Applying stain to furniture with a spray gun.

Furniture Refinishing:

Refinishing An Old Dresser
Part 3
Applying Stain And Urethane With An HVLP Spray Gun

In This Article:

A fast-drying wood "tinter" is applied to bare wood furniture with a High Volume Low Pressure spray gun. After a few minutes, a fast drying stain is applied. When dry, the furniture is sprayed with oil-based polyurethane.

Related Articles:

Skill Level: 3-4 (Intermediate to Advanced)

Time Taken: About 16 Hours

By , Editor

Continued From Part 2:

Stripping furniture with chemical paint stripper.

In Part 1 we used chemical paint stripper to remove the old finish.

Then we power-washed the wood and let it dry overnight.


In Part 2 we spent a lot of time sanding the wood to clean up any stripper residue and remove scratches.

Sanding bare wood furniture after stripping the finish.

When the wood was sanded and all the scratches were gone, I blew off the dust with compressed air. I was ready to apply stain.


Applying Wood Stain:

For almost two decades I had been applying stain the way everybody knows about: Brush on the liquid stain, wait a few minutes, then wipe off the excess with a rag or paper towel.

But a few years ago, when faced with a big wood-finishing project, I got tired of this tedious chore and explored the idea of using a low-cost spray gun for applying both stain and urethane.

I bought an HVLP (High Volume Low Pressure) spray gun and I've never looked back.

Why I Got Off The Rag And Started Spray Finishing:

About five years ago I did some remodeling work on a friend's house. I installed several rooms of complex new baseboards, window and door casings, and new doors, all of which were bare oak that need to be stained a dark color.

One of the first finished items to be installed was a pair of French doors with 15 panes of glass each. I applied the stain the usual way... with a brush and rags. It was terribly tedious, especially around the glass, and I had a difficult time getting the color to appear uniform. I wasn't looking forward to brushing 2 or 3 coats of urethane on all that intricate millwork. I knew there had to be a better way.

When the stain was dry, I decided to try applying urethane using several spray cans of Minwax polyurethane. It worked great. It was quick and the finish was nearly flawless. I think I used 6 or 8 spray cans, at about 5 bucks each, to apply 2 coats. At that point I realized that I could apply ordinary polyurethane, bought in a gallon can, with some type of High Volume Low Pressure spray gun.

I looked at HVLP sprayers that use a series of turbine fans to pressurize the air. While highly rated, I couldn't afford to spend upwards of $1,000 for something I knew I wouldn't use often.

For less than $100 I bought a Porter-Cable HVLP spray gun that connects to an ordinary air compressor, of which I already had two. My smallest compressor, which develops 1.5 HP, is plenty powerful for this spray gun. A couple of years later, while repainting my truck, I bought another spray gun at a local automotive paint store for $150.

While I occasionally apply stain or urethane with a brush, especially on very small projects, I regularly use my spray guns to apply stain and urethane on wood trim, window sashes, doors and furniture.

Airless Sprayers? Just after I bought my first HVLP spray gun I also bought an inexpensive Wagner airless power sprayer. It develops 2600 PSI and cost about $100. While the tool works okay for certain types of finishes (heavier stuff, like deck stain) it doesn't have the fine control needed for stain or urethane. Higher priced airless sprayers may work for finishing wood trim, but I have no experience with them.


Warning: Be aware that I am not an expert at this subject. I have successfully spray-finished a dozen or more projects, and I will gladly share my knowledge with you. If you chose to pursue spray finishing, I recommend that you do additional research... see Recommended Reading at the end of this article.


Applying Stain With A Spray Gun:

Staining an antique dresser with an HVLP spray gun.

After I hauled the dresser into my basement, I set it on a simple wood structure which was strapped to a mover's dolly. I built this structure from some scrap 2x4's. I wanted to raise the dresser off the ground and make it easier to spray the underside of the bottom details.

Then I began applying stain with a High Volume Low Pressure (HVLP) spray gun.

I sprayed the complex millwork first (just below the top and around the feet) and then did the straight surfaces.

I would normally start spraying at the bottom and work my way towards the top, but first I wanted to make sure I was able to get the complicated areas completely covered with stain.

I sprayed the top last.

Note the fans in the window, blowing air out. I also had a fan blowing air in through a window on the opposite side of the basement. Spray finishing require LOTS of ventilation, because the fumes can create an explosive atmosphere.

I wore an organic vapor respirator. Without this protection I would get a wicked headache within a few minutes.

Applying stain to an old dresser being refinished.


Applying polyurethane to a piece of furniture with an HVLP spray gun.

Applying The Second Coat Of Stain:

I sprayed the vertical surfaces with a side-to-side motion, being careful to overlap each pass about 50 per cent.

It took me about 10 to 15 minutes to apply each coat of stain to the dresser.

