Stain then poly, or stain with poly, or something else entirely?
April 12, 2019 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I am about to embark on a large project to restore old trim around windows and doors, while also staining/finishing and installing new baseboard trim. I was hoping to find a stain/finishing product that will work for both applications, however, I now think I need to approach each differently. I need some advice before moving forward.

I have found a tinted oil-based urethane (Minwax Polyshades), a tinted water-based urethane (Varathane Stain+Poly) and a good clear water-based urethane (Varathane). In testing on the old trim that I want to restore, a light sanding, then an application or two of the clear Varathane seems to make the most improvement with the least amount of hassle. However, since the new baseboard trim is unfinished and it needs to closely match the existing trim, it needs color. So, I tried both the Minwax and Varathane poly-stain products, after sealing the sanded trim with a pre-stain conditioner.

I wasn't overly impressed with the results. These products dry a bit rough and need sanding between coats, which makes it harder to get a rich color with a smooth surface. If I need to sand and baby it, then I might as well just stain then finish the wood in two steps. So, what would be the best way for me to approach this? What is a good, easy to use stain (preferably rag-on application) and what would be a good durable finish (clear urethane, lacquer, varnish)? Any tips at all on getting good results would be welcome, as I don't have a lot of experience in finishing wood.

Thanks for your expertise!
posted by Don_K to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You'll get a better, more controllable result with separate stain and seal steps.

When staining, you can focus on getting the colour you want without worrying too much about final texture.

Once the colour is right, you can focus on getting a good seal coat without worrying about applying too much or too little colour.

Myself, I would probably use a Minwax stain, they're pretty good. I'd probably seal with a water-based poly, or blonde shellac (which will require a higher skill level though). You'll definitely need two coats of sealer with a steel-wool rub (and tack rag cleanup) in between, no matter what you choose.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:44 AM on April 12 [7 favorites]

Doing the stain separately from the topcoat is definitely the way to go. Polyshades and similar products are cruel lies told to take advantage of the inexperienced. I'd use whatever stain your local store carries, but if it's oil-based then you'll need to let it cure thoroughly before using a waterborne topcoat.

The specific stain color you choose will depend on the subsequent topcoat, because most aren't really clear. Traditional varnishes can be quite yellow. Waterborne topcoats have little native color but might be tinted yellow to mimic oil-based finishes. Shellac is easy to work with, but doesn't tolerate sustained moisture very well and also varies in color. Lacquers tend to be more challenging to work with, and are high-VOC (unless you track down a waterborne lacquer... so many choices these days!); they're uncommon these days outside of commercial production environments.

The final result is going to depend on the wood, the stain and the topcoat as a system. Practice on some scrap trim lumber.
posted by jon1270 at 10:10 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Anytime a company trys to sell you on 2-in-1, it's pretty well guaranteed to be less good than the original multi-step process.

The nature of a sealer/varnish is to sit on the surface of the wood and, well, seal it. The nature of a stain is to soak in, and stain it. These two functions are somewhat at odds, so a 2-in-1 solution is always going to be an unsatisfactory compromise between the 2 functions.

I've had great results with the process the seanmpuckett laid out above. Minwax stain with a rag, then some clear sealant (Varathane is fine). I would again emphasize proper surface prep both pre-stain, and between sealant coats. Make sure to get all sanding dust and wood fibers off the surface before putting down a new coat.

Proper preparation prevents poor performance.
posted by dudemanlives at 10:14 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Sand the new base boards before staining or clear coating. This helps reduce raising the grain.

If you are using a waterborne product sand to at least 220 or 320. With the grain, not in random circular motions.

You might want to check non grain raising stains, they are more of a dye stain less pigment based.

Just google NGR stains.

No matter what you use after you get a clear coat on you'll need to scuff it out to get a smooth finish.

I do this for a living and people write books about this stuff. It's easy but not, if you get what I mean.
posted by Max Power at 10:19 AM on April 12 [3 favorites]

Excellent advice! One thing I forgot to ask, is it necessary to use a pre-stain conditioner if using a stain instead of a poly-stain?
posted by Don_K at 10:22 AM on April 12

What kind of wood are you using?
posted by jon1270 at 10:25 AM on April 12

Some wood species are hard to stain. Cherry. pine, and birch are the most common that I know about.
For these an additional step between sanding and staining is recommended - applying a layer of a sealer. A lot of different things can be used as a sealer, but if you are dealing with one of these woods, you might want to buy a "sanding sealer" and follow the directions.
posted by Glomar response at 10:25 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

Pre stain conditioners are used for woods like cherry, and maple, which can have severe variations in color due to the way they grow. Conditioners help mute that effect. We don't use them where I work.

As Glomar said you will need a "seal coat" and scuff sanding before you try a final coat. Sanding sealers have zinc stearates , sometimes labeled mineral soaps, in them which makes it easier to sand but also makes the seal coat softer than the top coat. This can lead to white scratches under the top coat when bumped or hit.

You can use what ever finish you want as a sealer, just let it cure off before sanding.

edit: when I say variations in color I'm talking about how the wood will accept the stain, not the color of the wood itself.
posted by Max Power at 10:31 AM on April 12 [3 favorites]

It is pine.
posted by Don_K at 10:34 AM on April 12

If it's pine sand it thoroughly with 220. If using a pigment based stain, like most Minwax products, the pigment can settle into the sanding marks showing your half assed sanding job ( not that you would do that, just a warning.)
posted by Max Power at 10:41 AM on April 12 [5 favorites]

Thanks, everyone. I'm off to the hardware store!
posted by Don_K at 12:37 PM on April 12

I hate the look of stain on pine because it reverses the colouration, in that it turns the soft lighter wood dark and the harder rings stay light. IMO you want to seal the pine with a shellac and then sort of glaze it with a poly stain.

posted by bonobothegreat at 5:45 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Use a conditioner on pine. If you've already returned from the hardware store, you're just going to have to go back. Trust me on this. And don't use steel wool to sand if you're using a water-based product. Tiny bits will come off on the wood and discolour your trim with rust.
posted by kate4914 at 8:26 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I once used an oil-based stain on thoroughly sanded (to 220 grit) pine floorboards and it was a DISASTER. Beware!
posted by MysteriousSympathy at 12:09 AM on April 13

Thanks for the hints about conditioner and steel wool, kate. I think it might help mitigate what bonobo brought up. I have the materials I need. Thanks again, everyone.
posted by Don_K at 3:43 PM on April 13

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