I want to say this to start: Follow the directions on the can. It may seem like a cop-out to say, “Follow the directions on the can”, but they were put there for a reason. They stain company spends alot of time researching the best way for you to apply their stain. Trust them, they know what they are doing. This are just my general process notes that go a little beyond what is on the can, and is what has worked for me.
First, sand your wood surface really well. For flat surfaces, I sand with a random orbit sander and work through 80 grit, then 150 and a final sand with 220. If I’m not sanding something that’s flat, like a walking stick, I run a first sand with the orbit at 80 grit, then sand by hand through 80, 150, and 220. Its
important imperative that you sand the surface you want to finish. It brings everything down to a nice, smooth surface and makes it easier for polyurethane to seal. Beautiful, smooth to the touch finishes happen because somebody spent extra time sanding them. No amount of fancy brushwork will save you from a poorly prepared surface.
Second, stain. If what you’re staining is a softwood, get the can of pre-stain. It makes the finish work so much better by sort of sealing the wood a touch and smoothing out the final coloring. If its a hardwood, you won’t need it. Stir the can of stain, don’t shake. Shaking doesn’t do as good of a job as stirring as well as introducing air bubbles into the stain.
As far as which stain to use, I also don’t care for the gel stains. I bought a can, opened it, then took it back. It’s too thick for my liking. Oil based is what I prefer as it goes on easier, and towels off well. As far as brand, I find myself using minwax. They seem to be a fair price for the result. No, they don’t sponsor me.
Apply with a brush in the grains’ direction. Apply liberally, but not to much. Wipe it off with a clean, dry rag. This is what I find leaves a nice smooth stain coating on the wood. Leave for a few hours, then reapply. Clean your brush after each application, unless you’re using a disposable which you can pitch. Dry overnight or longer before moving onto the poly urethane. Or course, if you don’t want to stain the wood, you can skip staining and head to the next step.
Using polyurethane, again apply to the can’s directions. After you put on a coat, start brushing from the inside out to the edges very lightly so you start to draw off the larger bubbles. You need to brush it very, very lightly for this to work. Allow to dry 3-4 hours, as per can directions. Don’t even count on that first coat being enough. Sand it with 220 lightly, just enough to turn the surface opaque but not to sand through to the stain. Coat again. At this point, you should consider a third coat. I usually end up with three coats and the surface is very smooth at that point, and quite nice and shiny. Sand with 220, then apply the poly. Allow to dry overnight on the final coat.
Clean the brush thoroughly after working with the polyurethane, unless you want a plastic brick for a brush. Even wrapped in a bag, it will harden within 24 hours, leaving you with a worthless brush. I can’t stress how important it is to clean the brush each and every time. If you invest in a quality brush and take time to clean it after use, you will actually save money over time.
Making a good finish on something is not hard. It just takes careful preparation, lots of sanding, and a little thought into how you apply the finish.