Blog Post

staining question

This customer ordered some walnut floating shelves, unfinished, so he can stain them himself to match some existing woodwork on site:


If you have any suggestions or tips for types or brand of stain, prep or how you would go about staining the floating shelves in a dark expresso based on your experience, I would value your input.




Hi Kenn,

Your best bet is to have your shelves finished professionally. We offer a teriffic stain matching service, you’ll need to send us a sample to start off with. If that dosent match your situatation, in about any city there’s at least a couple furniture refinishers in the yellow pages. They have access to better quality material than you are going to find at blue or orange, and the right equipment and experience to get the results you want. Here at the shop we spray catalyzed lacquer. That is the best finish on the market, but you need a spray booth and another 10 grand worth of equipment for a proper setup.

Back to your question… Advice on doing the finish work yourself. Waterborne finishes have come a long way in the last ten years. If I was working in my driveway, I would use waterborne. From an artistic perspective, I am not a fan of staining wood. That said, stick with one brand of stain and topcoat. For your topcoat, buy the lowest sheen you can find, it is much easier to get better results. It sometimes helps to mix some of the stain into the topcoat to help achieve the color you are going for. You have to be careful though that you don’t put too much stain or you will cover the grain of the wood of your floating shelves and you might as well just use paint. In some cases, the wood takes too much of the stain, so you apply a sealer coat first, then in subsequent coats apply topcoat mixed with stain to achieve the color. None of this is easy to do. It is an art more than anything. Most paint dealers will say that’s all crazy talk and don’t even think about it. It’s not the intended use of the products, but it does work. If you use that technique, you should also plan to topcoat with at least one finish coat that is only clear. Of course you also want to make sure the stain and your topcoat is mixable, some are, some aren’t. If you ask the person behind the counter at a box store, their answer will probably be meaningless. The best way to know is to test it. If it dries hard in an hour or so, it’s probably fine. The absolute worst case scenario is the finish will start to peel in a week or so. Yes, I have seen that happen a few times over the course of 20 years, but it’s rare. If that happens, you curse and strip it all down and start over, the second time around use different paint. The most important thing is sanding between coats! Before you do anything, grain sand the whole thing with 180 paper. We sand the floating shelves here with 180 on the DA, but we dont normally grain sand. The DA can leave little swirls that will show up when you apply the stain, so if you want a really nice finish, you need to sand all of those out if there are any. You have to look closely, they are tiny tiny.  These aren’t a problem when doing a clear finish, only with stain. When you put on the first layer of topcoat on your floating shelves, the grain will raise and it will seem horrible. Dont sweat it. When it dries, sand in the direction of the grain with 220 paper, you’ll probably take most of your first coat off. Dust it off, recoat it, then sand again. Most waterborne finishes I’ve used can be sanded after an hour or 2. Don’t put too much on, but you need enough material so it will be able to flow out evenly. A foam brush works well for applying the finish. Buy a box of ten or 20 brushes and throw them away after each use. They pick up dust and crumbs and start causing more trouble if you try to clean them, as good as it is to not throw stuff away, you’ll do better to throw the brushes away than to throw your time away dealing with crumbs in the topcoat.

When you have 3 or 4 coats, maybe 5, it will probably look pretty good. If it has imperfections from dust and bugs landing in the wet finish before it dries, you can sand all that junk out with 320 or 400 paper and then apply some paste wax.

All of that said, I think your best bet is to go with a pro.

Good luck! As my uncle likes to say about this kind of thing “Free advice is worth what you pay for it.”


Billy D

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