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January 16, 2021
My father is a pretty handy guy. He used to do pretty much everything around the house himself, from painting to building to wiring. He was a stay-at-home parent, so there was always something to do, something to fix, something to improve. It wasn’t just a chore for him - he genuinely enjoyed most of it, gaining a lot of satisfaction from working with his hands. His favorite weekend pastime was going out for a drive on a sunny weekend day and stopping at every thrift store and yard sale along the way in search of furniture to restore.
I remember watching the whole process - the thorough investigation at the shop, loading it into the car, setting up in the garage with the stripper and sandpaper. His care not to sand too far; the disappointment if the wood was too damaged underneath, and the glee when the piece was in good shape and ready to be refinished. My father salvaged furniture like this all the time - all of the major pieces in my family home were thrifted or vintage pieces that he lovingly restored, and would continue to update or fix up as time went on. Just this past summer, my cat happened to make a bit of a mess on my father’s prized side table, and he whipped out a small bottle of stain and got right to it.
Restoring wooden furniture by refinishing it not only satisfies the DIY itch, but is also a super sustainable practice that eliminates waste and pollution while keeping costs low. We’re excited to offer a variety of stains on the Decorner website, all by Osmo, which is a high quality, beautiful stain made of natural oils - making it attractive, accessible and eco-friendly!
We know that staining can seem like a daunting process, with a lot of variables and a lot at stake. We’re going to start a mini-series here on the Mood Board to teach you more about it in a way that makes sense, starting with the very basics: what’s stain, anyway, and how to prepare for it.
WHAT IS STAIN?
Let’s start by going over the differences between paint and stain. Both are made up of pigment and a vehicle, but vary in terms of application and consistency. Where paint is opaque and multi-surface, stain is a finish for wood that brings out the natural textures and grain while also enhancing or modifying the color. It also acts to protect the wood from damage and exposure. Stain is much thinner than paint and is absorbed into the wood surface, whereas paint sits on top of it and creates a thin film.
Although staining wood requires preparation, it doesn’t require a primer, and usually will not flake, peel or blister. As stain is created as a wood enhancer, there are not as many color varietals available as there are with paint. Stain can be oil-based, latex-based or water-based. Latex stains offer good color retention, easy clean-up and application on wet surfaces, but if your item has been stained before with an oil-based product, you’ll need to stick with an oil-based stain. Oil-based stains offer great penetration which results in good wood protection, but can often contain binders and other chemicals. Water-based stains are eco-friendly, but don’t penetrate as efficiently and can dry too quickly, making application a challenge.
The other distinguishing feature between stains is opacity - semi-transparent, or solid. A semi-transparent stain allows the natural grain to show through while adding protection and color. It’s generally used on decks and fences, as well as other furniture pieces where you want a more natural look. Semitransparent stain has to be touched up and re-coated more often than solid stain or paint because it offers less protection against UV rays than more substantial treatments. Solid stain offers a more opaque color delivery, leaving a solid coat of pigment on the surface. It doesn’t need to be re-applied as often, but it does obscure the wood’s natural texture much more than semitransparent stain, so if you’re hoping to see some grain, this isn’t the product for you!
WHICH STAIN IS THE STAIN FOR ME
There are a lot of stain options out there, but which one is the right one for your project? That depends entirely on what you’re staining, and what kind of look you’re going for.
If you’re staining a piece of furniture, you probably won’t want to go with a water-based stain, as it does not deposit much color or offer the wood much protection. If the piece you’re staining won’t be heavily used in an active way, and a very natural look is what you’re going for, a water-based stain might still work for you, but if it is something that you plan to use more frequently, you’ll want something with a bit more body - a latex shine will give a natural yet shiny look. If it’s a piece in space that experiences dampness, such as a kitchen or a bathroom, you should consider an oil-based stain, as it won’t absorb water.
Wooden floors are a completely different animal, since they experience a lot of traffic and have to withstand water and other elements. You need to choose something with some staying power, that will protect the wood without making it difficult to clean. Latex-based stains are best for floors, though oil-based stains with a polyurethane coat on top can also create a beautiful, protected surface. Oil-based stains will also work for outdoor floorings such as decks; bare wood will require a pre-stain conditioner as well as an acrylic stain topcoat to prevent mold and damage from the direct elements.
You can also decide what will be best for your project by considering the species of wood you’re treating. Pines and other very light woods are soft and will react best with lightly colored pigmented oil stains, easily taking on the color they deposit in one coat. Harder woods can take on darker stains but require more efficient penetration, so a more intense oil-based stain will work well with hardwoods. Birch is often used as a substitute for maple, and always requires a water-based stain as it does not absorb easily - a pre-stain conditioner will help with that!
HOW TO PREP
When you’re getting ready to paint a space, it’s important to invest in the prep, and staining is no different. There are two ways to prep a piece or a space for finishing - sanding or stripping.
Starting with a grittier sand paper, about 100 grit, get to sanding, always with the grain, back and forth. If you’re working on a piece of furniture, avoid belt sanders - those are better for floors. Plan on two more sandings, with increasingly smaller grits, and be very deliberate in wiping the wood down between sandings. After these three sandings, wet the wood to bring the little surface fibers out, let dry, and sand one more time, with 200 grit sandpaper. The wood will then be ready for wood conditioner, which is super helpful in opening up the pores of the wood so the stain penetrates more efficiently.
If your piece needs stripping, you’ll have to be a bit more careful in terms of your set-up: gloves and a mask are absolutely necessary, since stripping solvents are quite toxic. Be sure to set some cardboard under the item you’re working on. Pour the stripping liquid or paste - strippers with methylene chloride work the fastest - into a metal can (not plastic as strippers can eat it!) and proceed to brush a thick layer onto your surface. Allow 20 minutes to sit and then scrape the surface with a metal scraper to see if it is ready to come off. If it takes too much effort to strip off, give it some more time to sit. Wipe the wood down with a cloth wet with lacquer thinner, probably a few times. Let the wood dry, and finish with another fine sanding.
Be as careful with your disposal of the scraped-off finish as you were with your prep: be sure it goes into a metal container and is not kept inside. Let the container sit somewhere to settle and evaporate a bit before you dispose of it.
This run-down of the basics only scrapes the surface (if you’ll pardon the pun!) of staining, but it should give you a good sense of some of the prep to do before you even pick up that can of stain. In the coming weeks, we’ll talk you through the process of actually staining, as well as when to or not strip (that is the question) and a run-down of the products we offer, and what makes them sustainable and safer than most on the market. Got questions, or concerns you want us to make sure we cover? Drop them in the comments, and we’ll be sure to include them!
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