For a long-lasting, even stain or varnish on your trim, you have to do the job right. Learn how with our help.

Updated: February 08, 2019

Staining and varnishing require different techniques than painting. To start with, you can apply most stains with either a brush or a cloth. First lay a coat of stain on the wood in the direction of the grain. If the stain is not working its way into the grain, brush it across the grain and finish with brushstrokes parallel to the grain. It may look muddy at first, but that will clear up when you wipe off the excess. If it's too light, repeat the steps. For a light tone, first seal the wood with a prepared wood conditioner.

To learn about this and more, check out our tips below on staining and varnishing trim. 

How to Remove Trim

For most paint jobs, it's actually easier to remove the baseboards and finish them on a work surface that's about waist high. If you paint or varnish either new or existing baseboards when they're on the wall, you're going to spend a lot of uncomfortable hours on your hands and knees.

Similarly, staining and finishing new window or door trim requires exacting application to keep the finish material off the walls. Whenever you're finishing any new trim, stain it before putting it up.

How to Apply Stain to Trim

Step 1: Apply Stain

Mix stain thoroughly before using. With either a brush or lint-free cloth, apply it in the direction of the grain. Overlap your strokes slightly so you don't miss any spots.

Step 2: Wipe Board

Let the stain set up according to the manufacturer's directions, but before it begins to dry, wipe the entire surface to remove excess. This also forces the stain's pigment into the grain, enhancing contrast.

Tip: Use a Conditioner on Softwoods

Softwoods, like pine and fir, have a pore structure that prohibits them from taking stain evenly. The result can often look blotchy. To make your stain coat even, first apply a wood conditioner made especially for this purpose.

How to Apply a Clear Polyurethane Finish to Trim

Step 1: Apply Finish

Stir, don't shake, the polyurethane (or any varnish). For the smoothest application, use a disposable foam brush and work across the grain to fill the pores.

Step 2: Second Coat

For the second coat, brush with the grain so any ridges won't be as visible. To avoid runs, don't load the brush when working near edges.

Step 3: Sand

When the finish has thoroughly dried, go over it with #0000 steel wool or fine (320-grit) sandpaper. Repeat between coats.

Step 4: Fill Holes

Small flaws such as nicks and nail holes can be filled with a tinted filler stick of matching color after the finish has completely dried.

How to Apply Oil to Trim

Step 1: Pour Oil

When using any type of penetrating oil finish, pour a liberal amount onto the wood, then spread it with a lint-free cloth. Be sure you have a drop cloth under your board before you do this step.

Step 2: Wipe and Apply Second Coat

Let the oil soak in for about 10 minutes (read label directions). Wipe to remove excess oil. Allow the finish to dry before applying a second coat. Reapply until the wood will not absorb any more oil.

Step 3: Finishing Touches

For a satin-smooth oil finish, rub the dry surface between coats with extra-fine (#0000) steel wool. Wipe off the entire surface after rubbing. When the oil has cured, apply paste wax for protection.

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