How to Choose Wood Sealers, Stains, and Finishes

How to Choose Wood Sealers, Stains, and Finishes

The Brush Debate

My friend John recently asked me to come over and help him with some crown molding he was getting ready to put up in his new family room. He had some beautiful poplar boards milled to match the trim in the rest of his house, and while I would have opted for a stain to highlight the wavy grain, John and Becky (mostly Becky) wanted it painted. “Happy wife, happy life,” as they say. So paint it was.

When I arrived, John had the boards laid out on sawhorses in his garage with newspapers spread out to protect the floor. But then he handed me a two-inch wide foam brush. “John,” I said, “Haven’t you heard? The better the brush, the better the finish!” This launched us into a discussion of how to choose the right brush for each project.

Some of John and Becky’s trim was going to be stained and sealed with a clear finish, which gave me a chance to explain to John how to pick the best brush when you are staining and finishing. Take a look and see what John learned.

The Importance of Choosing the Right Brush

As I explained to John, a brush is a means of transporting a stain or finish from the can to the wood. When applying the stain, you can use either a rag or a brush. I prefer a brush as it works better for getting stain into corners and carvings, but you don’t have to use an expensive one or, for that matter, be excessively neat. That’s because your next step will be to wipe off any excess stain, so your rag will erase any brush marks, runs, drips, or bristles left by your brush.

However, when laying down a smooth coat of clear finish, the brush will have a major impact on how it looks when it dries. That’s when picking the right brush really becomes important. As I told John, “You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to drive in a finish nail, so why use a foam brush to try to lay down a smooth coat of finish?”

Foam Brushes: The Downfall

I must admit I do occasionally use foam brushes when staining a small project. Their greatest selling point is they are inexpensive. But when it comes to applying a smooth coat of clear finish such as polyurethane, a foam brush is not my first choice.

Instead of bristles, a foam brush has a blade. The blunt sides leave two parallel ridges of finish, like a snowplow on the highway. Also, the foam head contains air, which can leave bubbles in your finish. And if you use it for very long, the foam head begins to wear out and get floppy. It will even start to dissolve as you are brushing on stains and finishes containing mineral spirits or lacquer thinner.

Choosing the Right Brush for the Job

So, what type of brush should you use for your project? It depends on whether you’re working with oil-based or water-based products.

Oil-Based Stains and Finishes

For oil-based products containing mineral spirits, I reach for a natural bristle brush. For oil-based stains, I use a Minwax Wood Finish Stain Brush. These brushes are designed to carry a lot of stain from the can to your project and hold up much better than foam brushes. And unlike foam brushes, these natural bristles brushes can be cleaned with ordinary mineral spirits, paint thinner, and re-used indefinitely. Much better than tossing dozens of foam brushes a year into the garbage can.

Water-Based Stains and Finishes

Unlike mineral spirits, water causes natural bristles to swell. As they do, they lose their shape. Rather than use a natural bristle brush with water-based stains and clear finishes and watch it swell out of shape, my top brush choice is a synthetic bristle brush, such as the Minwax Polycrylic Brush. These bristles won’t absorb water and won’t lose their shape. And clean-up is a breeze with soap and water.

Quick Tip for Brush Care

After cleaning, I wrap the damp bristles in a paper towel, then secure it with a rubber band. Once the bristles are dry, I slip the brush back into its cardboard sleeve to maintain their shape. I also use the hole in the end of the handle to hang my brush to dry, with the bristles pointing down, letting any remnants of stain or finish escape before hardening.

The Hierarchy of Brushes

As I told John, not all brushes are created equal. They can range in price from less than a dollar to more than twenty dollars. You can spot the difference in three areas: the handle, the bristles, and the ferrule (which holds the bristles to the handle).

The Handle

If you used a brush every day to make a living, you would want a contoured handle. Most of us are perfectly content with a standard handle that costs less to make.

The Ferrule

Check the metal band holding the bristles to the handle to make sure it is secure. Tug gently on the bristles to see if the ferrule has a firm grasp on them.

The Bristles

These should be soft and pliable. In my experience, the foam brush at the top rates a “Good,” the bristle brush in the middle is a “Better,” and the professional brush at the bottom rates a “Best.”

Having the Right Brush for the Job

Just as you have different sizes and types of screwdrivers in your workshop, odds are you will need all three types of brushes – foam, natural bristle, and synthetic bristle. You will also want to have them in different widths to fit the different size of cans of stains and clear finishes.

The best time to buy them is before you need them, so pick out a selection of types and sizes, store them in a drawer to keep the dirt and dust off them, and clean them after each use. The reward for your efforts will be a stain and a finish that is as smooth as any professional could have achieved.

Good luck with your next wood project, and remember to visit timber-building.com for all your building and woodworking needs!


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