't perfectly placed but taping edges won't work as well with can seep onto the paint so I start with stain.

After your stain is finished and completely dry then you can tape off the stained part and paint. CeCe Caldwell's Stain & Finish has a built in light duty finish so after 12 hours (that's super fast for stain, BTW) you can tape off and not worry at all about damaging your stain because it also has a finish on it already!!

Sometimes it is necessary to use a wood conditioner. When using a soft wood like pine, fir, maple or birch you might find it doesn't 'take' the stain. Odds are, if it was a piece of furniture, already stained before; then you won't need to use conditioner. I have never needed to when refinishing an existing piece of furniture. If you are making a project of your own out of new lumber like the ones listed above then you may want to check into a conditioner before staining your piece.

I mentioned earlier about sanding legs and details and how difficult that is, even with the right tools. If you are wanting to be able to get into the corners and details better than the mouse can then I recommend this...

profile detail sander by porter cable for refinishing furniture and painted furniture projects

It is a profile sander. I think the term 'detail sander' is about the same thing. They are awesome. You can get simple versions at hardware stores that can enable you to get your furniture, cabinet doors, drawers, trim, etc...really perfectly sanded. I love this thing. Mine is fairly fancy and I probably don't use it to it's full capacity yet but I found a guy dismantling his woodshop so I got it for the price of a simpler one from a hardware store. They come with attachments for different curves on trim and legs and triangles for corners of drawers and doors. Some of them have a whole line of 'extras' you can buy 'a la carte' to take care of any situation you might have. This is a must for me when sanding anything with curves and corners down to raw wood.

After dusting your piece thoroughly with a tack cloth or damp microfiber cloth you are ready for the next step...How to Stain & Finish.