7 Things to Consider Before You Stain or Paint Furniture

Article Posted By: Caroline Inge

of The Home Depot

 Paint, stain and brushes, illustrating how to stain or paint furniture

There’s nothing like a fresh coat of paint to spruce up an old piece of furniture or a new stain to breathe new life into neglected cabinets. Understanding the basics of painting and staining is fundamental to so many DIY projects, and we’re here to help with the basics to get you started. Here are the top seven things to think about before you stain or paint furniture.


  • Water-based Versus Oil-based — When it comes to picking a stain, there are three questions you should ask yourself to determine whether to choose a water-based or an oil-based stain. First, how quickly do I want it to dry? Second, what are my ventilation conditions? Third, what do I want the stain color to be? Water-based stains dry quickly, have low odor, and have a much larger assortment of colors, from the traditional wood tones to colored stains, like red and blue. Oil-based stains, on the other hand, take longer to dry so they work better for more intricate projects that require detail and finesse; however, oil-based stains require proper ventilation and only come in the traditional wood tones.
  • Better Wood, Better Results — The best wood to stain is oak, but pine is easy to work with as well. It’s important to remember that wood with lots of knots and any wood that isn’t nice quality won’t look as good as very high-quality lumber, so take that into consideration when deciding to stain a piece of furniture.
  • Try a Pre-Stain Conditioner — If you’re staining wood with a water-based stain, try using a pre-stain conditioner which will ensure that your wood stains evenly. After you pre-stain your wood, be sure to sand lightly with a fine-grit sandpaper. This sanding step opens up the pores of the wood and takes off any scratches that were made in stores or moving the item.

A wooden table, paint roller and stain, illustrating how to stain or paint furniture


  • Start With the Right Primer — Choosing a high-quality primer, such as Zinsser’s Cover Stain Primer, in regular or spray paint will make your project even more successful! Most pieces should be okay with just one coat of primer, but for laminate pieces or furniture that gets a lot of wear (like a coffee table), go for two coats!
  • Is It Water-based (latex) or Oil-based Paint? — If you’re repainting an old piece of furniture, first test it to determine whether the previous finish was an oil- or water-based paint or stain. To test, dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and rub it on the piece of furniture or wall. If the paint is an oil-based paint, nothing will happen. If it’s a water-based (latex) paint, a little bit of the paint will come off on the swab!
  • Try a Paint Conditioner — When painting a piece of furniture with either a brush or a roller, it’s easy for brush strokes and ‘drag’ marks to occur in your paint finish. By adding a conditioner to your paint, the paint will dry slower, and the marks will fall out of the paint finish before drying. For latex paints, use Floetrol, and for oil-based paints, use Penetrol.