A Colorful Child’s Bench

By Bruce Johnson

I learned a lot raising two sons, both of whom are now in college, but I especially learned how hard kids can be on furniture. I was an antiques collector and refinisher long before I became a father, but I was smart enough not to furnish my sons’ rooms with expensive antiques.

Instead, I turned to unfinished furniture, and if you would like to see how easily you can turn an unfinished bench into a bright, colorful addition to any child’s room, you can read more here.

Skill Level (1 – 5): 1

Supply List:

_____ Drop cloth

_____ Disposable gloves

_____ Rags

_____ Stirring sticks

_____ #180-grit Sandpaper (one sheet)

_____ Minwax® Water Based Wood Conditioner

_____ Minwax® Water Based Stains (Island Water and China Red)

_____ Minwax® Polycrylic® Protective Finish

_____ Minwax® Polycrylic® Brush (synthetic)

Step #1 – Let’s go shopping!

I always prefer to pick out unfinished furniture in person. Online descriptions are often vague about the kind of wood they are selling. I have found that hardwoods, such as oak, maple, poplar and birch, will accept a stain better than softwoods, such as pine and fir, and will last longer. I avoid boards with knots, as they don’t absorb a stain evenly, and I check the interior, back and underside to make sure the piece was well constructed. Screws are always better than nails!

Step #2 – Preparing the wood.

There is an old saying: “The smoother the wood, the smoother the finish,” so I gave my unfinished bench a light sanding with #180-grit sandpaper. This erased any shallow nicks and scratches, and opened the pores to accept more of my stain and finish.

Quick Tip: Eliminating your sanding dust is critical, but does not have to be expensive. Pick up a used vacuum sweeper with a bristle attachment for a few dollars at a yard sale and use it to remove the sanding dust from the pores of the wood.

Step #3 – Conditioner isn’t just for hair.

Wood is unpredictable. The pores which give each board a distinctive grain pattern are often arranged unevenly. You won’t know just how uneven until you apply your stain — and see your board turn blotchy, like the board above.

To reduce the blotchiness on my bench, I first brushed on a coat of Minwax® Water Based Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner after sanding, but before I applied my stain. I wiped off any excess conditioner that remained after three minutes, and let it dry (15-30 minutes). I then sanded it lightly with my 180-grit sandpaper to remove any fuzziness before staining.

Step #4 – Staining the Base

I always prefer to stain the base first, and generally turn the piece upside down on my drop cloth. This makes it easier to get into the joints around the rungs. I brushed on a coat of Minwax® China Red Water Based Wood Stain, let it sit from 1-3 minutes, then wiped off the excess in the direction of the grain to allow some of the wood grain to show.

Step #5 – Staining the Top

I selected Island Water as my stain for the top and applied it the same way: brush on, then wipe off. Since water based stains dry quickly, I don’t let them remain on the wood for more than 3 minutes before wiping off the excess — and it is always best to work on one small section at a time.

Step #6 – The Finishing Touch

One of the great things about water based stains is that they do dry quickly. After just three hours I was able to apply the first of two coats of Minwax® Polycrylic® Protective Finish in semi-gloss sheen, brushing each one on with a synthetic bristle brush. The clear finish really brings out the color of the stain, and protects both the stain and the wood from wear.

All Done!

I love projects I can start and finish in one day, and this child’s bench was no exception. With more than 50 different Minwax® water based colors to choose from, I’m sure you will find a pair that would look great on any piece of unfinished furniture for your child’s room.

Until next week,

Good Luck!


About Bruce Johnson

Author-craftsman Bruce Johnson has introduced millions of do-it-yourselfers, craftspeople and antique collectors to the world of wood finishing and antique restoration. As the official spokesperson for Minwax®, the leading manufacturer of wood finishing and wood care products, Bruce motivates people to take the initiative to beautify their surroundings. Through his many books, magazine articles and columns, as well as frequent appearances on national television talk shows, Johnson is recognized as an authority in the do-it-yourself community. Appearing on PBS, HGTV, The Discovery Channel, and currently hosting “DIY Woodworking” and “Build A Log Cabin”, on the DIY cable network, Johnson has brought the illustrious craft of wood finishing to the forefront of the American home. An expert in wood refinishing, antique restoration, and home improvement, Bruce has published more than a dozen books on these topics, including Fifty Simple Ways To Save Your House, The Wood Finisher, The Weekend Refinisher, and The Official Identification and Price Guide to the Arts and Crafts Movement. For more than 20-years, he penned an antique refinishing advice column, "Knock on Wood," which ran in dozens of antique/collectibles publications. Currently, he writes a column on Arts & Crafts for Style 1900 magazine. A rare combination of craftsman and journalist, Johnson began his career as a high school English teacher, but left teaching to set up his "Knock on Wood Antique Repair & Restoration" shop. He spent the next 10 years as a full-time professional refinisher, but eventually returned to writing. Yet, Johnson says, he won't ever be without a workbench and a couple of refinishing projects down in the basement. Johnson is also the founder and director of the Arts and Crafts Conference and Antique Show held every February in Asheville, North Carolina, at the Grove Park Inn. The conference, which includes the largest Arts and Crafts antiques show, attracts more than 1500 Arts and Crafts collectors each year to its many seminars, tours, demonstrations and exhibits. Johnson is proud to have played a role in reviving interest in designers like Gustav Stickley, who founded the Arts and Crafts movement. His latest book, “Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Furniture,” was awarded the 2009 Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. These furnishings are treasured by such collectors as Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis, among many others.

3 comments on “A Colorful Child’s Bench

  1. jane peterson

    Where can I purchase the minwax China red stain? I have called local stores and looked on the internet and cannot locate it.

    Thank you.

  2. jane peterson

    I would also be interested in Antique Red stain. I cannot find it locally or on the internet. Where can I purchase this product?

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Hi Jane! Give the Minwax Customer Service toll-free number a call at 1.800.523.9299 and they’ll be able to point you in the direction of a local retailer that has the particular stain you’re looking for. Thanks for reading and good luck on your future projects.


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