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Stains and Varnishes

If you’re an avid furniture restorer, own a deck or have hardwood floors, it’s a good idea to know your wood stain and varnish basics. While varnish seals and protects wood with a clear coat, stain imparts a vibrant color. If you’re ready to revamp some faded floorboards or try a new deck color on for size, here are a few tips to get you started.

What kinds of wood stains are available?

Wood stain comes in a few different varieties, including opaque, semi-transparent and clear.
• Opaque: Also referred to as “solid,” opaque varieties tend to be the most durable. However, they will completely hide the grain of the wood under a layer of color, so if seeing the grain is important to you, you might want to consider a more transparent option.
• Semi-transparent: An in-between option, semi-transparent wood stains allow you to see some of the wood grain through the color. They are, however, less durable than opaque options and will need refinishing about every two years.
• Clear: With very little pigment, this option allows the wood grain to fully show. They may include preservatives and ultraviolet inhibitors to help protect your wood, but still require refinishing about every year.

You should also be aware that there are a few different varieties to choose from in terms of what your stain is made from. Linseed and tung oils tend to be more natural, traditional choices, whereas latex, acrylic and oil-based options feature synthetic components. Oil-based, or alkyd deck stain features good durability but takes a while to dry. They must also be cleaned up with mineral spirits. Latex and acrylic keep their color longer, have fewer odors, are nonflammable, clean up with soap and water and dry quicker.

What type of varnish should I choose?

Similar to stains, your varnish choices can be made from natural resins and oils or synthetic materials.
• Polyurethane: One of your best options is polyurethane varnish, which is extremely durable and doesn’t yellow with age as much as other choices.
• Water-based: These lack the toxicity of their other synthetic counterparts and are easier to clean up. They dry clear, but if several coats are applied they may begin to acquire a cloudy look.

How do I apply my wood stain and varnish?

For a smooth finish that lasts longer, you’ll want to be sure you follow these tips. You should use only new stain or varnish, as old containers may include clumps of dried material. Make sure your work area is clean and dust-free, as well.
• Step 1: Use medium-grit sandpaper (#120) to begin removing the existing finish. Finish up with a finer grit (#220), and remember to sand in the direction of the grain.
• Step 2: Using a natural bristle brush, foam brush or a cloth, begin brushing or rubbing the stain against the direction of the grain. If you’re staining ash, mahogany or oak, you’ll want to use more pressure so that the pigment penetrates the pores of the wood.
• Step 3: Determine how dark you want your color to be. The longer stains are left on, the richer the color they leave behind. Do not, however, let it dry. Instead, wipe off any unabsorbed liquid in the direction of the grain with a dry cloth.
• Step 4: To prepare the wood for varnish, make sure your coat of stain is dry and the surface is clean. Lightly sand the surface, then clean off excess particles with a tack cloth.
• Step 5: Arrange your workspace. It’s recommended that you work on only one surface at a time and tackle smaller surfaces first. If you’re varnishing a piece of furniture, be sure to turn it so any vertical surface you’re currently working on is horizontal. You should also remove any drawers, doors, shelving or other removable pieces.
• Step 6: Using long, even strokes, apply your varnish along the grain with a natural bristle brush. Be sure to not wipe off excess material by rubbing the brush against the container or shaking it off inside the can. If your brush begins to tug or you spy spots in your coverage, add 1 ounce of thinner to your can. Use turpentine or mineral spirits for natural varnishes and only the thinner recommended by the manufacturer for synthetic varnishes.
• Step 7: Once your first coat is applied, begin laying a second coat across the grain of the wood. This helps even the surface, and while you work keep an eye out for any thick or thin spots.
• Step 8: While your varnish is drying and still sticky, carefully pick off any lint or dust.
• Step 9: Allow every surface to dry thoroughly before applying any additional coats. Repeat the process, starting with a light sanding, until you achieve the results you desire. Remember, a thin coat is always better than a thick one since thicker coats take longer to dry and are more prone to cracking.
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