The actual steps involved in staining wood don't differ much from those of painting, yet staining can be so much more stress-inducing because you can't fix mistakes by simply slapping on another coat. The stakes are raised even further when staining kitchen cabinets. If you make a mistake staining other furniture, you can't simply tuck it into a dark corner or cover it with a table cloth. In the kitchen, your goof is on prominent display at eye level for all to see.
The good news is that staining cabinets doesn't have to be a stressful experience. If you take the time to properly prepare, you can have a finish that looks like it was done by a pro.
Your cabinets should be as smooth as your counter top before you stain. Begin with 100-grit sandpaper, always sanding with the grain of the wood. Wipe off any sawdust, and sand again with 150-grit sandpaper, then again with 180-grit. Wipe the surface down with a damp rag to remove all of the dust.
One of the most common mistakes when staining cabinets is ignoring the type of wood being stained. Soft woods like white pine and alder are more porous than other types of wood, and they absorb stain unevenly. Even hard woods like maple and cherry can have this problem. Applying a clear wood conditioner tightens the wood's pores, ensuring that stain is absorbed evenly.
It can be tempting to save a few bucks when buying a paint brush. Don't do it. A high quality brush--usually costing $10 or more--holds more stain, which makes it easier to apply an even coat. It is also less likely to leave bristles behind, which can mar the finish.
In between coats of stain, sand lightly with 400-grit sandpaper. Be careful not to press too hard. You're not trying to smooth out the surface--you've already done that--you're simply trying to prepare the surface so it better absorbs the next coat. Applying at least two coats of stain helps you achieve an even coat, but additional coats may be required to achieve the color you want. Wipe each coat down about 30 seconds after you complete it, then let the stain dry before sanding and applying the next coat.
After staining, you want to apply several coats of a water-based polyurethane to protect the finish. Use a light touch, and be aware that polyurethane dries quickly. You only have a few minutes to brush out areas where the urethane pools. Let it dry for a couple of hours and sand lightly between coats. Applying at least three coats allows your perfect finish to last for years to come.