Staining and Finishing

Now that we’ve finished the headboard, footboard, and the side rails, we’re almost at the finish line. It’s going to be VERY tempting to take short cuts at this stage, but I want to urge you not to. A poor staining and finishing job can really lower the look of the piece. After all the hours you’ve spent building this bed, make sure you put in the time to make it look right.

The first step to any staining and finishing project is to sand the wood. You want to start sanding at 120 grit, then move to 220. You don’t really need to go any higher. I really like using a power orbital sander; you can get these really cheap from Harbor Freight. They’re quick, and consistent. Sand until all pencil lines, splinters, etc. are removed.

Next, tape off any of the tenons where we will be applying glue. Glue won’t stick well to stain and poly, so we want to leave these raw. We’ll come back and clean up the stain in spots as necessary.

For the stain, I used Bartley Gel Stain in Brown Mahogany. This was my first time using a gel stain, but I really liked it. Alder can be a very blotchy wood when stained, as the natural sugars dissolve in the solvents of the stain. The same is true with pine, to an even greater degree. I could have used wood conditioners and then stained, but gel stain was a much more efficient option. The stain stays on top of the wood, rather than penetrating, so it doesn’t blotch in any significant way.

Since my hands were covered in stain, I didn’t really have a way to get pictures.  A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE BEFORE STAINING:

The solvents in the stain and polyurethane are very, very flammable.  When you’re finished staining and finishing, each and every time you finish up you need to make sure you dispose of the rags in the proper way.  If you ball them up and leave them to dry, you are asking for your house to burn down.  DO NOT DO THIS.

It’s not hard to take precautions against this, and I don’t mean to scare people.  If you don’t feel confident using oil based stains, use water based stain.

Wear disposable rubber gloves, and follow the directions on the can. Essentially, wipe a nice even layer on the wood, then using a dry, lint-free rag, buff the stain lightly. Do this on one side, let it dry, then do the other. Unlike our inspiration plans, we’re going to stain all the surfaces, visible or hidden. The stain and poly are going to help protect the wood, and it’s going to look more like a craftsman piece of furniture if you don’t leave unstained areas on the alder. The only place we’re not going to stain are the slats and slat supports.

For the finish, I chose to go with Minwax Wipe on Polyurethane in Clear Satin. You could use gloss, too, if you’d like a shinier finish. Wipe on poly is essentially diluted polyurethane that you apply with a lint free rag. The benefit is that it is much less susceptible to showing lines or imperfections since you apply very thin layers instead of brushing a coat on. The downside is, it will take 2-3 times as many coats as standard polyurethane.

What I did was stain and then apply three coats of wipe on poly before gluing the pieces together. After everything was dry, I glued up the pieces, making sure to apply glue to all the tenons and a spot of glue in all the grooves to keep the plywood from moving substantially. I wanted to apply a little bit of pressure to the wood to keep the joints snug during glue up; the most efficient way to do this was to use ratchet straps that I keep in my truck for securing loads down. They worked great!

After glue up, you’ll have a few spots to touch up the stain on. Just tape them off, stain, then poly a few times.

Now, after the final cap piece is attached (next post!) we want to add our last few layers of wipe on poly. It’s important at this point to take some 400 grit sand paper, and using a hand sanding block lightly sand the surface. This will remove all the dust nibs and slight imperfections without removing the finish. DO NOT use a power sander.

Now, add one more coat of poly, let it dry, then sand with 600 or 800 grit sandpaper. At this point, you should barely see any sanding lines, and that’s the idea. Do one final layer of poly. I stopped at five total coats.

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