Staining pine doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience.
When I started to replace trim in our new (to us) house, I originally thought we would go with standard white-painted trim.
We had hired a interior designer to help redecorate, and when it came time to talk paint and trim colors, she felt pretty strongly we should go with a different shade of stain on the trim.
There’s something about stain for wood that brings out a rich, earthy, organic feel in a room. So it didn’t take much to convince us that this was the way to go.
That meant ripping out all of the existing trim and replacing it. That’s ok, we decided to rip out the gawd-awful paneling anyway.
Since we were going with a custom-mixed oil-based stain, I started by purchasing some scrap baseboard trim in 1- and 2-foot lengths at my local Home Depot. I made sure to get “stain grade” or “clear” pine. This is very important!
I first needed to make sure that the final trim color turned out as we expected, so I used these scraps to practice my technique. Staining pine isn’t quite as mindless as priming and painting.
Follow these steps to a flawless, beautiful finish.
Make sure you buy quality boards
For trim, I noticed a definite quality difference between the home center and a local lumber yard that specialized in trim molding and millwork. Sure, the home center stuff was decent, but you could tell the boards were thrown around (lots of dents and scratches). Plus, as I went through the stack, I noticed most boards were too crooked for my comfort.
Again, make sure you are purchasing “stain grade” or “clear pine”.
The boards I got from the trim lumber yard were straighter, were clearer (no knots or other anomalies) and had no nicks, dings, or other damage. The color was consistent throughout the batch and the grain pattern was similar throughout what I pulled.
The first step is sanding the pine
Sanding pine is absolutely critical before applying any sort of stain. For trim, use sanding sponges. These make it easier to follow contours and get into nooks and crannies. The angled sponges are ideal for this.
For flat boards, use a sanding block.
A good sand job will also help control the blotchy appearance (more on that below) you’re likely to see when staining pine.
Finish your prep work
Sanding was just the beginning. Now you’ve gotta get all that dust off your board. Fire up your shop vacuum with the brush attachment and suck up all of that dust. If you don’t have a vac handy, you can use a small, clean hand broom.
Now take a tack rag and lightly wipe down the board. A tack rag is a gauze-type cloth treated with a ‘tacky’ substance that will pick up any remaining dust, lint, or dirt particles hanging around.
In general: sand, vacuum, wipe with a tack rag.
And if the board has been sitting in your basement or garage awhile, always wipe it down with a tack rag before applying anything to the wood.
The cure for blotchy pine
Staining pine can be tricky. Pine has a tendency to get “blotchy” when you stain it. Softwoods such as pine have a porous cell structure and accept stain unevenly as there is hard grain and soft grain.
For a uniform color, you’re going to want to condition it first. The conditioner will partially block some of those large pores so the stain “takes” a bit more uniformly.
A good product for this is Minwax’s Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner. Use a clean, dry cloth to soak up the conditioner from the can and then wipe it onto the board. It’ll take on a yellow tone at first, but that will lighten up as it dries. Wait around 10 minutes and then wipe off any excess.
Throughout this process, I wear blue nitrile gloves. Cleaning up this stuff (conditioner, stain, poly) is a hassle so I prefer to use stuff I can throw away.
Make sure you wait to do this until you’re ready to stain. You’ll need to apply your stain within two hours of applying the conditioner.
If you use a different brand, make sure you read the directions before proceeding.
Apply the stain
How to apply stain? Staining pine can be accomplished in various ways, but the three most common stains for pine include oil-based, water-based, and gel.
Staining involves applying the stain using an applicator — and that could be a brush, foam brush, or clean rag. It’s really up to personal preference but I’ve found that using a foam brush gives me a nice coat of stain without drips.
The bonus is that when you’re done, you can just pitch it since they’re so cheap (less than a buck a brush.)
After letting the stain sit for a period of time, wipe it up with a clean rag. If the color is not dark enough, you can reapply and let it sit longer.
Protect the finish
After staining pine, applying polyurethane to the trim boards will protect the finish from water, spills, scuff marks, and the like. If you use a semi-gloss or gloss finish (as opposed to satin, which is duller) you can expect to add some “depth” to the color of the stained wood.
I hope you found this guide on how to stain and finish wood useful. I focused on staining pine because that’s what most people use for trim molding. However, this guide would apply to any type of softwood.
Image 1 via Creative Commons Attribution.