The slowest part of any woodworking project is finishing it. You might be able to put something together quickly, but once it's all put together you've got to slow down in order to make it come out good. Sanding, painting, staining and varnishing all take time and care if you want your project to come out good.
There are two basic ways of finishing any woodworking project meaning how you paint or varnish it. Typically, when varnish is used the piece is stained before varnishing. This allows you to adjust the final color as well as bringing out the natural beauty of the wood's grain.
Across the myriad of different types of wood we find grains of all types and colors. Some are bold and obvious, while others are so subtle as to seem almost hidden, yet all woodworkers agree the grain of the wood is what makes it beautiful. Enhancing that grain and making it stand out can add a lot to any woodworking project.
While varnish will make wood grains stand out to some extent, they can't do so to the extent that wood stain can. The stain will darken the dark parts of the grain more than the light parts, increasing the contrast between the two adding a lot to the woods character. Additionally, stains are used to change the color of the wood, making less expensive woods take on the appearance of pricier ones. Pine can be made to imitate oak, cherry or walnut, just by applying a little bit of stain.
A test piece should always be done before staining a project as the porosity and dryness of the wood will have a huge impact on how much stain it absorbs. Since absorbing more stain makes the piece darker, you'll want to know how much stain to apply in order to get the results you are looking for. Remember, the varnish will darken it a little more, over and above what the stain does.
Wood stains are available as both oil-based and water-based finishes. Traditionally, they have always been oil-based. However, with the EPA pressuring paint companies to lower the VOCs of their products, more and more companies are experimenting with water-based stains.
It's hard to tell a stain's quality by looking at the label or even by using it once. Typically, it takes quite a bit of experience working with a particular brand of stain to know exactly how to work with it and how good it is. When shopping, it's a good idea to pay a lot of attention to the reputation of the products you are looking at. Higher quality products will usually provide a richer, more even finish than cheaper ones will.
Cabot stain is widely recognized as the best of the best. Maybe that's why they've been manufacturing it since 1877. Available in 76 different colors, this tung oil-based stain will do an excellent job on any project. Read Full Review
A favorite of professional fine furniture makers, Cabot stain is the last word in quality. Cabot has been making wood stains since 1877. The company is now owned by Valspar, and considered part of their lineup, although they still maintain their own website. This is widely considered to be the highest quality wood stain on the market. With a tung oil base for greater penetration, Cabot stains come in a hefty 76 different colors, allowing you to match the stain to just about any application. All the colors are "colorfast" so they will not fade with time.
Varathane is best known for their varnishes and other wood finishes. However, they also produce an excellent line of oil-based wood stains. Read Full Review
The name Varathane is usually associated with wood varnishes, but they also make an excellent line of wood stains. Currently owned by Rust-Oleum, the company has been making quality products since 1958. This is a soy oil-based product, available in 25 different contemporary and classic colors. A translucent stain, it has been formulated specifically to bring out the natural beauty of the wood's grain.
You've probably never heard of General Finishes but they’re one of those excellent companies, with a faithful following, which always seem to stay in the background. This water-based stain provides as good a service as oil-based ones, while helping to protect the environment. Read Full Review
This is our first water-based stain so you don't have to worry about harming the environment.. It’s called a "dye stain" by the manufacturer, as it’s intended to operate more like a dye than a stain. While the two may seem the same to you and I, manufacturers of wood dyes claim that their products penetrate deeper into the wood, whereas regular stains stay on the surface. This stain is available in 13 colors, including traditional wood tones, as well as a couple of modern colors.
Minwax is probably the best-known brand of wood stains on the market. They now have a water-based stain as well, which is tintable at the paint store counter. Read Full Review
If you go to your local hardware store or home-improvement center, Mixwax stains are the ones you’re most likely to find. These popular stains have been used on more do-it-yourself projects than any others. They are easy to work with and available as either oil-based or water-based stains and Minwax has an extensive line, offering 50 contemporary wood tones and contemporary decorative colors. The water-based stains are generally mixed at the paint counter, allowing you the opportunity for a little customization.
This excellent product comes as a powder to add to your own base. Usable with water, alcohol or mineral spirits, it penetrates deep to provide a damage-resistant finish. Read Full Review
Made in England, this product is a powdered wood dye, made so that you can add it to your own liquid base. This is a little different product than the others I've listed because while these dyes can be added directly to a clear polyurethane varnish, they are typically added to alcohol, mineral spirits or water. The dye penetrates the wood extremely well, providing a color finish that won't be damaged by scratches and dents. At the same time, it’s a translucent colorant, bringing forth the wood's natural grain and beauty. Different colors of the dye can be mixed together for special effects and colors.