Stain then poly, or stain with poly, or something else entirely? (2023)

I am about to embark on a large project to restore old trim around windows and doors, while also staining/finishing and installing new baseboard trim. I was hoping to find a stain/finishing product that will work for both applications, however, I now think I need to approach each differently. I need some advice before moving forward.

I have found a tinted oil-based urethane (Minwax Polyshades), a tinted water-based urethane (Varathane Stain+Poly) and a good clear water-based urethane (Varathane). In testing on the old trim that I want to restore, a light sanding, then an application or two of the clear Varathane seems to make the most improvement with the least amount of hassle. However, since the new baseboard trim is unfinished and it needs to closely match the existing trim, it needs color. So, I tried both the Minwax and Varathane poly-stain products, after sealing the sanded trim with a pre-stain conditioner.

I wasn't overly impressed with the results. These products dry a bit rough and need sanding between coats, which makes it harder to get a rich color with a smooth surface. If I need to sand and baby it, then I might as well just stain then finish the wood in two steps. So, what would be the best way for me to approach this? What is a good, easy to use stain (preferably rag-on application) and what would be a good durable finish (clear urethane, lacquer, varnish)? Any tips at all on getting good results would be welcome, as I don't have a lot of experience in finishing wood.

Thanks for your expertise!

posted by Don_K to (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

You'll get a better, more controllable result with separate stain and seal steps.

When staining, you can focus on getting the colour you want without worrying too much about final texture.

(Video) Mixing Stain & Polyurethane? What Happened?

Once the colour is right, you can focus on getting a good seal coat without worrying about applying too much or too little colour.

Myself, I would probably use a Minwax stain, they're pretty good. I'd probably seal with a water-based poly, or blonde shellac (which will require a higher skill level though). You'll definitely need two coats of sealer with a steel-wool rub (and tack rag cleanup) in between, no matter what you choose.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:44 AM on April 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

Doing the stain separately from the topcoat is definitely the way to go. Polyshades and similar products are cruel lies told to take advantage of the inexperienced. I'd use whatever stain your local store carries, but if it's oil-based then you'll need to let it cure thoroughly before using a waterborne topcoat.

The specific stain color you choose will depend on the subsequent topcoat, because most aren't really clear. Traditional varnishes can be quite yellow. Waterborne topcoats have little native color but might be tinted yellow to mimic oil-based finishes. Shellac is easy to work with, but doesn't tolerate sustained moisture very well and also varies in color. Lacquers tend to be more challenging to work with, and are high-VOC (unless you track down a waterborne lacquer... so many choices these days!); they're uncommon these days outside of commercial production environments.

The final result is going to depend on the wood, the stain and the topcoat as a system. Practice on some scrap trim lumber.
posted by jon1270 at 10:10 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Anytime a company trys to sell you on 2-in-1, it's pretty well guaranteed to be less good than the original multi-step process.

The nature of a sealer/varnish is to sit on the surface of the wood and, well, seal it. The nature of a stain is to soak in, and stain it. These two functions are somewhat at odds, so a 2-in-1 solution is always going to be an unsatisfactory compromise between the 2 functions.

I've had great results with the process the seanmpuckett laid out above. Minwax stain with a rag, then some clear sealant (Varathane is fine). I would again emphasize proper surface prep both pre-stain, and between sealant coats. Make sure to get all sanding dust and wood fibers off the surface before putting down a new coat.

(Video) Polyurethane vs Polyacrylic: Which Woodworking Stain and Wood Finish is Best?

Proper preparation prevents poor performance.
posted by dudemanlives at 10:14 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sand the new base boards before staining or clear coating. This helps reduce raising the grain.

If you are using a waterborne product sand to at least 220 or 320. With the grain, not in random circular motions.

You might want to check non grain raising stains, they are more of a dye stain less pigment based.

Just google NGR stains.

No matter what you use after you get a clear coat on you'll need to scuff it out to get a smooth finish.

I do this for a living and people write books about this stuff. It's easy but not, if you get what I mean.
posted by Max Power at 10:19 AM on April 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Excellent advice! One thing I forgot to ask, is it necessary to use a pre-stain conditioner if using a stain instead of a poly-stain?
posted by Don_K at 10:22 AM on April 12, 2019

What kind of wood are you using?
posted by jon1270 at 10:25 AM on April 12, 2019

(Video) Minwax Polyshades Review

Some wood species are hard to stain. Cherry. pine, and birch are the most common that I know about.
For these an additional step between sanding and staining is recommended - applying a layer of a sealer. A lot of different things can be used as a sealer, but if you are dealing with one of these woods, you might want to buy a "sanding sealer" and follow the directions.
posted by Glomar response at 10:25 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Pre stain conditioners are used for woods like cherry, and maple, which can have severe variations in color due to the way they grow. Conditioners help mute that effect. We don't use them where I work.

