Preparing wood, and wood furniture, for staining, is almost more important than the actual task of staining.
When I began my blog, one of my first experiments was discovering which pre-stain treatment methods worked best on tough to stain wood.
I tested multiple pre-stain methods including Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner, 2 different Wipe on Poly wash coats, and warm water (which surprisingly was my choice for the winner!)
I compared them with sanding only, and no pretreatment at all.
Honestly, I wasn’t too satisfied with the results. I didn’t choose the darkest stain in the world (Minwax Driftwood Stain), and I didn’t concern myself much with sanding the wood before.
Although it was only a few months ago, I have learned a lot since then, and so I’ve decided to retry this experiment in hopes of actually learning FOR SURE, which method of preparing wood for staining works best.
Through my research for the experiment, I read something that describes myself, and refinishers in general perfectly:
“We who write a lot about wood finishing are “experts” partly because we are willing to stick our necks out on some subject, realizing we may not be entirely right the first time around.
We’re simply researchers searching for the best methods. We report our results, but occasionally further research leads to different conclusions.
We’re not necessarily wrong, but we may not have the subject entirely pegged.”
– Bob Flexner Author of “Flexner on Finishing,” “Wood Finishing 101,” and “Understanding Wood Finishing.” Read the rest of the article here: Flexner on Finishing – Wood Conditioner Confusion
I could not have said it better myself. I pride myself on my researching skills, and yet, I missed quite a few method options my first time around on this experiment.
I just couldn’t live with myself if I let that slide and didn’t try this again. So here we are, let’s get to it, shall we?
PRE Pre-Stain – Preparing Wood For Staining: Sanding and Cleaning
Before you even think about adding a treatment to the wood to help with staining, you need to prep the wood.
If your project is a piece of furniture that had paint or stain on it previously, you will need to strip it completely off. For more info on that, you can read my Stripping Paint post.
Next, one of; if not THE, most important step of the staining process: Sanding.
I go more in-depth into sanding wood in my Game-Changing Tips for Sanding Wood post. (I’m really into prep work if you hadn’t noticed by now :))
If your piece is pine, pay particular attention to the grits you use when sanding. Don’t use too high a grit for your final sanding.
I normally do 120 grit, then 180 grit, then back to 120 grit for pine.
You don’t want to finish with a higher grit, as this will close off the pores and make it more difficult for the stain to absorb.
On other wood types, you can end with 180 grit and some even 220 grit. Checkout the cheat-sheet in my Resource Library for more help with which grit to use for each type of wood!
Not sure what type of wood you’re dealing with?
For the “preparing wood for staining” experiment, I left my piece of wood as a whole, to make sure that there were no discrepancies on how well each piece was sanded.
I also chose Minwax Jacobean Wood Stain this time, the darkest I could find! So we should know for sure which method comes out the best.
I sanded it all at once, very well, and definitely, don’t think sanding had a factor in how well any of the methods worked this time.
I wiped the entire piece down with some Klean Strip Mineral Spirits to clean the wood of dust and dirt and even the playing field.
Then I split the piece into 5 sections: 1 for each method.
Preparing Wood for Staining: Methods Tested
- Shellac Washcoat
- Wipe-on Poly Washcoat
- Black Tea Stain
- Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner – 24 Hour Cure Time
- Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner – 15 Minute Cure Time
I decided to skip the “plain sanded” and “no treatment” methods.
We know they don’t work great. I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone working on a furniture piece if they want it to come out nicely.
If you need proof, head over to my first post and see how they came out.
I decided to try 2 separate methods on the pre-stain wood conditioners:
1- 30 Minutes Cure Time
2 – 24 Hour Cure Time
The instructions on the can say to coat the wood with conditioner, let it sit for 5-15 minutes, and then wipe the excess.
Then you are supposed to stain your wood within 2 hours.
The article I quoted earlier was actually where I learned that some people find it works better if you let it cure for 24 hours and then stain it.
So I tried both methods.
In my first experiment, I found that the conditioner just removed way too much wood grain and coloring for my liking.
