Step-by-Step Guide to Prepare Wood for Finishing/Staining

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/03/23 • 

Without proper preparation, a quality wood finish is impossible to obtain. Although preparing seems like a tedious task, skipping the process leads to a poor finish as a result. What people can see and feel is what matters in the end. In this guide, I’ll take you through the process of preparing the surface of the wood to receive a wood finish or stain.

How to Prepare Wood for Finishing

Step 1 – Selecting the Wood

Different types of woods vary in grain pattern. However, applying different wood finishes over these woods can make them look very similar in appearance. Some good examples are that you can make oak look like mahogany, maple like ash, or even pinelike walnut. When selecting wood, make sure you have a rough mental image of how you want it to look when it is finished. Also, be sure to check the wood you are choosing can be finished the way you want.

Different Types of Woods When Stained & Unstained
Different Types of Woods When Stained & Unstained

The color of wood and figure also varies greatly even within the same species of wood. Some species will have a pronounced difference between the sapwood and heartwood. Unless you are going to paint over the wood, you have to put your attention into your wood selection and the arrangement to make sure they match.

Step 2 – Choose a Suitable Location

The location you choose to work on your finishing wood is very important to the overall outcome of the project. First, choose a location that is not busy. Fingers of your little kids or paws of curious p[ets can accidentally leave print marks on the finish.

Finishing products depend on evaporation when drying to fully cure. Low temperatures and high humidity slow down evaporation, which in turn increases the duration your project takes to dry. Before applying a wood finish, make sure the temperature in the room is about 65° F and humidity at around 50%.

Proper ventilation is also important when applying a wood finish. Wood finishes emit fumes that need to be dispersed to prevent any health accidents. If you’re working inside your home or garage, use the two-fan system to help circulate fresh air into the room and blow out fumes outside.

Lastly, avoid dusty areas. Select a spot away from dust so your wood project can sit or be left to cure undisturbed through each stage.

Step 3 – Correcting Surface Imperfections

Even if you’re the best woodworker, you will most likely accidentantly gouge or dent your wood or project somewhere in the assembly or preparation process. Your wood or project may also have small holes like nail holes, which will need to be covered up.

For dents where wood fibers have not been broken, use steam to swell the fibers to fill the dent. Adding a few drops of water can also help swell the wood back to normal. For larger dents or gouge, a wood patch is the best and easier to use. A wood patch is also great for wood splits and gaps left behind by poor fittings in the joints.

If patching wood is hard for you, you can use wood filler for filling small defects in the wood. A wood filler is sandable, it can take a stain, and hardens as it cures. Wood putty is also good for use, but it is best used after staining the wood because itr does not take a stain very well. This is why most wood putties come in different colors to match the stain color on your wood. Read our informative guide on the differences between wood putty vs. wood filler.

Step 4 – Sanding and Smoothing

Sanding wood is one of the most detested tasks about wood finishing, but the better you sand the better your end product will be. The reason you need to sand wood is to remove all minor flaws and waterboard-like marks in the wood left behind by shapers, jointers, planers, or, also routers. Unless you are going to paint over wood, you should properly sand it because a wood finish or stain will highlight them.

The process of sanding wood is as simple as grabbing some sandpaper and rubbing it against the wood. However, you should first learn to pick the right sandpaper for your project. Sandpapers are produced in different degrees of coarseness, which is measured in grits. The higher the number of sandpaper grit, the finer it becomes.

If your project needs some serious sandpaper work, it is best, to begin with, to use coarser grit sandpaper, usually at 80 or 100 grits. If your project just needs just some touching up, finer grit sandpaper (150 to 220) will work perfectly. Check out our sandpaper grit chart to help you choose the right sandpaper for a specific task.

To minimize scratches or cross-grain when sanding, sand the wood in the direction of the grain. Scratches and cross-grain will show through the finish when it is too late to sand properly.

You should also not press the sandpaper into the wood. Instead of applying heavy pressure, just hold it lightly to the wood, and moving it back and forth is enough pressure for it to work. Pressing too much will create deeper marks that will be harder to remove.

Once you’re done sanding the wood, you’ll always have dust on it. This dust should be cleaned before you apply a wood finish. To remove the dust, brush it off, wipe it off with a tack cloth, vacuum it off, or blow it off with compressed air. Read our guide on how to clean wood after sanding or, how to reduce dust when sanding wood.

Step 5 – Applying the Wood Finish/Stain

There are three main tools you can use to apply a finish to wood, which include using rags, brushes, and spray guns.

You can make rags to use for finishing using cotton because it is absorbent. Keep off polyester and other synthetic rags because they do not absorb well. Cloth rags can also make for a great rubbing pad. Fold the cloth and wrap it in another cloth to create an unwrinkled surface for better application of a wood finish.

Brushes are a very popular tool for applying a wood finish, and it’s very rare for a finisher not to own at least a few brushes to use in his/her projects. Choosing a good quality brush is very important if you want good quality results. A good brush should hold more finishing material and also spread it smoothly. There are three types of brushes, natural bristle, foam, and synthetic bristle.

Spray guns, through the process of atomization, turn a stain, paint, wood finish, or other liquid materials into a fine mist. The mist is then propelled onto the surface of the wood. Compared to brushes or rags, spray guns transfer liquid fast and leave a level surface. However, they are costlier and can waste more because of overspray or bounce back. To substitute spray guns, you can opt for aerosols for smaller projects or touchups.

Check out the different types of wood stains you can choose.

Wrapping Up

Proper preparation is key to good finishing. Everything from selecting your working area down to applying the wood finish/stain is very important. Have I missed a step in preparing wood for a stain or wood finish? Let me know by contacting me so I can correct it and make this guide better for other users.


Hello there! This is the Make Wood Better Team. Here, we share informative how-tos and guides focused on making wood better. Whether it's finishing wood, maintenance, or restoration, there's something on this website for you to learn and improve your skills.