Wood Finishing Tips

How to prepare your wood and apply stain or varnish for a silky smooth finish.

A fine finish is the crowning touch that brings out the true beauty of wood. Learn the key steps in the sanding and finishing process, and discover how to insure good results. This article offers tips for a smooth, successful finish and shows how to avoid common pitfalls.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

TIME

Multi-day

COMPLEXITY

Simple

COST

$20 - $100

Sanding tips

Sanding always progresses from coarse to finer and finer sandpaper. Whether you're sanding by hand or using a power tool, start with 80-grit to sand away blemishes, then use 120-grit and finally 180-grit. Using these exact grits isn't vital (100-150-180 works too), but it's important to progress in steps, removing deeper scratches and leaving finer scratches each time.

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Choosing a finish

These photos will show you how to choose a finish for your project.

Renew woodwork without refinishing

If your stained and varnished woodwork is looking a little shabby, you can save time and money with this quick fix. You don’t have to strip the finish from your dingy woodwork. Just head to the store and pick up some wood stain that’s a close match. We like gel stain for this fix, but any wood stain will work.

Start your renewal project by washing the woodwork with soapy water. Rinse with clear water, then gently scrape off any paint spatters with a plastic putty knife. When the wood is dry, dip a rag into the stain and wipe it over the wood. Bare spots and scratches will pick up the stain. Finish by wiping the woodwork with a clean cloth to remove the excess stain. After the stain dries for a few days, you can add a coat of furniture wax or wipe-on poly to really liven up the old wood.

Touching up old woodwork by wiping on stain with a rag. Save time and money with this quick fix.
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Applying the finish

Clean project and the surrounding area thoroughly before beginning the finishing process. Dust settling on wet polyurethane will give your finish the look and feel of razor stubble. So clean the area you're working in and let the dust settle. Then dust the workpiece with a soft, lint-free cloth. Don’t use tack cloth—it can leave a residue that interferes with adhesion.

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Between coats

Always sand lightly between coats of urethane or varnish to eliminate roughness and minor imperfections and to give the next coat better adhesion. Use 180 grit or finer sandpaper and sand with the grain. And don't forget to keep your brushes clean between coats.

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Painting tips

Whether you're painting an interior room or exterior siding trim, here are a few tricks to make painting jobs easier.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Dust mask
  • Orbital sander
  • Paintbrush

For water-based finishes, use synthetic bristle brushes and foam pads.

For oil-based finishes, use natural bristle brushes.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • Use medium through extra-fine grit sandpaper for sanding raw wood.
  • Use 180 grit or finer sandpaper and steel wool substitute (not steel wool) between coats.
  • Water or oil based polyurethane (use exterior grade for outdoor projects).
  • Compatible stains (optional). If in doubt, use stains and finish from the same manufacturer.