As Glomar said you will need a "seal coat" and scuff sanding before you try a final coat. Sanding sealers have zinc stearates , sometimes labeled mineral soaps, in them which makes it easier to sand but also makes the seal coat softer than the top coat. This can lead to white scratches under the top coat when bumped or hit.

You can use what ever finish you want as a sealer, just let it cure off before sanding.

edit: when I say variations in color I'm talking about how the wood will accept the stain, not the color of the wood itself.
posted by Max Power at 10:31 AM on April 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It is pine.
posted by Don_K at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2019

If it's pine sand it thoroughly with 220. If using a pigment based stain, like most Minwax products, the pigment can settle into the sanding marks showing your half assed sanding job ( not that you would do that, just a warning.)
posted by Max Power at 10:41 AM on April 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I'm off to the hardware store!
posted by Don_K at 12:37 PM on April 12, 2019

I hate the look of stain on pine because it reverses the colouration, in that it turns the soft lighter wood dark and the harder rings stay light. IMO you want to seal the pine with a shellac and then sort of glaze it with a poly stain.

posted by bonobothegreat at 5:45 PM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

(Video) Don't buy wiping polyurethane! (How to make AND use it properly.)

Use a conditioner on pine. If you've already returned from the hardware store, you're just going to have to go back. Trust me on this. And don't use steel wool to sand if you're using a water-based product. Tiny bits will come off on the wood and discolour your trim with rust.
posted by kate4914 at 8:26 PM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I once used an oil-based stain on thoroughly sanded (to 220 grit) pine floorboards and it was a DISASTER. Beware!
posted by MysteriousSympathy at 12:09 AM on April 13, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks for the hints about conditioner and steel wool, kate. I think it might help mitigate what bonobo brought up. I have the materials I need. Thanks again, everyone.
posted by Don_K at 3:43 PM on April 13, 2019

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Can you stain then polyurethane? ›

Let the stain or paint dry on your wood project for at least 24 hours before applying polyurethane.

Can you apply Poly After stain? ›

How long should you wait between applying a stain and a polyurethane coating? Considering that most commonly used stains take between 12 to 24 hours to dry and cure completely, it's good practice to wait a full 24 hours before applying polyurethane sealer to your workpiece after your stain has been applied.

Should I stain or just poly? ›

While staining creates a rich, deep color that highlights natural wood grain, it does not provide long-term protection. Without a protective top coat, wood can be damaged easily due to contact with water, food, or sharp objects. A polyurethane top coat protects the wood from scratches, stains and water damage.

Does stain and poly in one work? ›

As the name suggests, stain and polyurethane in one works in one step. Stain and poly in one adds color and protection in one coat. Because the pigment is suspended in the polyurethane, the color doesn't really soak into the wood. Instead, it sits on the surface of the wood.

Should you sand between stain and polyurethane? ›

In fact no sanding of any kind is required between coats of varnish to ensure bonding of the next layer. Ideally the one, and only, reason you should sand between coats of varnish is to 'de-nib' — to sand off minor surface blemishes, e.g. from dust particles landing in the finish before it has dried.

Does polyurethane make stain darker or lighter? ›

An oil based polyurethane will continue to amber and darken over time, while water-based poly will remain clear for the lifetime of the hardwood floor. This color difference is less noticeable over a stained hardwood floor, but an oil based poly will still exhibit an amber hue that will continue to darken over time.

Can you apply stain and poly with a rag? ›

Polyurethane is so durable and water-resistant, it has largely replaced shellac and varnish as a wood finish. Originally, it had to be brushed on, but different formulations mean it can now be applied as a spray or by wiping it on with a rag.

Does Poly stain need to be sealed? ›

Some polyurethanes do not require sealers. If you must seal stain or filler before polyurethane is applied, make sure the sealer is compatible with the varnish. Otherwise, use a penetrating resin sealer. This finishes the wood completely, but you can apply polyurethane over it if you want a smoother finish.

