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Tips for a Flawless Finish
For many of us, one of the most intimidating parts of building a wood project is the finishing process. After all, if you make a mistake while you’re building, you can usually just cut a new piece. But once you’ve carefully completed the project and you’re applying that final stain or finish, there’s no turning back. Fortunately, whether you’re a beginning DIYer or an avid woodworker, you can achieve a beautiful, professional-looking finish. Read on for tips that will help you do just that.
Don’t Skimp on Sanding
A good finish starts with sanding. Begin with a grit no coarser than needed—usually 120 for surfaced boards and 150 for plywood. If you’re working construction lumber, like 2x4s, you may need to start with 100-grit. Then work your way through each grit (120, 150, 180) without skipping any grits. Always sand in line with the grain, and if the board ends will show, sand them 1-2 grits finer. This will prevent the porous ends from absorbing more stain and looking darker.
Finish a Test Piece
Different species of wood vary in hardness and porosity and accept stain differently. You can prevent unpleasant surprises by taking a few test boards through the same sanding stages as your workpieces. Then you can try out your stain or finish on the test boards first. That way, when it’s time to finish the actual project, you can take comfort in knowing what your stain or finish will look like.
Prevent Uneven Staining
Oil-based stains are popular for most hardwoods because they help highlight the figure, but softwoods often absorb stain unevenly. Pine can “reverse out,” making light grain look dark and dark grain look light. Maple may appear blotchy. If you prefer to work with oil stain, you can apply a pre-stain wood conditioner to prevent blotchiness.

Most conditioners are a thinned varnish that seals the wood grain and gives you a more consistent surface on which to apply the stain. As you can see in the photo above, conditioned wood is a lot lighter in color than other finished surfaces. That’s because the process of sealing the wood also keeps the stain from penetrating.
Get Consistent Results
Another way to prevent uneven staining is to use gel stain. Gel stain is an oil-based stain blended with resins, pigments, and a thickening agent to create a heavy consistency (like pudding). The thickness prevents it from penetrating very deep into the wood. The consistency of the gel also makes it much easier to use when staining vertical surfaces, like table legs and cabinet sides. On top of that, gel stains don’t show lap marks, and can provide twice the coverage of ordinary stains with proper usage.
Give the Stain Time
After applying stain to a piece, your first instinct might be to immediately wipe it off. But if you allow the stain to soak in for a few minutes, it will enhance the luster and look of the wood. If it still doesn’t have the desired appearance after you wipe off the first coat, wait a few hours, and apply a second coat.
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