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How to Finish a Wood Table

Wood-finishing expert Bruce Johnson shares his secrets for applying a professional-quality stain and varnish finish


  1. Lightly hand-sand the wood, always working in the direction of the grain.
  2. Start sanding with 120-grit sandpaper and continue with progressively finer sandpaper up to 180 grit.
  3. Brush a coat of wood conditioner onto the wood, which will allow the stain to soak in evenly without blotching.
  4. After applying the conditioner, wait at least 15 minutes, but no more than 2 hours, before staining.
  5. Liberally apply wood stain to the surface using a paintbrush or clean cotton cloth.
  6. Allow the stain to soak into the wood for at least 10 minutes.
  7. Wipe off all the excess stain with a dry cloth. Wait 8 hours or, if necessary, overnight for the stain to thoroughly dry.
  8. Gently stir—never shake—a can of polyurethane varnish.
  9. Use a paintbrush to apply an even coat of polyurethane onto the surface. Work the brush back and forth in the direction of the wood grain.
  10. After applying the polyurethane, use the tips of the brush’s bristles to very lightly smooth out the finish.
  11. Allow the polyurethane to dry overnight, then lightly sand with 220-grit sandpaper.
  12. Wipe off the sanding dust with a damp cloth, dry the surface, then brush on a second coat of polyurethane.