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Depending on your point of view 'n'shit, either a way to get good looking wood furniture at a good price, or a way to spend too much time getting dirty and stinky because you were too cheap to shell out to let a professional do the job...

I recently stained three pieces of unfinished furntiure - two bookshelves and a dresser. Being a computer geek, I of course looked for instructions on the net. They all said pretty much the same thing, and they all left out some really important points. So, here I will attempt to reproduce the average set of instructions, adding in a few things I discovered along the way that I think are important. (I suspect they left these things out because they figure only an idiot wouldn't think of them. But, while I fancy myself a damned good software engineer and a passable musician, I'm just not skilled nor trained at tasks like staining furniture, which is why I went looking for instructions in the first place.)

You will need the following things:

  1. A can of stain. I recommend using water-based stain; I used oil-based stain and it was a pain in the ass.
  2. A can of top-coat.
  3. Fine-grained sandpaper.
  4. A brush that is about 2" wide (narrower will be slow and frustrating; broader might not fit in the can.)
  5. A brush that is about 1/2" wide (for detail work).
  6. A rag.
  7. A stick with which to stir the stain.
  8. A screwdriver.
  9. Turpentine or paint thinner (for oil-based stains), or something else to clean the stuff off the brush (for water-based stains).
  10. Newspaper or cardboard to put under the piece of furniture while you are staining it.
  11. Bricks or boards to keep the piece of furniture off the floor.
  12. Something to clean the stuff off of your skin (it will get there no matter how careful you are.) This will probably be a more powerful, more caustic variety of soap than you are used to.
  13. Clothes of which you are not particularly fond.
  14. A parent's permission. Or not, depending on age.
You should do this in a well-ventilated place. The stuff you're going to work with is stinky, and if you breath too much of it it can hurt you in a variety of unpleasant ways.


  1. Change into the clothes you don't like.
  2. Lay down the newspaper.
  3. Put the bricks or boards on the newspaper. Arrange them so you can put the furniture on top of them.
  4. Put the furniture on top of the bricks or boards. You should make sure that there is no piece of the furniture that is not over newspaper.
  5. Sand the furniture, moving the sandpaper with the grain of the wood. Don't use too much pressure.
  6. Using the rag, wipe all of the remains from the sanding off of the furniture.
  7. Read and heed all the warnings on the can of stain.
  8. Using the screwdriver, open the can of stain. You do this by sticking the screwdriver between the lid and the can and prying it open. (If your stain can isn't set up this way, you're on your own for this step.)
  9. Take the stick and stir the stain with it.
  10. Dip the brush into the stain. Wipe off the excess stain on the lid of the can. Apply the stain to a piece of the furniture that will be hidden, in order to see what it looks like. This will give you a sense of how heavy a coat you want to put on, or if this is just a horrible color for this piece of wood. (If it is, get another color.)
  11. Apply the stain to the furniture as evenly as possible. Do this by dipping the brush into the stain can, wiping the excess off, and then using the brush on the furniture. I found that relatively short strokes worked well, keeping me from getting thick stain on one end of the board and thin stain on the other. Again, go with the grain of the wood.
  12. Frequently wipe the excess stain off of the wood with the rag as you go along.
  13. If you encounter nooks and crannies you cannot reach, don't worry about them until you have most of the piece of furniture stained. Then go after them with the 1/2" brush. Keep using the rag to keep the stain even (you'll get a little bit on places around the nooks and crannies, so wipe that off quickly.)
  14. Leave the piece of furniture to dry; if it's damp, this will take as long as 24 hours. If it's hot and dry, this could take as little as four hours.
  15. close the stain can, and
  16. wash the damned brushes.
  17. Wash yourself.
  18. Read and heed all the warnings on the can of top-coat.
  19. Open the topcoat can, using the screwdriver.
  20. Using the brush, apply the topcoat to the furniture. Again, wipe excess off of the brush, and go with the grain of the wood.
  21. Let dry again. This will take about the same length of time as before, if the weather conditions are the same.
  22. Close the topcoat can.
  23. wash the damned brushes.
  24. Sand the finished product.
  25. Wash yourself.
  26. Dispose of the rag. If you used water-based stain, this is easy - throw it away. If you used oil-based stain, this is harder, since oil-soaked rags have this tendency to, um, burn. Spontaneously sometimes. I don't know how to do this yet, but your local sanitation department is supposed to know, and I'll probably ask them soon.
And that's it. With practice, you can get some really nice looking pieces of furniture. But I recommend starting with something you don't really care about.

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