Can you just put polyurethane on wood? ›

Polyurethane wood finish offers durability and water resistance. This makes it a popular alternative to more traditional coatings such as shellac or lacquer. Learning how to apply polyurethane to stained wood can enhance the appearance of the stain while protecting the surface from scratches and more.

Can you put polyurethane on unstained wood? ›

Polyurethane brings out the beauty of raw wood and protects it from the elements. There's nothing quite like wood to give your home an indescribable ambiance.

Does polyurethane bring out the grain? ›

Polyurethane is a clear thin liquid coating that can either be brushed or sprayed on. The purpose of the coating is mainly protective. But polyurethane does bring out the grain in wood finishes and impart a golden tone. Polyurethane finishes are often compared to varnishes, shellacs, and lacquers.

What happens if you stain over Poly? ›

So, can you stain over polyurethane? The short answer is, yes you can! However, you will need to bear in mind that polyurethane seals the wood so traditional stains will not be able to penetrate its pores. This is why you will want to use a gel stain over polyurethane.

Can you spray stain and poly in one? ›

About Stain & Poly Spray

Cut your project time in half and cover large surfaces even faster with Rust-Oleum® Varathane® Stain & Poly Spray. This innovative formula provides deep, rich color and Varathane's renowned polyurethane finish—both in one easy step. Just spray on and you're done.

Why is my wood not smooth after staining? ›

Whenever water or any stain or finish that contains water comes in contact with wood, it causes the wood fibers to swell, which is called “grain raising” or “raised grain.” After the water has dried the wood feels rough to the touch, and thinly applied finishes also feel rough.

What happens if I don't sand between coats of polyurethane? ›

Sanding multiple times and applying more coats may take a lot of time and money. But, if you skip this process, the polyurethane coat will not cling to the previous coat, and the last coat will eventually peel off, causing you to buy more and start the project again.

How many coats of polyurethane should you put over stain? ›

You need at least five to six coats of polyurethane to reach a smooth coating. Only apply three to four coats of water-based poly for a less durable surface. It will help you achieve a good finish, but will not be as smooth and clear as an oil-based finish.

Does all polyurethane turn yellow? ›

The Short Answer: All polyurethane will yellow over time. While modern technology has extended the amount of time it takes to yellow and reduced the extent it can yellow by, ALL polyurethane (including polyacrylics) will yellow.

Which is better water based or oil based polyurethane? ›

Oil based used to be unquestionably more durable. Today though, water based polyurethane has evolved with better formulations that are equally durable as oil based polyurethane. High quality water based polyurethanes is considered by many homeowners & flooring professionals to be equally durable.

How do you make wood shine like glass? ›

Mix half as much mineral spirits as gloss in a painter's tray. Apply it to the sanded, clean surface of the wood in an even coat with a paintbrush. Apply two coats of polyurethane with a brush. After the seal coat is dry, use a clean brush to evenly apply a coat of undiluted gloss to the surface of the wood.

Should stain be completely dry before Poly? ›

For best results, wait at least 24 hours before sealing the wood. If you are concerned the stain isn't quite dry enough, wait another day before applying poly.

Is it better to brush or roll polyurethane? ›

Don't use rollers or foam brushes—they create bubbles. Your brush will be easier to clean, and will go longer between cleanings, if its bristles are dipped first in mineral spirits, if you're using an oil-based poly, or in water, if the finish is water-based.

Why is my stain coming off when applying polyurethane? ›

The problem is that the stain is not fully dry. The solvent in the stain and the poly are similar and will dissolve each other b4 fully dry.

What do you put on wood after staining? ›

Apply Sealant as Needed
  1. Applying a topcoat sealer is not required, but a finish protects the stained wood from scratches and keeps it from fading over time.
  2. If applying a polyurethane finish with a brush, apply one to two coats.

What happens if you apply second coat of stain too soon? ›

If you apply a second, unnecessary coat of stain to wood that is already adequately covered, you risk creating a tacky surface that is prone to early peeling because the second coat is not penetrating the wood surface, but simply laying on top of the first coat of stain.

What is the best way to apply Minwax polyurethane? ›

  1. Apply a THIN coat of Minwax® Fast-Drying Polyurethane using a high-quality, natural bristle or foam brush.
  2. Let dry 4-6 hours. ...
  3. Apply a second coat. ...
  4. After final coat, allow 24 hours before light use.

