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
Test stains, thoroughly!
You can't rely on those stain samples on display in stores. Actual color varies a lot, depending on the type of wood and how you prepared it for finishing. So save scraps from your project, run them through the same sanding process and use them to test finishes. If you didn't build the item you're finishing, run tests on an inconspicuous area—the underside of a table, for example. Test stain on scraps to get the color you want. Leaving excess stain on the wood for longer or shorter periods won't affect the color much. If it's a custom color you're after, you can mix stains of the same brand.
Watch for blotchy wood
Some woods absorb stain unevenly, which causes dark blotches to appear. Birch, maple, pine and cherry can all play this ugly trick on you. It's hard to eliminate this effect, but you can limit it by applying a wood conditioner before staining. Conditioner also prevents wood's end grain from absorbing more stain than the face grain. It's sold wherever stains and finishes are.
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.
Applying the finish
Better brushes are the key
Usually, a brush is the best tool for applying polyurethane. For water-based poly, a synthetic brush (such as nylon or polyester) is best. For oil-based poly, use a natural-bristle brush. In either case, plan to spend a few dollars extra for a good-quality brush. Quality brushes hold more finish, lay it on smoothly and are less likely to leave lost bristles in your clear coat. If you clean your brush immediately after use, it'll serve you well far into the future.
Leave mistakes alone (usually)
When you notice a run, missed spot or other problem in the polyurethane you applied minutes earlier, you'll be tempted to brush it out. Don't. The finish may look wet, but chances are it's already sticky, and brushing will only make a mess. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: You can pop tiny air bubbles with a pin, and you can pluck out a hair, a lost bristle or unfortunate fly using sharp tweezers and a steady hand.
Use a pad on large areas
Apply water-based to large surfaces fast by using a paint pad. Water-base finishes have a lot of advantages. But because they dry quickly, they can be tricky on large surfaces: The first area you cover becomes tacky before you can smooth out the next, and you’re left with brush marks that won’t disappear.
Using a paint pad to apply the finish solves these problems because paint pads lay on the finish faster than a brush. Stir, don’t shake, the finish and pour some into a paint tray. Dip the pad into the finish and apply it to the surface in long, even strokes. You’ll be amazed at how quickly and smoothly you can cover even large areas.
If the project you’re working on has some large surfaces and some smaller areas, pick up a few different sizes of paint pads. You can buy a large paint pad like the one here at any paint store or home center.
Spray on the final coat
Here’s a trick for getting a glass-smooth finish on your next woodworking project. Start by brushing on a coat of gloss polyurethane. Let it dry overnight. Then lightly sand with 320-grit sandpaper to remove imperfections. Use a tack cloth or vacuum cleaner and soft brush attachment to remove the dust. Repeat this process for the second coat. Finish up by spraying on the final coat. You can buy aerosol cans of polyurethane in satin, semigloss and gloss finishes. Any of these can go over the gloss coats.
Brushing on the first two coats allows you to build up a thicker layer of finish with less cost and effort than spraying from cans. And using an aerosol can to apply the final coat produces a professional-looking finish, free of brush marks. We used Minwax polyurethane because we were able to buy the same finish in liquid and aerosol versions, and the aerosol can has a high-quality spray tip.
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.
Don't sand through the stain
When sanding between coats, it's easy to rub right through the clear coat, removing the stain below. So sand super lightly after the first coat, just enough to cut down any dust whiskers on the surface. If there are bigger problems—such as runs—deal with them after the second coat when you can sand a bit harder. To repair rubbed-through spots, just apply new stain. Immediately wipe away any stain that gets on the surrounding polyurethane.
Sand fine surfaces with wet/dry sandpaper
Lightly sand between coats with 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper, which won't fall apart when it gets wet. A little water provides lubrication and keeps the finish from clogging the paper. Sanding after each coat (except the last) rubs out imperfections and roughens the surface for better adhesion of the next coat. In most cases, this is a quick job, more like wiping the surface than sanding it. When the sanding is done, wipe away the residue with a damp rag.
Three-stage brush-cleaning system
Save time and mineral spirits with this three-container brush-cleaning method. Partially fill three containers with mineral spirits. When you’re done working for the day, swish your brush around in the first container. Wipe it along the edge of the container to remove as much finish as you can. Then repeat the process in the second container. By now the brush will be pretty clean.
Suspend the brush in the third container. Drill a hole in the handle and suspend it from a wire or dowel so that the bristles aren’t resting on the bottom of the container. Put a lid on the first two containers, and wrap plastic wrap or aluminum foil around the brush handle on the third container. You can use the same mineral spirits for several brush cleanings.
When the first container gets too full of old finish, dump it into a fourth container labeled “used mineral spirits.” Shift the second and third containers to positions one and two, and pour clean mineral spirits into the one you emptied and place it at the end of the line. You can reuse the mineral spirits from the “used” container after the finish settles. Decant it carefully to avoid stirring up the gunk on the bottom.
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.
Scrape paint faster
Steel scrapers work great—for the first few minutes. Then they need to be sharpened or replaced. But a carbide scraper blade will stay plenty sharp for a long time, even when you’re removing thick paint buildup.
In addition to a reversible carbide blade, this Maxxgrip PRO scraper (available at home centers or hardware stores) has a knob on top for two-handed operation—a must for tough scraping jobs. You can even flip the scraper over and use the knob as a hammer to set protruding siding nails. If you’ve ever scraped paint from an old house, you know how handy that is.
Work faster with pyramids
These handy plastic pyramids hold your project off the surface so you can paint the edges easily. Better yet, you can finish the front of doors (or the top of shelves) without waiting for the back to dry. Paint the back of the door and set it painted side down on the pyramids while you paint the front. The sharp points on the pyramids will leave only little spots on the wet paint, and they’re easy to touch up later.
You’ll find plastic pyramids at home centers, paint stores and hardware stores. A pack of 10 costs only a few dollars.
If you have lap siding to paint, you can save a lot of time by painting the edges of window and door casings the same color as the siding. Most pros do it this way, and the beauty is, nobody will ever notice this little shortcut. Caulk the joint between the casing and the siding as usual. Then when you paint the siding, just extend the paint onto the edge of the casing instead of meticulously cutting in. If you get paint on the face of the casing, wipe it off with a wet rag to create a neat edge.
Whether you're painting an interior room or exterior siding trim, here are a few tricks to make painting jobs easier.