This story cover how common paints, stains, and finishes are used and what some popular finishes look like when they are applied to commonly used materials.
Here are comparisons of finish categories:
Paint obscures the material it covers and is the easiest to apply. Its colored pigments are suspended in either water (water-base/latex paint) or a petroleum product (oil-base paint). Water is the solvent for the first; paint thinner or mineral spirits is the solvent for the latter. Paint is available in several levels of sheen, including flat (little sheen), semigloss (medium sheen), and high-gloss (high sheen). Paint is often used to coat less expensive materials.
Stain colors wood too, but the thin pigment highlights and emphasizes grain features instead of hiding them. Both water-base and oil-base stains are simple to apply but must be followed by a clear top coat. Clear finishes come in water-base and oil-base varieties, in different types of oils (penetrating), and in combinations. These finishes show the grain of the wood. Oil-base clear finishes add a slight, warm color. The hardest to apply without fault, they normally require several coats for the best appearance and protection.
What to have on hand
You won't need all the items shown here for each type of finish. Applicators, for instance, differ with the type of finish you select. The personnel in the finishing department at a home center or hardware store can advise you on your specific needs. Brushes are foam, synthetic bristle, or natural bristle. Natural bristle works best when applying oil-base products. You can use a roller with either water- or oil-base coatings, but it will add texture. Lint-free cheesecloth is an optional applicator for stains and clear finishing oils.
Steel wool in the fine (#000) and finest (#0000) grades smooths a finish between coats. Don't use it with water-base finishes; any residue will rust. Woven abrasive pads perform like steel wool with all finishes.
Fill sticks repair minor surface imperfections, while wood filler handles larger ones. Putty knives are useful for filling large surface defects.