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Wood Finishing Tips

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

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    Water-based finishes are ready to re-coat in a few hours, but most solvent-based finishes need to dry overnight.

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.

Choosing a finish

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

Save time and money with this quick fix.

Save time and money with this quick fix.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

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March 05, 8:27 PM [GMT -5]

I'm pre-finishing oak panel doors before installing, because I don't want to stain/varnish the hinges. In the past I've had bad experience doing one side one day and other side the next, that you see a seam/overlap of the 2 stainings on the edges. What do you think of flipping the door every half hour for a while, doing both sides the same day? If good, just lay the doors on the wood, or cover it, and with what (wax paper, drop cloth, etc.)?

March 05, 3:51 PM [GMT -5]

If you want an excellent "final" sandingjob, use a piece of brown paper bag for a super slick finish following smaller and smaller grit sandpaper finish sanding. Brown paper bag finishing also works well on between-coats application of finishes like urethane.

--Bob--

February 28, 2:32 PM [GMT -5]

Some of the cabinets in our home need to be refinished, but not sure what to get to strip off the old varnish? any ideas

February 02, 4:44 PM [GMT -5]

I've been refinishing furniture for over 30 years and I never sand in a circular method as shown in one of the photos between coats of Poly. Even between coats I always sand/steel wool/scotch pad with the grain of the wood.

February 02, 12:44 PM [GMT -5]

My project is in work currently. This tips state to always sand with the grain but the corresponding picture show circular patterns in use. Is their a time when a circular pattern is acceptable or preferred? How to I handle the project after the final coat?

December 10, 12:55 AM [GMT -5]

You have posted useful tips on Wood Finishing. Thanks for sharing.
http://www.tectonicfloors.com.au/timber-flooring-enquiries.php

June 19, 5:26 PM [GMT -5]

I would like to add, be sure you sand with the grain. even the slightest scratch against the grain will show up like a sore thumb

January 18, 10:42 AM [GMT -5]

Don't overlook the use of disposable foam brushes to get a hair-less, bubble-less, very smooth finish. Just make sure finish is applied evenly and then quickly make a final pass.

I also dry-sand and tac inbetween coates, and for an exceptionally smooth finish I wet-sand with 300 or 400 before last coat is applied.

June 19, 4:59 PM [GMT -5]

Good Information......The reason I looked here, was to get explicit information on applying the poly or varnish. Is there another link i should look for?

April 26, 12:06 PM [GMT -5]

Very helpful information. Thanks for the great instructions and detail views.

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