This story includes tips for applying all finishes and tips specific to stain, penetrating oil, clear surface finishes and paint.
Apply stain with either a brush or a cloth, always in the direction of the grain. It may look muddy at first; that's why you wipe it off with a cloth before it dries. The remaining pigment soaks into the wood pores, giving it color. If it's too light, repeat the steps. For a lighter color, limit a stain's penetration by first sealing the wood with a prepared wood conditioner.
When you apply any clear finish to wood, start at one edge of the piece and work in the direction of the grain. Smooth any ridges and pools in the finish with cross-grain strokes while it's still wet. Finishes such as shellac and water-base varnish dry quickly, so you have to work quickly.
For greater visual appeal and durability, apply several coats of clear finish, rubbing with #0000 steel wool or very fine abrasive between each coat.