Staining wood is one of my favorite hobbies.  

Most people are like, “I like watching movies,” or “My hobby is shopping at Target,” or “Making $1 million is my favorite thing to do.” But I’m genuinely happy just staining wood. I taught myself how to stain wood furniture about 5 years ago for my first DIY project, my weathered grey coastal crate table.

(Well, Google may have helped.)

Since then, I’ve gathered a lot of experience in what to do (and what NOT to do!) for staining wood furniture!

When it comes to staining wood for a DIY project, it usually falls into one of these two categories:

  1. DIY projects “from scratch:” where you’re staining wood fresh from Home Depot. (AKA, staining wood that’s never been stained before.) 
  2. DIY repurposed furniture: where you’re staining wood that’s already stained and/or sealed. (Usually, this is to change the color of furniture, but you may have other projects that fall under this category.)   

This post is here to give you step-by-step instructions on how to stain wood furniture – projects in the #2 category. 

Even though both project types require technique, re-staining previously sealed and stained wood can be an intimidating process. You don’t want to mess up your coffee table just to change it’s color, right?

So worry no more! Without further ado, here are my…

5 Steps to Staining Wood Furniture – the Right Way!

(Don’t have time to read this now? Pin me for later!) 

[This post may contain affiliate links, which means I make a small commission on products you purchase through the links provided at no extra cost to you. See my disclosure for details.]

Step 1: Check that your furniture is sealed.

If it is, you’re going to need to sand the wood first to remove the sealed coating. (Just to be clear, if you’re working on furniture that’s part wood, part something else, I’m ONLY talking about the wood component here!)

Here’s an easy way to check that your wood furniture is sealed, since not all sealed wood is the same:

Lightly run your finger over the surface of the wood and see if it feels smooth. Then, shine a light on the surface of the wood and examine the wood at eye-level to see if it looks shiny. If it’s smooth and shiny – it’s sealed! 

This may sound obvious, but it’s an important step to take, because many non-glossy stains are so subtle that wood can appear unsealed. It’s always better to check first, just to be safe. You DON’T want to try and stain sealed wood, because the stain won’t stick! (Or more accurately, soak.)

Step 2: Sand That Sealer Off

To be honest, it’s very unlikely that you’re furniture wouldn’t be sealed. Unsealed wood is open to water-damage, warping and a multitude of other issues, so it’s extremely rare to purchase a non-sealed piece of wood furniture, even from thrift stores.

This is the step that scares people the most when thinking about how to stain wood furniture. How do you sand wood without causing irreversible damage? Don’t worry – it’s really not as hard as it seems!

First off, you need to get the right equipment:

For long, flat wood surfaces, like table tops, you want to get something like this Black and Decker wood sander from Lowe’s. I like this wood sander because it’s easy to use for beginners, inexpensive, and Black and Decker products last a long time.

(At least in my experience!)  

To sand the wood, you’ll want protective glasses and gloves, (even though this sander doesn’t spray much). I also recommend sanding in a space that’s easy to sweep! Once you have your space, just plug in your sander, place it on your furniture, and gently guide it around the whole wood surface as if you were ironing clothes. Just be sure you apply consistant, light pressure on the whole surface of the wood, and you’re good to go!

I’ve only ironed like twice in my life, but even so, sanding came really easily to me. So trust me – you can do it!

Also, Beginner Sanding Tip: if you look at your sander online with either Home Depot or Lowe’s, they usually come with helpful instructional videos!

Now for the finishing touches! For the decorative details of the wood, you need a different tool. *This is my favorite sanding sponge, because it’s heavy duty, inexpensive, and really easy to use! All you have to do is literally put it in the palm of your hand and scrub.

*Tip for this tool: the higher the grit (e.g. 220), the finer it sands. I would advise picking up a 120 or lower grit sponge to sand you project lightly. However, if you’re working on a very fragile section, a higher grit sponge will help protect the wood!

Step 3: Stain Your Furniture 

Wherw, the hard part’s over! You did it! Now you get to the fun part – the actual staining!