The beauty of applying stain with a sprayer is the incredible speed of application. If I stained this dresser the old-fashioned way, it would take me a couple of hours to brush on the stain and wipe it off. And getting the excess stain out of the small crevices would be very painstaking. When I spray the stain, I am able to apply a very thin additional coat if I need just a slightly darker color. That's just impossible with the brush-and-wipe application method.

The drawback of spray staining (besides the equipment cost) is that it takes practice to get good results. You need a steady hand and you need to take time to learn about all the adjustments on the spray gun.

About The Stain:

I used a 2-part stain system from M.L. Campbell, which I bought at a local paint store. This professional-grade product is meant for cabinet manufacturers, but may be available to do-it-yourselfers. The first part is a tinter called "Microton" (pronounced micro-tone) and is meant to soak into the wood. The tinter is like a dye and doesn't have grain-concealing solid particles of pigment. It can be recoated in 5 minutes, which is unbelievably fast compared to consumer-grade stains.

The second part of the stain system is more similar to conventional stains because it has pigment. If it's not applied too thick, this part can be covered with urethane or lacquer in as little as 30 minutes. This stain is NOT meant to be wiped off like consumer-grade stains. I have wiped off the excess stain on other projects, and I like the appearance... but it requires working fast.

Both parts of the M.L. Campbell stain system are acetone-based, so they can be cleaned up with acetone, which is also known as nail polish remover.

Conventional slow-drying consumer-grade stains can be sprayed, and are the best products to start learning with. I'll discuss this more at the end of the article.


Spraying The Drawer Boxes:

My apparatus for spray-finishing the drawer:

I covered the top of this 2' x 4' folding table with a sheet of clear plastic.

I set the drawer box on a Lazy Susan, which allowed me to rotate the drawer box easily.

Dresser drawer sitting on a Lazy Susan so it can be turned while spray finishing.


Spraying stain on drawer boxes during refinishing.

I began by spraying the back sides of the face board. This meant crouching down and spraying upward.


Then I turned the drawer and sprayed the top edge of the face.

Using a Lazy Susan to rotate a drawer box during spray application of wood stain.


Applying wood stain to the front face of drawer boxes.

Once the edges were sprayed, I stood up and sprayed the main part of the face board.

The stain I used dried quickly. Within 30 minutes most of the stain was dry, but some areas were still slightly wet for several hours. I let the stain dry overnight, and the next day I applied urethane.


Applying Urethane With A Spray Gun:

I sprayed the drawer boxes with urethane. It really helped to use the Lazy Susan to turn the boxes.

Note that the back side of the back panel (the surface that the drawer was sitting on) did not get finished. Nobody's going to see that part anyway.

Applying urethane to dresser drawer boxes using a spray gun.


Spraying wood finish on a dresser being redone.

I sprayed the dresser with urethane. The spraying technique is exactly the same as applying stain, although the spray gun settings are different because the material is thicker.

(Basically, the air volume and material volume controls are opened up slightly.)


Thinking about buying a spray gun? has an enormous selection of HVLP spray guns... almost too many. This Tool Force HVLP spray gun seems to have the highest number of positive reviews. Also, this Neiko spray gun has some good reviews.

The spray gun I used on this project cost more than 3 times as much (I bought it from a local auto parts store in 2005) but might not be any better. Read the reviews carefully, and consider that many of the negative reviews seem to come from buyers with little or no experience with HVLP spray guns. Whatever you buy, make sure the spray gun has a built-in pressure regulator.


After Drying:

The next day I used steel wool to scuff-sand the urethane.

It's critical to scuff-sand urethane before applying another coat, or else the new coat may peel off.

Scuff-sanding the first coat of polyurethane, using steel wool.


Scuff-sanding drawer boxes after the first coat of urethane has dried.

I sanded the flat areas of the drawer boxes with an extra-fine sanding sponge.

Since I had eleven drawers to sand, I developed a "production" technique to sand each drawer as quickly as possible.


On the drawer faces, I used steel wool to reach into the curves and contours.

After sanding, I used a shop-vac with a brush attachment to vacuum up the dust. Then I used compressed air and a whisk broom to removed the finest dust that the shop-vac didn't remove.

Using steel wool to scuff sand urethane between coats.


Finish Problems:

Urethane finish problem known as "blush".

After I sprayed the second coat, the top surface had a serious "blush" problem.

Blush occurs when some spots are not the same sheen (shininess) as the rest of the urethane.

I also found some cracks the urethane didn't fill. I didn't do a careful enough inspection before I started the finishing process. These small gaps should have been filled with stainable wood putty and then sanded.


Another example of the blush problem I experienced on the second coat.

Blush occurs when the surface of the urethane dries before the liquid underneath. The solvents underneath migrate through the surface and alter the amount of shine.

"Blush" is a speckly appearance in the wood finish, after drying.

Blush can be caused by applying too heavy of a coat of urethane, or if the weather is too warm. I'm guilty of applying a heavy coat... that's an easy mistake to make because it's hard to tell if the spray is covering all the surfaces well enough. But I also made the mistake of turning on a small box fan to circulate the air while the urethane was still wet. Slow drying is better... it gives the coating time to "level out" and the solvents time to evaporate from the inside-out.


