What should I use to stain this unfinished furniture?
September 16, 2023 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I bought an unfinished parawood/rubberwood end table with the idea that I'd stain it myself. People do that all the time! But the information online is overwhelming and often conflicting, and perhaps assumes I have a professional woodshop to work in, which I don't. Do any of you have experience staining this type of wood? If so, please provide tips, tricks, and product recommendations.

This end table is what I'm working with. We already tried staining an unfinished stool made of the same wood from the same company for practice, and we aren't happy with how that has turned out. The stain is blotchy (we did lightly sand the surface before staining), and the polyurethane on top of that is streaked with brush strokes and is just generally not smooth.

We're still trying to fix the stool, but in the meantime I feel like we should probably try different staining/finishing products altogether on this table because it seems like the products we started with are pretty unforgiving. I want the most forgiving products.

If you've stained this specific type of wood furniture yourself and can share your wisdom, I would greatly appreciate it. The stain color we're using is dark walnut, in case that makes a difference.
posted by bananana to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
Try putting a wood conditioner on first. I haven't used it on rubberwood, but it stops pine from taking stain unevenly.
posted by kate4914 at 8:38 AM on September 16

Blotchy stain is usually a result of either oils/resins or uneven/unopen grain. In this case it's probably grain. Sanding it is good, but if you don't get the wood wet first, the fibers won't lift from where they were machined and pressed flat by assembly. I suggest a light sanding to start, then wipe it down thoroughly with a wet but not dripping cloth. This will cause the fibers to swell and lift. Sand it again once it's fully dry. Then wipe the fine dust off with a moist rag or tack cloth. The stain should take much more evenly.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:02 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

The most forgiving products… IME the most forgiving to apply are not the most forgiving of neglect afterwards. Which would you rather optimize for?

I like finishes that go on in many thin coats because, although it takes a while, none of that while is very hard or risky. Osmocote, eg.

(Commercial furniture makers will mostly want a finshthat’s blazingly fast and then customer-proof, and are willing to build dust free temperature controlled spray booths for polyurethane because of that. But there are alternatives, and if you don’t need waterproofing the hand rubbed finishes are lovely.)
posted by clew at 2:13 PM on September 16

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, they have been helpful. I went ahead and completely sanded off all the polyurethane and stain from the top of the stool, then applied an oil-based wood conditioner (because we have oil-based gel stain) from Minwax, then re-applied the same stain we'd used before, following all the package instructions. It's looking much better, but I haven't put on the polyurethane yet.

The blotchy stain problem initially seems to have been a combination of not using a wood conditioner and not sanding it enough before staining. The bare wood looked nice and smooth out of the box, but it had flaws that we didn't notice until stain was applied. It needed to be sanded more thoroughly than we thought.

For the streaky finish problems we had with the polyurethane, I'm going to try using a water-based polyurethane rather than the fast-drying oil-based one we used initially. Seems like that might work better along with being easier to clean up. I dunno.

I didn't mark this resolved yet because the project is still in progress, and I welcome more input if you've got it.
posted by bananana at 3:22 PM on September 16

If you're going with a water-based poly over an oil-based stain, give the stain plenty of time to dry. I'd allow two or three days, unless it's cool or humid, in which case I'd wait until next weekend.
posted by kate4914 at 6:22 PM on September 16

The best way to get a brush free finish with poly is to use a spray poly. Oil based will produce a smoother result than water. My wife has used minwax oil poly spray a lot, with good results. 3-4 coats with sanding in between.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 6:51 PM on September 16

One option is to use a poly/stain all-in-one product. It doesn't give you the grain transparency a true stain would, but it's much less likely to blotch and is much easier to apply. I've used it to match the dark brown of old architectural woodwork but I expect it would work for furniture. Minwax and Varathane both produce these, and you can get water or oil based. I have only used the oil based product myself.
posted by mr vino at 2:04 AM on September 17

The best way to get a brush-mark-free poly finish in *my* world is “wipe-on-poly.” You do several very thin coats and it can be quite nice, but I’ve only used it on a couple of cedar trays I turned. I’ve never been good at spraying stuff, though I’ve seen people that are.

But the most valuable asset you have is the bottom of that bottom shelf. You can experiment on it and no one will ever see the result! The idea of getting a same-wood table as an experiment is also good, but I’d be just a little cautious because there are so many different species of wood.

Good luck.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:10 PM on September 19

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