Painting vs staining

Painting vs Staining – The better option for your furniture?

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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These days, when I get a new piece of furniture I immediately start considering if the piece should be painted vs stained or even a combination of both.  The possibilities are endless when it comes to refinishing furniture.  So how do you choose whether to paint or stain?

Table of Contents

Furniture Refinishing Possibilities are Endless

Unfinished piece, finish was failing.
Unfinished Piece. Old finish was failing.

These days furniture refinishing is filled with more then just a quick paint job and flipping the furniture back into the market.  The skills a furniture refinisher should have in their arsenal has grown and working with wood is high on the list.  Making repairs, lightening the wood, and staining are all skills that are now necessary. 

Whether you are a refinishing pro or just starting your journey, it is important to understand both painting and staining techniques to choose the right option for your project. 

curved, art deco style cocktail bar
Painted and Stained Piece

Painting - A World of Colour

Painting is truly giving your furniture a whole new identity. It’s covering the wood and providing a new colour(s) to the surface. The wood that once made the piece is fully or particially masked under a thin film of paint. But is this option right for your project? 

Reach for that jar of paint is the right option for projects that require:

Hiding Imperfections:  When furniture has seen better days, you can make repairs with wood epoxy and cover the imperfections with a coat of paint. 

Expressing Creativity: With the endless range of colours available, you can express your creative side and turn outdated furniture into works of art. 

Transforming Outdated Pieces: When pieces are outdated, a coat of paint and provide a modern look. 

Just Because:  Sometimes paint is just the right choice because you or your client wants it. It’s your project, you make the decision. 

Close up of vintage end tables refinished with retro blue tape design and stain
Stain and paint combo. One of my first stained pieces.

Getting Started with Paint

When you first start working with paint on furniture, you may think it’s ok to put just any old paint on wood. That it’s as simple as grabbing a paint brush and slapping it on.  

It’s not! 

No matter what social media or that paint company may tell you, you must prepare your piece to be painted.  

Rinse a piece with water is an important part of cleaning furniture

The Holy Trinity of Painting

Prep work of your furniture consists of three key steps. The holy trinity of painting. Cleaning, Sanding and Priming.  

I don’t care if your paint claims that no sanding or priming is needed. For a professionally painted, long-lasting finish, you should never skip these steps when using paint.  

For a deep dive into each part of the trinity, please read these posts further. 

Cleaners for cleaning furniture before painting
A few cleaners you can opt to use

How to Clean Furniture before Painting

Step by step instructions on how to best clean your piece.  Including the different types of soaps available and which you should use and when.

 

Sanding Veneer

For a perfect sanding job, check out this how to guide.  While it is specific for veneer, it is also applicable for solid wood.  It will best recommend how to remove the old finish and sand the piece smoothly. 

 

Primer for Furniture

Explore if primer is needed and which primer to use?  Water, Oil or Shellac Based Primers each have a time and place. 

Picking your paint and Project Success

In addition to preparing your piece for painting, you should understand the differences between the vast number of different paints on the market, the meaning of VOC, how to paint your piece for a buttery smooth finish and the difference between drying and curing. 

Each element together will create a successful project. 

Drying Vs Curing time of Paint

Types of Furniture Paint 

Milk, Chalk, Mineral, Enamel?  What type of paint should you choose for your project?  And don’t forget the sheen.

 

How to avoid Brush Strokes

A buttery smooth finish creates a professional, sleek look.  You do not need a sprayer to achieve this suceess.

 

Drying vs Curing

Understand the difference between these two key terms. A piece should never be scratched tested until it’s cured 

 

Staining: Enhancing the Natural Beauty of the Wood

Staining takes more practice than painting does. It can be tricky to get a streak and splotchy free finish.  But when done right, stain can elevate your project beyond plain wood. Stain enhances the natural beauty of wooden surfaces.  

Wood stain is absorbed into the wood itself. It can change the colour, tones and highlight wood grain.  It’s the best option if you are looking to:

Highlight the grain.

Adjust the natural wood tones to warmer or cooler tones. 

Attempt to colour match two different types of wood.

Learn from my Mistakes

When I first tried staining, I did no research and I attacked it like it was paint. I brushed it on, let it dry and then brushed more on.   

I can hear talented wood workers rolling over in their graves!

As you can imagine, the outcome was a blotchy, cloudy mess.  I had no idea what I did wrong, so I dove into developing my knowledge around wood stains.  I am by no means an expert, but this is what I have learned.

Oil stain was used on the drawer fronts.
Oil Stained Drawer Fronts

Applying Stain

The main difference between paint and stain, paint sits on the wood surface as a sort of film while stain gets absorbed into the wood itself.  This is why woods which have different levels of porousness across the surface can develop a splotchy look.  It’s also why different types of wood will accept stain differently.

When you apply your stain, you can opt for a bristle brush, rag, sponge etc.  The goal is to apply it evenly across the area you are staining and to wipe the excess off with a clean rag.  Do not wait for the stain to start drying.  Most stains can be wiped on and wiped off within a few minutes. Read your stain to check the optimal time to wait between applying and removing the excess. 

Paint and stain are both used to complete this cute table
Painted and Stained Table

Sanding is Key

To achieve an even look to your stain, you should ensure that when sanding your project, you sand evenly across the whole surface.  Any areas which are sanded unevenly, or developed swirls from sanding, will stand out once stain has been added.  It will look horrendous. I should know, I’ve done it before.  There is no photographic evidence, as I was too ashamed.

sanding machine
Use an Electric Sander to make the process quicker

Tips for Sanding

Start by sanding your piece with a lower grit sandpaper and work your way up in grit.  Always check what grit is recommended for your staining product.   The higher the sanding grit, the more your wood pores will close.  Some stains require a maximum of 150 grit to be used while others may permit up to 220. Do not beyond the level of recommended grit to ensure that the pores of the wood remain open enough to accept the stain.

Sanding with the grain with a sanding pad

Always work with the grain.  Working with the grain will minimize any unsightly scratches that are magnified when you work against the grain. 

Clean dust after sanding with a tack cloth

Clean your surface thoroughly.   Remove all dust, debris, grease etc.   Your surface must be completely free of anything which could affect your stain. 

What about Stain Conditioners?

I frequently see stain conditioners being used on social media and recommended as the only way to get a good, even finish.  

I call BullShit! 

Why?  I can’t find the product or anything similar existing on the Dutch Market.   I’ve asked local wood workers and they looked at me like I grew a second head.  They had no clue what I was talking about.  If it was really such a necessary product to achieve a successful finish, I think it would be in the market.  I do not think Dutch wood workers are torturing themselves unnecessarily.

Practice Makes Perfect

Staining requires patience, specifically when sanding.  It requires practice at applying and wiping off in a timely manner and in smooth motions which doesn’t leave a streaky finish. 

Grab a few wooden boards and practice your craft.  See how different types of wood will absorb the stain differently.  

We only learn and improve our skills through practice.  I personally am still working on perfecting how to stain.  I find I am more successful working with oil-based stains than water-based stains. 

small upcycled cocktail cabinet with line design in art deco style
Stained and Painted Piece

Painting vs Staining: what is right for your project?

It really is up to you and the goal you wish to achieve with your project.  Looking for natural wood but unhappy with the colour or tone of your piece?   Then stain is the best option. Looking for a pop of colour or design work, then you probably want to reach for paint.

 

Or perhaps you want to opt for both options together to create an eye catching look. Either way, enjoy the creative process and share your finished pieces!

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