After the piece of furniture is stripped & sanded, it's time to choose what to do next. As I love the look & feel of wood, I naturally turn to some sort of stain to preserve the wood. There are a variety of stain & finishes on the market. I have two suggestions in this area.

    1. Find a product line that offers both stain & finishes. Often manufacturers create a vertical market of products designed to work together & compliment other products in their line.

    2. If you find a product line you like, stick with it.

Mahogany Desk 411 Before 01I've enjoyed the Minwax family of products for many years. I'm not necessarily saying that Minwax is the best, only that I've enjoyed the quality, availability & depth of their product line. This includes stains in a variety of shades, finishes such as polyurethane (satin, semi-gloss, high gloss), Tung Oil, Filler pencils, etc. There are many other fine manufacturers of stains & finishes. I do not wish to ignore them, but over the many years, I've traditionally stuck with a product line I know & trust. 

How do you choose the proper stain for a given wood?  
I normally think "What would make this piece of furniture look it's best?" The best advice I can give is to be true to the furniture & true to the wood. Certain woods look best in a certain color stain. When choosing stain colors ask for a color chart at the local hardware store. Please remember the pre-printed glossy brochure does not always represent the stains true color. It is best to see a sample of the stain on wood. Some stores show the stain "unfinished" as well as with some sort of "finish" applied. Sort of a Before & After. Stains look different on different types of wood. If the store sample in on pine for example, the color will look much different on Maple, Oak or Cherry. 

Stain Colors:  
The following are stains I keep on hand at all times. To see how these stains look or the availability of other Minwax colors try the following site:

  1. Natural - does not add any additional color to the wood. It brings out the woods "natural" color. Mahogany Desk 411 After 02 This is great for thinning out other darker stains, to make them lighter.

  2. Early American - is a "brownish" stain.

  3. Provincial - is a darker stain.

  4. Walnut - is a dark stain.

  5. Red Oak - is a nice "red" stain. I use it often when I want a dark Cherry color.

  6. Red Mahogany - is a dark "red" stain. Much darker & redder than Red Oak.

  7. Jacobean - is an almost black stain.

There are a variety of other colors. These are a majority of the shades I keep in stock on a regular basis. All the Minwax stains come in gallon, quart & pint sizes. Choose the size most appropriate to your needs. Stains with woods: I normally use the following stains on these woods depending on the condition of the wood & any particular request of the owner.
  1. Maple - Natural or Early American, sometimes Provincial.
  2. Pine - Natural, Provincial or Early American. Natural Pine is a very light wood.
  3. Oak - Natural, Provincial or Golden Oak (most common). Golden Oak gives an "older" look to the wood.
  4. Butternut - Natural, or Golden Oak (most common).
  5. Ash – Natural, Early American or Provincial.
  6. Cherry - Red Oak
  7. Mahogany - Natural, Red Oak, Red Mahogany.
  8. If I'm not sure what type of wood, the piece is and as long as the wood is in good condition, I prefer a Natural stain to bring out the woods "natural" beauty. When you are stripping the wood & wash the stripper off with warm water, the color of the wood at this time is the color the Natural stain will bring out. If you like the color of the wood when it is "wet", select a Natural stain.

Applying Stains:  
Stain may be applied with either a brush or rubbed in with a clean cotton cloth. The method depends on the area being covered & how dark you want the stain to be. Stain applied with a brush tends to be a little darker than that applied with a cotton cloth. The reason being as you use the cloth, you are wiping away the excess as you go. The brush tends to retain more of the stain in the bristles. After the stain soaks into the wood, remove the excess with a clean cotton cloth. The longer you leave the stain on the wood, without removing the excess, the more the stain penetrates into the wood giving a darker finish. Depending on the age and dryness of the wood, the first coat will really sink into the wood. I always give a minimum of two coats of stain. 

If the first coat seems too dark, I can lighten up the wood using a Natural stain as the second coat. After the stain penetrates the wood for the second time, wiping away the excess stain will also remove some of the darker stain from the first application. 

Depending on the time of year, temperature & humidity content in the air, I normally give the stain between 6 - 24 hours of drying time. The warmer & drier the air the less drying time needed. In the summer, I will often dry the furniture outside in the sun. This speeds up the drying process. It also generates a lot of "passer by" interest. I use an old clothes drying racks as a great way to dry drawers, small doors & anything else that will dry flat & fit neatly between the drying dowels. I like the older drying racks because they were made of sturdier wood unlike the thinner, cheaper models of today. 

Mahogany Desk 411 After 01Breaking the rules: Recently I had to disregard my second rule of selecting stains. Yes there are exceptions to the rules even in furniture refinishing. I was working on an old mahogany veneered desk that had several layers of paint on it. I stripped 99.95% of the paint from the desk. In some of the veneer grains there were tiny white specs of paint. Not a lot, but enough to drive a perfectionist crazy. Even if they were so small you really had to look to see them, I knew they were there & a traditional mahogany or red oak stain would only magnify the white specs. After consulting with my local hardware store, they suggested I try a Dark Mahogany stain (118) by ZAR. This product line is a "thicker" stain and has more texture to the stain than Minwax. One coat of the ZAR stain not only completely covered the tiny white paint specs, but only one half pint was enough to stain the entire desk - one coat. 

The lessons to be learned are:

  1. Stick with a product line you know & trust.

  2. If one manufacturer's products can not meet the needs of a particular job, don't hesitate to look for alternative solutions.

  3. Never think you "know it all" because something will come up to prove you wrong.

  4. Seek out a reliable, reputable hardware store with qualified staff who know their products & their business. Shy away from those stores who do not take the time to listen to your project & are only interested in selling you their stores product brand. Don't be afraid to ask for advice. Describe your staining problems accurately & clearly. If the sales person seems to understand your problem and can demonstrate why the product they are suggesting will solve your particular problem, stick with the store & sales person for future advice.

  5. If you have a difficult staining problem, some times a little experimenting goes a long way. If the experimental stain does not perform as expected, you can always strip it off before it gets to dry or soaks too deep into the wood.

Dressers & Desks:
When I refinish dressers &desks, I always refinish the insides & outsides of the drawers. You may ask "Why bother, no one ever sees the insides & outsides" or "It only takes more time". I counter with these ideas.

  1. Every time you open the drawer or put something inside it, you see the inside & outside of the drawer. It should look as nice as the rest of the desk or dresser.
  2. Stripping the drawers gives them a good deep cleaning; afterwards you need to put the "moisture" back into the wood. You need to seal & protect this wood.
  3. Finishing the drawers gives a professional look to your project. A look even most new pieces of furniture are sadly lacking.
  4. This is also a marketing technique. It tells the customer, "I care about every part of your precious piece", and "No part is too small to be overlooked."
  5. You would not go into surgery in the hospital & afterwards the doctor told you "I only removed half the problem. No one will ever see the parts I did not remove or fix, don't worry about it". If you accept a project, complete the whole project. It is easier to explain why you did the job right the first time than explain why you only did a halfhearted job & loose a good customer.

Remember the purpose of stain is to penetrate, seal and give needed oils & "moisture" to the wood. Color is a desirable but secondary consideration. For more information on: 
Minwax products:  
ZAR products: