Since I've started laser cutting, I learned a lot about wood including how to paint and stain it. I'm committed to using only non-toxic materials in my products so I wanted to find a good water-based stain that left a beautiful finish but was safe to use. Most stains are solvent based and if you've ever opened a can of solvent-based stain, you know how fumey and toxic it can be.
A lot of people shy away from water-based stain because it's bit tricky to use but with a few careful steps, you can get a beautiful finish and avoid the smell and mess. I have fallen in love with General Finishes water-based stains and they are all I use in my products (along with some screen-printing inks).
Sand the wood before staining
Even wood that seems smooth when you buy it could do with a little sanding before staining. I usually do a once-over with some high-grain sandpaper like #230 or #330. Make sure you sand with the grain of the wood and wipe off the dust with a clean rag. I never have *clean* rags around so I use these t-shirt rags you can get for cheap on Amazon.
Apply the stain
Stain needs to be stirred a lot before using and stirring it with your paintbrush gets it all mucky so I use these stirring sticks that I throw away later. Then I use a foam brush to paint on the stain in the direction of the wood grain and I work quickly. I make sure all of the wood is covered but I don't worry too much about an even application.
Wipe off the stain
This is the important part! And the part I failed to do before and it made me think water-based stain was total bunk. If you don't wipe off the stain immediately after painting, will dry blotchy and look terrible. Wipe it off immediately and it will reveal a beautifully even stain that shows off the wood grain underneath. For wiping, I use those t-shirt rags I mentioned earlier.
Sand it again...
Again? So one of the only downsides to water-based stain is it does cause the wood grain to rise after staining. The surface will feel rough after staining and you will need to sand it again. Sand between every coat actually.
After the stain is dry (about two hours). I sand the wood with even an higher-grade sand paper. Usually a #320 or #400. It doesn't take much sanding to get a super smooth finish. I can now apply another layer of stain if I want or I usually jump to the final varnish coat.
Finish with a varnish
In order to protect my beautiful stain from damage and stains, I apply one or two coats of water-based varnish. I like General Finishes water-based top coat but there are some other good ones out there. After the varnish dries, sand it with a high-grade sand paper and you're done!