How to Stain & What to Use

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First of all, you’ll need to determine what your surface is made of.  It can be Formica, a plastic type material on top of an inexpensive wood, Wood Veneer which is a thin layer of beautiful wood grain on top of an inexpensive wood or Solid Wood.  

How to determine what you’re working with

Solid Wood or Wood Veneer

The easiest way to tell if it’s Solid Wood or Wood Veneer is to look at the back of the top of your piece.  Solid wood will be wood grain all the way through and if it’s Wood Veneer you’ll see a thin layer running across the top in a different direction than the wood under it which may be particle board or a cheaper wood.  If it’s a table top that may be hard to do but if you have multiple wood grains going in different directions or in a pattern on the top you can easily assume it’s Wood Veneer.  Solid Wood grain runs in one direction.  


The easiest way to determine if you have a Formica top is to try to sand it.  If it scratches the surface but does not start removing stain you’ve probably got a formica top.  Formica also has a very different feel and will feel more smooth like plastic than grainy like wood grain.  

How to Stain Solid Wood or Wood Veneer

Since Wood Veneer is essentially a thin layer of wood you have two choices in products that can be used to stain the surface. First we’ll discuss a Penetrating Stain like Fusion Stain & Finishing Oil. Secondly, we’ll discuss Gel Stain like Fusion Gel Stain. Both are great options but prep is very different. 

Penetrating Stain

  • Sanding -You can sand the surface carefully using a sander, starting with 80 grit and gradually moving up to 220. Sand with the grain using very little pressure. Just let the sander do the work. Sand CAREFULLY because you do not want to go through the thin layer of Veneer and expose the particle board or wood type surface under the Veneer. You do not want to use any higher than a 220 grit or it will close the grain of the wood and make it hard for stain to penetrate the surface. In order to use Penetrating Stain it will need to be sanded to raw wood. If you’d prefer to Strip the surface instead of sanding move to the next step.
  • Stripper – If you’d prefer to strip rather than sand the surface you can use a Chemical Stripper like Blue Bear Remover which may require several coats to remove the finish depending on how many layers of stain, paint or sealer are on the surface. Please make sure to use Stripper in a well ventilated area and wear a face mask or respirator. After all of the existing finish is removed, sand with a 220 grit, with the grain, to smooth the surface and clean with Mineral Spirits
  • Wood Filler – If you have areas that need wood filler I recommend using a colored wood filler close to the color you’re staining. When using Penetrating Stain it can be hard to totally camouflage areas that have been repaired with filler. If you’re are not happy with those areas showing you might want to consider using Gel Stain (below) which will hide those areas nicely.
  • Wood Conditioner – In order to get an even stained finish I always use a water based wood conditioner on the surface before staining. I recommend this one.
  • Application – I use a lint free rag to wipe on Penetrating Stain with the grain of the wood making sure to wipe off excess. Wiping across the surface, with the grain of the wood, in long strokes to remove any excess will insure an even stained surface.

Gel Stain

Gel Stain can be applied over an existing finish. Simply clean with Fusion TSP, fill any holes with wood filler and you’re ready to apply Gel Stain. No sanding or wood conditioner needed. Gel Stain is self leveling and is very good at covering small scratches and defects in the surface. Gel Stain is applied with a brush like paint. I recommend using an inexpensive Chip Brush that you can thrown away or cleaned with mineral spirits after use. 

How to Stain Formica

In order to stain a piece of furniture with a formica or plastic material on the surface you WILL NOT beable to use a regular penetrating stain like Fusion Stain & Finishing Oil. You will need to use a Gel Stain like Fusion Gel Stain.  Prep is minimal and all that is required is a good cleaning of the surface with TSP (a degreaser), filling of any holes with wood filler and you’re ready to apply.  I recommend applying Gel Stain with an inexpensive brush like this Chip Brush so that it can either be cleaned with Mineral Spirits or just thrown away. Gel Stain on this type of surface is simply brushed on like paint. It may require 2-3 coats for full coverage.

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  1. I tried to click on the link for the wood conditioner but it would not work. Can you tell me which one you use?

    1. Thank you for letting me know. It’s the Minwax Pre Stain Wood Conditioner. You can get at a hardware store.

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