How To Finish Your Unfinished Furniture


You’ve selected the right piece of unfinished furniture to meet your needs. You are confident in the quality and craftsmanship and you have some idea what you want to do with it. Now, be sure you treat that unfinished furniture right. We’ve got some tips on how to properly finish your unfinished wood furniture.


  • All surfaces should be clean and free from all dirt and oils.
  • Sanding is a progressive procedure. Do NOT start sanding with very fine sandpaper on unfinished wood. Prepare the surface by using medium sand paper first, and then proceed to finer grades. Water based finishes need a smoother surface than oil based finishes, but do not over sand or you may seal the wood so much that it will not take a finish. Sand raw wood in the direction of the grain starting with a coarser grit sand paper such as #120 sandpaper, and finish the final sanding with a fine grit sandpaper such as #180 or #220. On soft woods such as Pine, Aspen or Alder sand first with #120 and finish with #220. On hardwoods such as Oak, Maple, Birch or Parawood sand first with #120 and finish no finer than #180. End-grains (areas where the wood has been cut against the grain), such as the front side of a table, tend to soak up more stain than other surfaces. Give end-grain areas an additional sanding to control the absorption of stain. Refer to our sanding tutorial for more information.
  • We recommend minimizing the grain raise, especially on hardwoods such as Oak and Ash. After completing preparation sanding and before applying the finish, spray the project with water or rub down with a damp cloth. Allow the wood to dry and then sand lightly with #220 sandpaper to remove the raised grain. This conditions the wood to accept water based finishes.
  • Option for wood stains: Soft woods such as Pine and Aspen absorb wood stain at an uneven rate and may respond better to staining if the wood is pre-sealed. A natural (clear) stain can be applied to raw wood to condition the surface for uniform penetration of the stain. Pre-sealing will cause the final stain to be lighter. Always test your color on a hidden part of the furniture! Allow the natural clear stain to dry 1 hour before applying your final stain color.
  • Remove dust with an air hose, damp cloth or “oil free” tack cloths. Do not use oil based tack cloths when using water based finish. Most tack cloths contain oil and will contaminate the surface.
  • Do NOT use steel wool when preparing wood for water based finish, as steel particles will cause rust spots.
  • There are two methods to fill nail holes with wood putty: 1) fill holes before you stain using putty that dries hard and can be sanded and stained, or 2) stain the wood, apply one Top Coat, and then use water based color putty that matches the stain.


Applying Water-Based Wood Stains

  • Remove hardware from furniture. Taking a little extra time to remove backs of cabinets, drawer fronts etc, will make staining much easier.
  • Lightly sand the wood with 180-220 grit sandpaper to open the grain to allow the stain to penetrate evenly. Do not over sand!
  • To minimize grain raising, complete surface preparation sanding and dampen wood with a wet sponge or spray bottle prior to applying Top Coat. Allow the wood to dry completely and lightly finish sand again with #180 to #220 grit sandpaper. Do not sand through the grain raise layer. This conditions the wood to accept water based finishes.
  • To get a consistent stain on soft woods such as Aspen, use Natural Stain as a pre-stain conditioner. Apply Natural Stain, wipe off evenly, wait 30 to 60 minutes and apply your stain color. Always test the color on the underside of the project before you begin. It is your responsibility to insure that the color is what you want.
  • All top coats (water, oil, lacquer, wax, etc.) may be used over Water Based Stains if they have dried properly.
  • All Wood Stains may be intermixed to create custom colors or may be lightened by adding Natural Stain.
  • A second coat of stain will produce a slightly darker color.
  • If working in high temperatures or low humidity, Wood Stains may be thinned with 10-20% water or General Finishes Extender (3 to 6 oz. per quart) to improve open time for application.
  • Tinting may be accomplished by adding 2 oz of Wood Stain and 2 oz. of water to a pint of Top Coat (or 4 oz. of each to a quart). Mix the water and stain together first, then add this mixture to tint the Top Coat. Stir well.
  • Use only tack cloths made for water based products (containing no linseed oil).
  • Hand Application of General Finishes Water Based Wood Stains
  • Always stir the contents well. Stirring reduces the thickness of the stain and distributes pigments that may have settled to the bottom of the can.
  • It is essential to apply a wet, liberal amount of stain with a foam brush or a latex paint pad applicator to insure easy workability. If too little stain is used, the surface can dry too quickly causing an uneven appearance.
  • Divide your project into manageable sections (top, side, drawer, door).
  • Stain a complete section and wipe off the excess evenly with the grain using paper towels or a clean cloth. Check for missed spots and lap marks before moving to the next section. Immediately correct lap marks by rewetting the entire working area with stain and wiping the excess off.
  • Sanding between coats of any stain or top coat is referred to as Buffing. We do NOT recommend buffing between coats of stain because you may remove an area of stain that cannot be re-blended. If you must buff because you have imperfections that need to be smoothed out, do so with caution using a superfine sanding pad or #320 or #400 grit sandpaper. Do not buff prior to the first application Top Coat.
  • On most projects three or four coats of Top Coat is just right. On projects receiving extra wear such as table and desk tops, additional coats will add more protection

Many projects will require simple, water-based stains. For more complex projects, you may need other paints and glazes. These basics will help get you started in the process of making your unfinished wood furniture a finished masterpiece.