Does that mean that paint is always bad and stain is always good? Not at all. Just as a general rule, it takes more time and patience to build a project that will be stained than one that will be painted.
Of course, your choice in wood will likely be determined by the type of finish you want to apply. For instance, I doubt many in their right minds would go to the trouble to build a project out of oak or maple, woods that look great stained and are too costly to use on a painted project. Conversely, I don't think we'd see a whole lot of stained poplar woodworking projects, as poplar doesn't have the type of grain or color that is conducive to wood stain.
So, with that in mind, what are the keys to a applying a really great wood stain finish?
No, if this were the case, I'm sure you'd probably paint the project.
So, assuming that we know you will take the time and build a great project, what's next?
How do you know when it is good enough? Do you simply feel over the sanded area with your hand? Or is there a better way?
This tip is probably easier to accomplish for ladies (or, to a lesser extent, for guys who are married). One great way to know if you have sanded enough is to place an old nylon stocking over your hand and rub it all over the project. If the nylon stocking snags on any portion of the sanded area, you've got more sanding to do. If you can wipe your nylon stocking-laden hand over the entire project and it looks as good as new, then you are free to move on to the next step.
Removing the Sanding Residue:
Preparing for Stain:
A couple of caveats: First of all, read the instructions before you apply the pre-stain conditioner. In some cases, the manufacturer advises that you wipe the conditioner off after a few minutes, and then apply the stain within two hours. So you may have to plan your time accordingly. Additionally, some pre-stain conditioners have a tendency to lighten the color of the stain, but you can combat this by applying a second coat of stain.
Type of Applicator:
Well, that depends on the type of stain. If you're going to use a gel stain, you'll want to apply it with a rag and wipe it down once the desired color is reached. In the case of oil-based stains, you'll want to choose a natural bristle brush, whereas a water-based stain would be best applied using a synthetic brush. No matter which type of brush you use, you need to take care of your brush. If you're going to spend the money to buy a good brush, keep it clean and it will reward you with better finishes and will last longer.
Can We Stain Now?:
Frankly, at this point, you're down to personal preference. The best way to answer these questions is trial and error, and your own particular tastes. In other words, keep a few scraps around on which to test a few oil and water-based stains, and even an all-in-one.
Personally, I prefer oil-based stains, as I like the rich color that they provide and the longer working times than water-based stains. The advantage of water-based versions is that they dry fast and don't have the overpowering odor of oil-based stains (not to mention easier clean-up), but they have a tendency to raise the grain of the wood, which means more sanding after applying the stain. Either way, if you have tested a few on scraps of wood that have been well-sanded and had the pre-stain conditioner applied, you'll have a representative sample of what your final stain should look like.