How to Stain Furniture

hand with brush applying stain to wood furniture

Staining furniture feels scary because there are special tools and chemicals involved. Words like “toxic” and “permanent damage” leap to mind. At least, that’s how I once felt about it.

I got to thinking about sandpaper and primer, wood chips, and dripping. I nearly talked myself out of the whole thing, but I really hated my old, painted dresser. I learned that once you know how to stain furniture, you can stain just about anything, from kitchen cabinets to intricate dining room chairs.

Step 1 - Prep the Project

First, prep your furniture. Take out any drawers that can be removed, remove doors, unscrew legs—dissemble the piece as much as it allows. It’s much easier to stain furniture if it’s partially or wholly disassembled.

Clean your furniture next. Dust will just get in the way. Remove any fabric elements, like cushioning, or cover them completely with more than one layer of construction paper or plastic. Hold the covering in place with painter’s tape. Place more of your paper or plastic on the floor where you’re working.

Step 2 - Apply Stripper

Look for a good leave-on paint stripper. There are many non-toxic varieties that don’t create fumes. Whatever you pick, follow the directions exactly. In most cases, you apply the stripper with a paintbrush and allow it to sit on the furniture.

You’ll want to use the stripper whether the furniture is painted, like mine, or covered with an existing wood stain that you want to replace. Using stripper can save you labor on sanding.

hand sanding wooden chair

Step 3 - Remove the Old Paint

Once the stripper has set, use a scraper to remove big areas of old paint or stain. You do not need to press hard with the scraper. If there are multiple layers of paint and/or stain on the furniture, you will have to strip it twice. Don’t try to force the issue by scraping aggressively, as this could damage the wood.

The old paint or stain should come off with minimal pressure.

In delicate, ornate, and hard-to-reach areas of the piece, use sandpaper or a sander with multiple attachments. Once you’ve scraped away as much as you can, apply the sander or paper to the entire piece. Sand very lightly; you only want to remove the thinnest layer of wood here. You’re trying to get a fresh, clean piece to work with.

To that end, clean the piece again. There will be lots of sawdust after you sand, so vacuum it up from your work area and clean it off the piece with a damp, clean cloth. Once all the old stuff is sanded and clean, you’re ready to stain.

Step 4 - Test the Stain

Pick your stain carefully, and pre-test it on a dummy piece of wood or a hidden part of the furniture before you start painting it on. Stain reacts differently to different types of wood, and you may find that the color you loved on the sample is something you hate on the piece itself.

The easiest to use by far is the stain-and-poly variety of stain. With this, you may only need to paint one coat. Otherwise, you will need to get clear polyurethane and paint this on once all the stain has dried.

gloved hand applying stain to wood with brush

Step 5 - Stain Your Furniture

Once you’ve found the right stain, stir it well. Pour it into a paint tray and brush it directly on the piece using a paintbrush. Use clean rags to rub lightly over the stain and remove any excess.

Go with the grain when you rub and when you paint. After the first coat of stain has dried thoroughly, you may need to apply a second coat to get the desired look. Wait until everything is dry before you put your furniture back together, remove plastic and complete the project.

Once you know how to stain furniture, you can do similar DIY projects all over your home. Today it's the kitchen table. Next weekend, maybe you'll strip and stain the kitchen cabinets!