What’s The Best Way to Finish Wood?

UPDATED 19May2020 + video: Sooner or later, most homeowners get the urge to finish or refinish interior wood. It’s all part of home ownership. Trim, bare furniture, antiques, cabinets – they all need finishing to look their best. Trouble is, the results of DIY wood finishing often fall short of that enthusiastic original vision. Follow the four steps here and you’ll be proud of the smooth, beautiful interior wood in your life.

Finishing Wood Step#1: Start By Sanding

Every wood surface needs sanding to look it’s best. But exactly how you sand depends on the size and shape of the wood you’re working with. Everything can be sanded by hand if you’ve got the time. Start with an 80-grit abrasive if bare wood shows marks left behind by the milling process or a 100-grit abrasive if it seems smoother. Sand in the direction of wood grain only, working up to 120-grit sandpaper followed by 180-grit. You’ll save a lot of time on flat surfaces with an electric sander. A 5” random orbit sander is the power tool of choice for general smoothening of wood. This is the one to buy if you can only afford one tool.

A trio of sanders in my shop. The belt sander (right) is the most aggressive option. The half-sheet sander (middle) is best for intermediate sanding. The 1/4-sheet finishing sander (left) is for almost-final sanding, followed by hand sanding.

Finishing Wood Step#2: Stain for Colour

Most wood is lighter in colour than people want, and this is why staining is so popular.  It’s traditionally applied by wiping on stain first, then wiping off everything that doesn’t soak in. Sealing the surface usually comes later, but not always.

Here I am applying stain to a white pine board. No stain must be allowed to sit on top of the wood. It all needs to be wiped off after application.

One of my favourite ways to stain is also unique and relatively new. Minwax Finishing Cloths are fabric wipes pre-soaked with a type of stain that also include a basic wood sealer. Slip on a glove that comes as part of the package, pull a saturated wipe out of the resealable plastic pouch, then wipe the wood you’re staining. Since the product is thick and gel-like, it’s easy to control how much you put on and how evenly it colours the wood. I’ve used finishing cloths on new wood and they also work well fixing old finishes where stain is worn off in places. Finishing Cloths add a basic layer of protection, but for most things adding a sealing coat is the best thing.

Wood Finishing Step#3: Seal for Protection

Urethane offers the simplest option for adding protection to all interior wood, whether it’s been stained or not, and there are two options to choose from. Oil-based urethanes are easier to use successfully because they dry more slowly than waterbased, but the downside is that they don’t wash up with water. You can slow down the drying of waterbased urethane using an additive. If you have to use waterbased urethane, my favourite extender is called Dyna Flo Extender.

This stained wood is being sealed with oil-based urethane. Sanding with 220-grit sandpaper after each coat has dried gives a big boost to final smoothness.

Wood Finishing Step#4: Sand Between Coats

Regardless of how smoothly you sanded your wood before staining and sealing, it’ll feel rough after the first coat of sealer dries. That’s normal and easily fixed. You’ll find 220 or 240-grit open coat sandpaper works well for removing this new roughness. Just be careful. Even an abrasive as fine as 240-grit sandpaper can easily wear through the delicate first coat of finish. Failing to sand between coats is the biggest single reason why wood finishes turn out badly.

This is a kitchen I built from scratch in the kitchen space during home construction. The finish is a brush-applied satin urethane applied over a medium-brown stain on pine.

Wipe or vacuum the surface, then apply one more coat of sealer for a light duty finish. Two or three more coats are best for interior wood subject to water, dirt or wear. Sand lightly with 220-grit paper after each intermediate coat has dried. Complete the job with one final coat that’s unsanded and and you’ll get a finish you can be proud of. Watch my video of the entire interior finishing process in the video above.