In an attempt to cover that crack I showed earlier, I decided to brush on a third coat of urethane to just the top.

It didn't really fill the cracks very well, but they're so hard to see that nobody else has noticed.

Brush applying urethane on the top of a dresser.

After that third coat on the top had dried, I sprayed another coat on the entire dresser, so the top received 4 coats and the remainder got 3 coats. I like to give the high-wear surfaces 4 coats, so any scratches are less likely to reach into the wood.

I also applied a third coat of urethane to the drawer faces. The drawer boxes only got two coats, which is adequate.

Fastening a glide to the bottom of the foot on an antique dresser.

When I tipped the dresser up to haul it upstairs, I took a few minutes to attach a glide on each foot.


The completed dresser.

Maybe I'm biased because this is my "baby", but this dresser looks like a million bucks to me.

I spent about 40 hours working on this project. Much more than half of that time was spent on the various sanding tasks.

Furniture refinishing is time-consuming, but, when the piece is of high quality, the results are worth it.

Antique dresser after refinishing.


Spray-Staining With Conventional Stains:

When I bought my first HVLP spray gun in 2004, I was in the middle of an old house remodeling project that involved several rooms with stained oak trim. I had been using Old Masters brand of stain in a Red Mahogany color. This conventional mineral spirits-based stain has a reddish-brown color and is meant to be applied like most consumer-grade stains: Apply with a brush, wait a few minutes, then wipe off the excess with a rag.

When I bought my first spray gun, I tried spraying some Old Masters stain on some scraps of red oak. After making many adjustments to the spray gun, I was very pleased by how quickly and uniformly I could apply a coat of stain. I discovered that the beauty of spraying is that I could apply just a little bit more stain to the wood if I needed a darker color. There's no way you can apply a half-coat of stain using the brush-and-wipe technique, but with a sprayer I could apply a "one-tenth" coat to slightly darken the wood finish.

Sometimes the spray would leave speckles or spots on the wood, so I would simply use a small soft brush to spread the stain around, though sometimes this left streaks or brush marks.

The first few times I sprayed this conventional stain, I wiped off the excess with a soft cotton cloth after waiting 15 to 20 minutes. If I wiped off too much, I was able to spray another very light coat of stain and brush it smooth.

Eventually, I was able to perfect my technique and apply just the right amount of stain, brush it smooth, and not wipe it.

The main drawback of consumer-grade stains like Old Masters or Minwax is that they are based on mineral spirits or similar low-volatility solvents, so they dry very slowly. These stains typically take 12 hours or more to dry before they can be coated with urethane.

I have brushed on urethane to stained boards that were not completely dry, and the stain gets "picked up" by the combination of the solvent dissolving the stain and the brush agitating the stain. The end result is a stain job made ugly with accidental light and dark patches, and no ability to fix the problem without completely stripping off the finish.

However, I often spray urethane over stain that is not completely dry, and I can't see any problem. I just notice that when I scuff-sand the first coat of urethane, the dust  has the color of the stain. For the later coats, the dust appears white as it normally would.

The bottom line is: Applying stain and urethane with an HVLP spray gun is fast and gives a high-quality finish. It requires a modest investment in equipment, some sensible precautions, and some time to develop the skill.


I strongly recommend reading my articles about Safe Spray Finishing Locations and Adjusting/Cleaning An HVLP Sprayer.


More Info:

Tools Used:
  • HVLP Spray Gun
  • Air Compressor, 1.5 HP
  • Air Hose
  • Organic Vapor Respirator
  • Box Fans
  • Cordless Drill/Driver
  • Paint Brushes
  • Paint Cups
  • Dishpan (for cleaning spray guns)
Materials Used:
  • Stain, M.L. Campbell
  • Urethane, Minwax, Satin
  • Acetone
  • Mineral Spirits
  • Steel Wool
  • Red Rosin Paper
  • Duct Tape

Recommended Reading:

Spray Finishing, by Andy Charron (1996, Taunton Press) (Kindle Edition Available)

(When I bought my first spray gun, I also bought this book, and it helped me immensely.)

Related Articles:
Web Links:


Spray painting or spray finishing can be dangerous, hazardous to your health, and cause serious property damage.

This article should not be viewed as "instructions" or "advice". This article is for entertainment purposes only.

If you undertake any spray finishing project, then you are working at your own risk. Under no circumstances will or it's publisher be held liable for any damages caused by your actions.

Please read the additional warnings in our article about Spray Finishing Locations.



Project Archives:

Kitchen  |  Bath  |  Electrical  |  Plumbing  |  FramingRoofing  |  Windows
Doors  |  Exteriors  |  Decks  |  Finish Carpentry  |  Flooring  | Workshop

Search Page

Home    What's New    Links    Rants    Contact Us

Before you hurt yourself, read our Disclaimer.

Back To Top Of Page 



Copyright 2009

Written January 11, 2009