7 Things to Consider Before You Stain or Paint Furniture

Posted by: on June 29th, 2012 | 14 Comments
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Paint, stain and brushes, illustrating how to stain or paint furniture


There’s nothing like a fresh coat of paint to spruce up an old piece of furniture or a new stain to breathe new life into neglected cabinets. Understanding the basics of painting and staining is fundamental to so many DIY projects, and we’re here to help with the basics to get you started. Here are some important things to think about before you stain or paint furniture.

Actually, these tips come from Kate, the blogger behind Censational Girl, Chris from the blog Just a Girl and Bruce from Minwax. They led the Beginning Paint and Stain session at the recent Haven Conference in Atlanta. (We already knew Kate from an article she wrote for the Apron on her cabana make over, and it was a pleasure to meet Chris and Bruce.)

Here are the top seven tips they had for anyone planning to stain or paint furniture or cabinets. 


  • Water-based versus Oil-based — when it comes to picking a stain, there are three questions you should ask yourself to determine whether you choose an water-based stain or an oil-based stain. First, how quickly do I want it to dry? Second, what are my ventilation conditions? Third, what do I want the stain color to be? Water-based stains dry quickly, have low odor, and have a much larger assortment of colors, from the traditional wood tones to colored stains, like red and blue. Oil-based stains, on the other hand, take longer to dry so they work better for more intricate projects that require detail and finesse; however, oil-based stains require proper ventilation and only come in the traditional wood tones.
  • Better wood, Better results — Bruce reminded us that the best wood to stain is oak, but pine is easy to work with as well. It’s important to remember that wood with lots of knots and any wood that isn’t nice quality won’t look as good as a very highly quality lumber, so take that into consideration when deciding to stain a piece of furniture.
  • Try a Pre-Stain Conditioner — if you’re staining wood with a water-based stain, try using a pre-stain conditioner which will ensure that your wood stains evenly. After you pre-stain your wood, be sure to sand lightly with a fine grit sandpaper. This sanding step opens up the pores of the wood and takes off any scratches that were made in stores or moving the item.


A wooden table, paint roller and stain, illustrating how to stain or paint furniture


  • Start with the right primer — Kate and Chris both highly recommend Zinsser’s Cover Stain primer, in regular and spray paint! Most pieces should be okay with just one coat of primer, but for laminate pieces or furniture that gets a lot of wear (like a coffee table), go for two coats!
  • Is it water-based (latex) or oil-based paint? – If you’re repainting an old piece of furniture, first test to determine whether the previous finish was an oil-based paint or stain or a water-based paint or stain. To test, dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and rub it on the piece of furniture or wall. If the paint is an oil-based paint, nothing will happen. If it’s a water-based (latex) paint, a little bit of the paint will come off on the swab!
  • Try a Paint Conditioner — When painting a piece of furniture with either a brush or a roller, it’s easy for brush strokes and ‘drag’ marks to occur in your paint finish. By adding a conditioner to your paint, the paint will dry slower, and the marks will fall out of the paint finish before drying. For latex paints, use Floetrol, and for oil-based paints, use Penetrol.


For more help on painting or staining visit our online Community Forums, where you can get answers and advice from our DIY experts. And be sure to check out Centsational Girl  and Just a Girl for Kate and Chris’ ideas on decorating, crafts and home improvement. Those are two DIY blogs you’ll love. We certainly do.


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  1. clifford tetzlaff says:

    I just built a cedar outdoor love seat glider.
    What is the best stain or varnish that will last very good outdoors?

  2. Maritza says:

    Question? I have wood dining table..whitewash ,I would like to change it to a walnut color,can I paint it or do I have to stain,sand etc. I really want the easy way out,however I want it to dining table to look beautiful. Please help. Thx

    • Shelley Decker says:

      Hi Maritza,

      I have asked a How-to Forums expert, SteelToes to help me out with this one..

      If you wish to stain your dining table, than you need to sand it down to bare wood and re-stain it using the walnut stain and clean poly or a product called Polyshades, which is stain and poly in one.

      If you wish to paint it with solid latex paint,than you will need to prime the surface first using quality oil base or latex base primer. Once primed, you can use the paint (not stain) of your choice.

      Hope this helps…let us know how it turns out!


  3. Donna Kinsel says:

    I want to stain a teak vanity bench. What is the best stain to use and is there any pre-stain prep needed?

    • Craig Allen says:

      Hi, Donna.

      I posted your question on our online How-To Community Forums for some expert advice.

      PatinPaint has been working the paint aisles in Home Depot stores for years. Here’s what he said:

      Hello Caroline!

      Teak is one of those wonderful woods that show beautiful, dark grain and can be exposed to the elements without doing much harm.

      The protection from the elements comes from teak oil.

      Refinishing your teak furniture is no more complicated than using a rag to wipe-on two new coats of Watco Teak Oil … the first wiped-off after the oil penetrates for 30-minutes and the second after the oil penetrates for 15-minutes.