Yes, it wasn’t splotchy but it barely looked like wood so what’s the point in that?
After sanding the wood, cleaning with mineral spirits, and letting that dry, I used a clean rag to wipe the pre-stain wood conditioner onto the wood.
I waited for a (timed) 15 minutes then wiped the excess off.
I left the piece overnight to cure.
In the morning, I added the pre-stain conditioner to the 30 Minute Cure Time section and again wiped the excess after 15 minutes.
I stained the 2 sections together; (actually, I stained all 5 of them together,) so the timing was exact. And wiped the excess after a timed 15 minutes.
Conclusion: These two were a little tough to tell. They both came out decent.
The longer cure time seemed to be a bit darker than the 1 hour cure time.
The wood grain was also less prominent in the short cure-time than the 24 hour cure time.
Since that is normally what I go for in a stained piece, the pre-stain wood conditioner cured for 24 hours would be my choice for the best pre-stain method out of the 2. But definitely not the best of the 5 methods.
Wipe-on Poly Washcoat Method
This was one of the best methods in my first experiment, so I figured I’d put it against some new options.
After mixing the poly and mineral spirits, I wiped it onto the wood with a rag. I let this dry overnight as well and stained it in the morning with the rest.
As I expected, it came out nicely. The wood grain was prominent and it was medium in darkness.
Up until now, warm water, or this, would have been my usual choice for pre-stain treatments before staining.
I’ve never had an issue using this method, besides the wood being slightly lighter than expected. But a 2nd coat fixes that problem easily.
Shellac Washcoat Method
This method was a new discovery for me as well. I have heard it takes some serious tweaking and a few tries before you get it right, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
I wiped it onto the wood with a rag, and let it dry. Then let that sit overnight also.
I’d say the Shellac wash coat was the loser in this experiment. But as I said, I hear that it takes a lot of testing and experimenting to get it exactly right.
When you do get it right, it’s supposedly the best choice for preparing your wood for staining. I may give it another shot, but unfortunately, the stain was the lightest, and most uneven of the 5 methods.
If there is that much room for error on this method….is it really worth the effort?
And the winner is….
Black Tea Stain Method
WOW! I’ve gotta say, I’m super impressed. I wish that I had found this method sooner.
Now I’ve only done it this once, and I plan to do it on another pine project I’m currently working on, so I will update you on that one. But from just one try I can tell you with confidence: it works.
(Thanks to Scott from sawsonskates.com for the 3 Reasons Why I Always Apply a Tea Stain to my DIY Furniture article I learned about the method through). Check it out!
I used just a small coffee cup of hot water with 2 Lipton Black Teabags steeped for about 15 minutes.
Brew a batch of Black Tea
Remove the teabags, and let the tea sit for 12+ hours.
Apply the tea stain with a paintbrush or foam brush, evenly, with the grain of the wood.
Allow the wood to completely dry.
Sand the wood LIGHTLY with 220 or higher grit sandpaper.
Clean the wood with a tack cloth or a blower.
Stain the wood normally.
As you can see, it’s a world of difference between this section, and the 4 other sections.
If you’re looking for a lighter coloring on your stain, I believe the tea stain will also help with that.
It evens the wood dramatically. While enhancing the grain as well. If you need something dark, it most definitely darkens it as you can see!
I don’t see any other way to prepare wood for staining now.
So Tea Stain all the way!
It is the PERFECT solution to your troubles with staining tough to stain wood.
You can also save your leftover tea in a jar and use it again on many projects to come. This is the tea I used for this experiment:
Cheap, easy, and beautiful results… seems like a no brainer!
What do you think? Have you ever tried the tea stain? If so I would LOVE to hear what you think of it! If you haven’t tried it yet I urge you to try it out and let me know what you think.
If you enjoyed my experiment, check out my other similar experiments:
Testing the best method for Restoring Wood Veneer Furniture.
Or when I tested multiple methods of Stripping Paint,
(That one wasn’t as fun)
I hope you enjoyed reading I would love to hear from you if so 🙂 Be sure to let me know if you try out the tea stain how it goes!