Just bagged a bargain in unfinished furniture? Why not try staining it yourself? Finishing wood is satisfying and simple if you follow some basic guidelines.

"Nothing enhances the natural beauty of solid hardwood more than a good finish, and you don't have to be an expert woodworker to learn the basics," says Susan Regan, executive vice president of the Hardwood Information Center at www.hardwoodinfo.com. "Just remember that the first step is the most crucial. For the best results, take time to sand and prepare the wood very well."

Bruce Johnson, an author and expert on finishing wood, says the same steps can be followed for finishing virtually any interior wood, including doors, cabinets, windows, trim and furniture.

"Doing it yourself is rewarding, and it saves money," he says. With these tips from Johnson, you can make your do-it-yourself project a success............

Preparing The Wood

1. For old wood, start by stripping off the original finish. Buy a good stripper and carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. Today's strippers do most of the work by loosening and removing the finish for you. Be gentle when you scrape the stripper off because the wood will have been softened temporarily.

2. Old or new, unfinished wood must be sanded. Working with the grain, use 120 grit sandpaper to gently remove scratches, blemishes and dents. Next use 180-grit paper until the surface is fingertip-smooth. For an especially smooth finish on the finest furniture, consider a final sanding with 220-grit paper.

3. An orbital sander will speed the work on large areas. Avoid belt sanders. Sanding blocks can be a big help. Buying three blocks, one for each type of sandpaper you use, can save time.

4. Use a tack rag to remove dust.

Choosing The Finish

1. Finishes come in a wide variety of natural wood tones and colors. Choose the tone you like to tie in with any color scheme.

2. You can buy water-based or oil-based stains . Water-based stains emit fewer fumes and typically dry in two to four hours. It's best to let oil-based stains dry overnight.

3. For best results, use products from the same company for a single project. Mixing brands could cause problems if the ingredients are incompatible.

4. Always test your stain on an inconspicuous spot on the piece you are finishing or on an extra piece of exactly the same wood. Make sure you sand this test area in the same way you will sand the final project. Allow the stain to remain on the sample for one to five minutes, depending on the look you want.

Applying The Finish

1. Some close-grained hardwoods -- like cherry, maple and birch – may develop blotches in the finish. This can be prevented by applying a coat of wood conditioner to help seal the largest pores in the wood and to ensure the stain will be absorbed evenly. (Use an oil-based conditioner if you will be applying an oil-based stain. Choose a water-based conditioner for water-based stains.)

2. Apply the stain by spraying, brushing or wiping on with a rag. Allow the stain to soak into the wood for the amount of time determined by your test. Wiping with the grain, remove any excess stain with a clean rag or towel.

3. When the stain is dry, brush on a clear top coat to provide protection. This coat should be water-based if the stain is water-based and oil-based if the stain is oil-based. Mix the can of top coat by moving a stirring stick in a figure-eight pattern. Do not shake the can because that will cause bubbles to form in the finish. Use a brush with synthetic bristles for water-based top coats. A natural bristle brush works best with oil-based finishes. Let this coating dry overnight.

4. Sand the first top coat very lightly with 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe off the dust with a tack cloth. Apply a second top coat. In most cases, two top coats is enough. Apply a third top coat for table tops or other surfaces subject to heavy wear.

Johnson, the author of "The Weekend Refinisher" and "The Wood Finisher," is a consultant to Minwax Co., the maker of wood finishing and maintenance products.

For more free information about installing and caring for hardwood products at home, contact the Hardwood Information Center, at www.hardwoodinfo.com, a service of the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group.

Linda Jovanovich