Find a nice, well-ventilated area like an open garage, or my personal favorite – the outdoors! Then, grab your stain, furniture and paint brushes and you’re ready to go!

To be honest, I’ve only used an actual “staining brush” once, and it’s no different than using cheap paint brushes from Walmart. Stain is greasy, so it’s basically impossible to fully wash out of brush bristles. That’s why I don’t bother with expensive brushes anymore. I get the same results from staining with cheap brushes like these:

Before you start staining, I really recommend laying down a tarp. This tarp from Home Depot is my current favorite! It’s cheap, large, and I’ve used it for a countless variety of projects, so it’s a great investment. They also have a smaller version that’s half the price. But any tarp will do the trick!

Whatever you do, don’t be like me in my early years and try to just lay down trash bags! Once the stain dries, the bags will stick to your project and pull off chunks of your stain as you try and separate your project!

(Trust. Me. It’s the worst.) 

With your tarp down, all you have to do is paint your stain onto your recently sanded wood, occasionally stirring the stain in the can as you paint to provide a consistent color on your project. Keep in mind that not all surfaces will be able to dry at once. I recommend strategically placing your project in a way where you can stain as many surfaces as possible. This will make Step #4 so much easier!  

Step 4: Dry, Dry, Dry

This step is really straightforward, but there are a few key components to keep in mind so that your project has a smooth and consistent finish.

First and foremost, if your project is drying outside, or in an open garage, be sure you protect against natural elements like wind and rain. I can’t tell you how many projects have been granted the additional textures of sand, leaves and dog hair because they were still drying when the wind decided to come hang out. 

Secondly, since you’re not able to stain every side of your project at once, you’ll need to flip it around to stain the unfinished side once the rest of your project is dry. My advice? Even if one side is dry, wait until ALL sides are dry before you flip your project. Otherwise, the non-dry stain will drip and dry with big ol’ tear drops on the other sides of your furniture.

You can also re-stain your project once, twice, or as many times as you want, as long as the wood fully dries between each coat. It all depends on what color you want your final project to be. This really comes in to play with light stains, but dark stains typically only need one coat. 

Step 5: Seal Your Stained Wood!

Alright, your project has been sanded, stained and dried – now it’s time for the final step! Sealing your wood is important, like we talked about in Step #1, because it projects your wood, (both the stain and the material), from the elements. 

(You know, the elements of earth, wind, fire, water, coffee and toddlers.) 

The type of sealer you use depends on how you want your final project to look and feel, and what you need it to do.

If you’re going for a weathered look, which is most commonly used to give projects a driftwood or rustic farmhouse edge, you can use a white wax sealer like this one from Lowe’s. I used a wax wood sealer for my crate table: 

If you’re wanting to just see the color of the stain, you can use a clear sealer like this one from Home Depot. I used a clear wood sealer for my driftwood planter:

Both of these types of sealers can be painted on, just like the stain. You just paint, dry and boom – project is DONE!

If you’re working on a smaller project, or if the wood your sealing is already pretty smooth, OR if the wood you stained is not smooth, but you want to keep that rough edge, you can use a spray-on clear sealer like this. With spray-on sealers, you buy a smaller amount of sealer, (which is why it’s great for small projects), and it typically dries faster than paint-applied sealants. I used this kind of wood sealer for this stage guard I built for my youth ministry:

Shopping Tip: If you see the term “Satin” on a can, that means the sealer has a low-to-no gloss finish. Semi-Gloss is in the middle, and Gloss (or High Gloss) means that your finished project will be really shiny. Be sure you check those labels so you know what you’re buying!

Once the sealant dries, (and you may want to paint on multiple coats to achieve your desired feel and look), you’re project is FINISHED!

Oh, and I totally forgot about Step #6: enjoy your repurposed wood furniture like the DIY PRO that you are!

If you’d like to see this post in action, follow The Restless Creative Co on Facebook and Instagram: I’ll be posting real-time examples of how to stain wood furniture THIS WEEKEND!

Well, that’s all for me! Comment below with your questions, ideas and success stories – I’d LOVE the chance to admire your amazing work!

Stay restless, Creatives!

~ Christine