      Excess oil above the surface will become gummy and very sticky as it dries, so the real trick is to watch the surface absorb the oil and then remove the excess.

      If you choose to apply a clear coat, you’ll need to wait about 72-hours for the oil to fully dry before applying clear coat.

      NOTE: I’ve always preferred the natural, uncoated look of teak. If you use a clear coat, you’ll have to remove it by sanding before you can apply the teak finish.

      PREP: Eventually, almost everything that resides outside will begin to show dark spots from mildew or fungus. Before treating your teak furniture with oil, you’ll want to use a treatment like Behr All-In-One to clean the wood.

      All-In-One contains oxalic acid (10 percent solution) which will not damage the wood fiber. Dilute the product one-to-one with water, mist or mop onto the surface, and water-rinsed without using high-pressure after only 10-minutes. After the surface dries for six to eight hours, you’re ready to apply teak oil.

      Bleach IS NOT a good idea on teak. This oxidizing agent will kill the mold and mildew, but will also make the wood fiber brittle.

      A Community member who posts there under the handle ordjen added to PatinPaint’s answer. He describes how much he and his wife love teak, and how once a year they give all their teak pieces what he calls “a drink of teak oil.”

      I urge you to go to the Forums where I posted your question to read ordjen’s response.

      If you have more questions about this, or any other home improvement project you have in mind, the Community Forums are the place to find expert answers… and to share your ideas and advice.

      And let us know how your teak staining project goes.

      -Craig, from The Home Depot

  4. [...] 7 Things to Consider Before You Stain or Paint Furniture (ext.homedepot.com) [...]

  5. [...] 7 Things to Consider Before You Stain or Paint Furniture [...]

  6. sabina ray says:

    i just purchesed a vintage dresser,would like to give it a beachy look(my home is like a cottage/beachy decor),what kind of paint should i use? oil based?? do not want to protect it from stains,glass ring tipe of stains and so on.I used a latex based paint for a coffee table and when moist hits the surface such as water,it kinda ruffs up in a wrinkle tipe of way..i did primer the table prior to paiting it.

    Please help,kinda new at this sorth of thing,and how do i get that glossy proffesional finish?/like those cool shabbyshick potterybarn tipe of furniture? got few nice pices from potterybarn, would like to create same finishes.

    Thank you for all your help,sinceraly, Sabina R.

    • Craig Allen says:

      Hi, Sabina.

      I took your question over to our online How-to Community Forums for an answer from our experts.

      Home Depot associate PatInPaint gave us a pretty detailed response:

      Sabina is definitely on the right path if she starts with oil-based primer like Zinsser Cover Stain and follows it with Behr oil-based semi-gloss. Both will help protect the surface against water in her outside spaces.

      Creating her shabby chic look will require using faux glaze in the color of her choice.

      Here is an example that one of my customers produced using Behr Semi-gloss Cotton Whisper as her base coat and Martha Living Metallic Glaze Muscavado.

      shabby chic before

      shabby chic after

      The steps she used are as follows:

      1) Lightly buff sand the surface with 220-grit sandpaper;
      2) Wipe off the sanding dust using a dry terry towel;
      3) Apply one coat of Zinsser Cover Stain;
      4) Wait at least two-hours until primer dries;
      5) Apply two coats of Behr Semi-gloss Cotton Whisper;
      6) Wait at least six-hours between coats;
      7) Apply very small dabs of Muscavado using a brush to streak them across the surface in the direction of the wood grain;
      8) Streaks will appear very light … for heavier streaks apply slightly more Muscavado glaze;
      9) Allow to set just two-minutes and then wipe off in the direction of the wood grain using lint-free cotton rags (tee shirt material);
      10) This will create a very faint streak of the darker glaze across the surface; and
      11) Allow the glaze to dry and use satin finish water-based polyurethane as your final protective coating.

      PRODUCTION NOTES: Glaze may be applied heavier and wiped off later if you desire a heavier faux wood grain. It is common for shabby chic finishes created with glaze to appear very light … almost a faint accent that makes the piece look aged. Other techniques that “age” shabby chic furniture include: claw hammer dings, sandpaper buffed corners, wax applied to corners before painting (prevent paint from clinging and allows paint to be peeled off easily), and many more.

      PatInPaint also included a short video explaining this process in his Community Forums response. I hope you’ll click over there to see it.

      Good luck with the project, Sabina. Let us know how it goes. Take photos to show us!

      -Craig, from The Home Depot

  7. Katie says:

    What a fantastic blog post! My husband attended both paint & stain classes and learned so much–and he has been staining for quite some time!

  8. HouseTalkN says:

    These are great tips! I have a history of just opening a can of paint and jumping right in! Thank you for reminding me of the prep work- it really does pay off!
    I wish we had more time together at Haven!
    Kerry at HouseTalkN

  9. Why not a post on 7 Things to Consider Before You Stain or Paint Floor?