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Pro Tips for Using Varnish and Stain

Get a silky smooth finish

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Do Oil Stains Last Longer Than Latex Stains Outdoors?

Do Oil Stains Last Longer Than Latex Stains Outdoors?

It depends on the surface. Oil stains generally penetrate wood better than latex stains and perform best on rough surfaces like rough-sawn wood and cedar shingles, which will soak up a lot of stain. Semi-transparent oil stains excel here because you can apply several coats and achieve good wood protection without hiding the natural texture and grain. You can expect the stain to last from four to seven years. They're easier to renew, too. You can simply power wash to clean and recoat.

However, latex stains (especially solid ones) excel on smooth wood surfaces. They won't erode as quickly as oil stains. You can expect a solid latex stain on smooth, vertical wood to last four to six years. Keep in mind that no stain will last more than two to three years on horizontal surfaces that are exposed to the sun and rain.

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Wood Stain Application Tip

Wood Stain Application Tip

Save your empty pump-type sprayers that have an adjustable-spray tip and use them to apply wiping stain. Spray a small section at a time, then wipe it. You'll be surprised how little stain you use to complete the job this way compared with brushing. This technique is especially helpful for applying stain to intricate parts like spindles.

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Don't Skip the Sealer!

Don't Skip the Sealer!

Finishing bare wood with a clear coat can be daunting. There's a lot that can go wrong, but laying down a sealer first will give you better results. A great sealer is clear shellac because it can be used under just about any clear finish. Penetrating deep into the wood fibers, it improves topcoat adhesion, flattens out the surface and improves the 'depth' of the final finish.

Brush or spray it on, allow it to dry and then lightly sand with 320-grit sandpaper before applying topcoats. A single coat is enough. This coat isn't meant to be heavy, so don't be tempted to build another layer. Too much sealer can cause problems.

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Curvy Sanders

Curvy Sanders

Make contour sanders for convex and concave surfaces with short pieces of PVC pipe cut lengthwise. (It cuts easily with a handsaw, saber saw or band saw.) If you like, leave a section of the pipe uncut for a handle. Apply adhesive-backed sandpaper to the inner and outer diameters, or spray photo-mount adhesive on the pipe and apply regular sandpaper. You can match the PVC's inner and outer diameters to rounded or curved surfaces and edges so when you sand the contour, you'll preserve its original shape. Make a few PVC sanders in various diameters and you'll find yourself using them for all kinds of filing, sculpting and intricate fitting jobs.

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Fresher Oil Finish

Fresher Oil Finish

Tung oil is a popular finish for wood projects. There's just one problem with it—if you don't use it all up, the leftover oil quickly turns rancid from air trapped inside the bottle. To keep it fresh, store the leftover oil in a collapsible plastic bottle (sold at leevalley.com and other woodworking and paint supply stores). The accordion sides compress to drive out the air. If you have a little air left in the bottle when it's collapsed, drop in some marbles to raise the oil level to the base of the bottle's neck before tightening the lid.

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Bug-Begone Tweezers

Bug-Begone Tweezers

Keep a tweezers handy when you're applying any type of finish. If a mosquito, housefly, strand of hair, a wood shaving or a speck of sawdust plops onto a wet finish, don't use your fingers or a rag to remove it! That'll always leave a mark. Pluck it out with the tweezers.

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Flawless Surface Prep

Flawless Surface Prep

Anxious to put varnish on that freshly sanded project? Well, just hold on for a second! Before applying the finish, rub the project (with the grain!) with No. 0000 steel wool. You'll lift sanding dust from the grain and burnish and shine the surface fibers.

Follow up with a Swiffer Sweeper cloth (sold at grocery stores) to wipe away any specks of dust or steel wool. You've now ensured a pristine surface for perfect results with oil-based (not water-based) finishes.

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Poly Finish with No Runs, Drips or Bubbles

Poly Finish with No Runs, Drips or Bubbles

If the project you're finishing features spindles, legs, nooks or crannies, switch from a regular to a wipe-on polyurethane. This finish goes on like a hand-rubbed oil finish and won't pool, bubble or drip to leave mini messes to sand off when it's dry. A number of wipe-on poly finishes are available at home centers, paint stores and woodworking suppliers. They wipe on smoothly, dry quickly and, when applied with a cloth, leave zero lap marks.

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Staining Spindles

Staining Spindles

Check out this speedy method for staining a whole staircase's worth of spindles. Cut a 2-in.-diameter PVC pipe 6 in. longer than the spindles you're staining, wash it thoroughly and glue a cap on one end with PVC cement. Drill or saw a 2-1/2-in. hole in one end of a scrap board and screw the board to a sawhorse to support the pipe. Twist a small screw hook into each spindle end and a screw eye into a 6-in. dowel handle. To stain, suspend a spindle in the pipe and fill the pipe until the spindle is submerged. Wear a garden glove over a plastic glove and pull up the spindle while wiping off the excess stain. Then hang the spindles on a knotted rope to dry. Add small amounts of stain to the tube each time to compensate for what gets used. How to Install Stair Spindles

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Zero-Cleanup Finishing

Zero-Cleanup Finishing

Forget brushes when it comes to varnishing a ton of trim or big, flat areas like tabletops and cabinets. Use a 4-in. disposable roller and a nonstick, lipped baking sheet. Pour some varnish into the tray and use it just like a paint rolling tray. Keep adding varnish as you need it, but try to plan so you end up with an empty tray. When you're through, toss the roller sleeve and let the wet varnish dry in the pan. When it dries, just peel the varnish film right out of the pan.

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No-Clean Varnish Brushes

No-Clean Varnish Brushes

If you do a lot of polyurethane finish work, here's how to avoid cleaning your brush after every application. Slice a 1-in. 'X' into the plastic lid of a coffee can to hold the brush handle so the bristles are suspended in thinner.

When varnish residue builds up to an inch or so on the bottom, pour off the uncontaminated thinner into another can and start over. You'll rarely have to clean the brush and will save lots of money on thinner. You can dispose of the residue by letting it dry, then throwing away the can.

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Smooth Rollers, Smooth Finishes

Smooth Rollers, Smooth Finishes

Having a hard time getting a smooth finish on doors and woodwork?

These mini rollers, only 4 or 6 in. long, are made of dense foam that spreads the paint or varnish smoothly for a uniform, mark-free finish (unlike nap rollers, which leave tiny bumps). You'll be amazed the first time you use one.

But the rollers aren't perfect. They spread the finish thin, so you usually need two coats. And the rollers are a pain to clean, but since most cost less than $5 at home centers and paint stores, you could toss them when you're done.