Do you need to condition wood before polyurethane? ›

If you are using an oil-based polyurethane, you should have no problems applying polyurethane on top of wood conditioner, given the wood conditioner has fully dried. If you're applying a water-based topcoat, apply Zinsser's Shellac Sealcoat to seal the wood first.

Can I use water-based poly over oil stain? ›

Yes! But you must follow ONE simple rule to ensure the best possible finish: the underlying finish must be absolutely dry. When using a water-based product over an oil-based product, such as water-based High Performance Topcoat over oil-based Gel Stain, wait 72 hours before applying the water-based product.

What is the best tool to apply polyurethane? ›

Apply oil-based poly using a fine-bristled brush (natural or synthetic bristles) or a foam brush. Avoid inexpensive bristle brushes, as these tend to leave obvious brush strokes. Foam brushes are inexpensive (and disposable) and work well for most flat surfaces.

What is the best natural finish for wood? ›

Shellac is the best natural wood finish when a hard, durable coating is needed to protect the wood. 100% oils, on the other hand, are perfect for cutting boards and other projects that benefit from a finish that soaks into the wood. There's more to it than that, though, so lets dive in!

Does polyurethane make wood waterproof? ›

Whether you're making furniture, sculpting wood, retouching a boat, or constructing cabinetry, you're going to want a layer of polyurethane sealant. An oil- or water-based plastic resin used for coating wood or as a wood finish, polyurethane keeps your work waterproof, weather-resistant, and polished-looking.

How long do you have to wait between coats of polyurethane? ›

Water-based polyurethane requires at least two hours of dry time between coats, and you should only apply two coats in a day. It's important to remember that drying time is affected by temperature and humidity.

What are the disadvantages of polyurethane? ›

  • Poor thermal capability.
  • Poor weatherability.
  • Attacked by most solvents.
  • Utilize toxic isocyanates.
  • Flammable.

What is the downside of oil based polyurethane? ›

Cons of Oil-Based Polyurethane

Longer dry times. Dents easier due to it softer finish. The odor is unbearable (respirator use is recommended). The floor darkens over time.

What are the problems with polyurethane? ›

Unlike lacquer, polyurethane doesn't redissolve after it hardens, so problems should be resolved on a coat-by-coat basis. Besides bubbles, possible problems include checks, cracks, runs or separation and blushing. Many can be corrected by sanding and recoating.

Why is stain coming off when applying polyurethane? ›

The problem is that the stain is not fully dry. The solvent in the stain and the poly are similar and will dissolve each other b4 fully dry.

Can you put water-based polyurethane over oil stain? ›

Yes! But you must follow ONE simple rule to ensure the best possible finish: the underlying finish must be absolutely dry. When using a water-based product over an oil-based product, such as water-based High Performance Topcoat over oil-based Gel Stain, wait 72 hours before applying the water-based product.

What to use to finish wood after staining? ›

How to Seal Wooden Furniture. Most stains should be sealed to prevent bleeding. After smoothing the stained wood, apply a sealer coat of thinned shellac, sanding sealer, or other appropriate sealer.

What is the next step after staining wood? ›

Apply Sealant as Needed. Applying a topcoat sealer is not required, but a finish protects the stained wood from scratches and keeps it from fading over time. If applying a polyurethane finish with a brush, apply one to two coats.

What is the best way to apply stain to wood? ›

The best way to apply stain is with a lint free rag and wiping it into the grain of the wood. Using a lint free rag is the best way to apply wood stain because it is great for controlling the amount of stain that is applied and for removing any excess stain.

What is the main disadvantage of using water based polyurethane? ›

Cons of Water-Based Polyurethane

Expensive cost. Requires more coats. Scratches easier due to it hardness.

Which is better water based polyurethane or oil based? ›

Oil based used to be unquestionably more durable. Today though, water based polyurethane has evolved with better formulations that are equally durable as oil based polyurethane. High quality water based polyurethanes is considered by many homeowners & flooring professionals to be equally durable.

How long should oil based stain dry before water based poly? ›

Varathane Oil-Based Wood Stain: stain will dry in 2-4 hours, allow you to recoat after 2 hours if needed. However, you need to allow 8 hours of drying time before using an oil-based polyurethane and 24 hours before using a water-based polyurethane.

How do I get a smooth finish with polyurethane? ›

You'll get the best results from your topcoat if you remove any old paint, varnish or other finishes before polyurethane application. For a smooth coating, you'll want the surface to be as smooth as possible, so prepare the wood by sanding it with a sanding block or orbital sander.


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