Surface preparation varies based on the desired results and your starting point. If you are starting from raw (unfinished) wood. Sand the wood down to remove all blemishes, nicks, cuts and scratches. Start with coarser paper and work finer until the surface is smooth. I use wet-or-dry paper that can be found at any good automotive supply store. It is as consistent as Emory Cloth, but far less expensive. Most stores will have it in a range from 80 grit (which is like dragging it over rocks) all the way to 2500 grit (that is so fine you need a sign to tell you the front from the back :)
Quick Tip: The final grit of paper you use to dry sand the wood is the first grit sandpaper you will rub the first coat of wood finish in with.
First major difference: You DO NOT have to raise the grain with water and whisker it with steel wool before you apply wood finish. That makes it one step faster already!
To check the color you will get on the particular piece you are working with, wipe a little rubbing alcohol onto the raw wood. The color that it gets, while it is wet is the color you will have when you finish it. If that color isn't satisfactory, you will have to stain the wood. Because staining has so many variables, we will cover staining on a separate page. The alcohol will dry out quickly and you can immediately begin to apply finish. If you use water to check color, you have to let it dry (usually overnight).
Shake the bottle up because the natural fillers in it tend to settle. Then using the palm of your hand or a small cloth pad wipe a thin coat of finish on the wood. I usually do one side of the stock at a time, but work with the size area you feel comfortable with. Each section will blend into the rest so there are no problems associated with doing smaller areas.
Second major difference: It won't dry by itself. You have to rub it dry. It will rub dry in a minute or two. (If it takes more than 5 minutes to rub dry - you are using it too heavy. Wipe some off with a cloth or a paper towel - and now rub it dry.)
What you rub this finish into the wood with is the control mechanism. Whatever you use to rub the finish in with will create it's own particular look. To fill the grain, we rub it in with fine sandpaper. The rougher the texture of the wood (or the larger the pores such as found in oak) the rougher the paper we rub it in with. If you start at about 320 grit, the finish will fill rather large pores and scratches, but the result will be a very dull finish. As you move to finer paper on succeeding coats, the shine will improve. Finer paper fills less but shines more, coarser paper fills more but shines less. You can create the exact finish you want by the use of different grit papers.
Let's go through the normal procedure: You have dry sanded a stock to 400 grit. Shake the bottle of Arrow Wood Finish up because the natural fillers in it tend to settle. Apply a thin coat of the oil on one side of the stock with your hand or a small cloth patch. Then take a piece of 400 grit wet-or-dry sandpaper (because that was the grit of the final dry sanding) and put a couple drops of finish on the paper. Using the paper, rub the wet finish into the stock. On your first strokes, cover the entire area fairly quickly. While the paper is at it's roughest (fresh) it is cutting a very small amount of the wood fibers, so it is best to rub the entire area to smooth it. Now that the paper is bogging down with a mud of wood dust and finish, it is smoother to the touch - so continue to rub the finish in, but now you can take your time. This step is creating a mud and then packing it into the wood as part of the filler. It has to match ... it is the same wood!
Continue to rub the finish in until it begins to dry. It will roll up, or get stiff rather than slippery. Do not change to fresh paper. Rub to this point with the paper you started with. Fresh paper will cut more, and we don't want to cut, we want to fill. When you reach this mud or stiff stage, stop using the paper, and complete the rubbing process with the palm of your hand. You could use a cloth, but your hand is the best. You should be able to rub the finish dry to the touch in 5 minutes or less. If it is taking you longer, you either used the finish too heavily, or you didn't rub long enough with the paper.
Once the finish is dry to the touch, repeat the process on the other side. It will blend at the edges if you make sure to overlap just a little.
Let the stock cure for 12 to 24 hours. You DO NOT need to steel wool between coats because it was dry when you put it up, and so it doesn't pick up lint and dust. That means it builds much faster because we don't throw any of it away like other methods do in that steel wooling step.
Tomorrow, if you apply another coat the same way ... but with LESS finish, and FINER sandpaper ... it will get smoother, and shinier. The finer you go on additional coats, the shinier it will be. Here is a scale to give you an idea of the normal results. 320 or 400 grit gives you a matte finish like is found on a Garand or other military stocks. 600 to 800 grit gives you a satin up to a semi-gloss look such as is found on most hunting rifles. 1000 grit and up (including just using the palm of your hand) creates a shine like the high-gloss poly finishes.
Quick note: To get high gloss, it is absolutely necessary that you put those last coats on as lightly as possible. To paint you a word picture. When I put a gloss coat on (it may take several to get where I want to go) I tip the bottle up against the palm of my hand, then using the mouth of the bottle, I scrape about 75% of what stuck to my hand back into the bottle. That little bit that is left on my hand will do the entire side of a butt stock. It will also rub dry much more quickly than a heavier coat. If you put this product on heavily, you will never get a good gloss!
Now to a more challenging situation - repairing over another finish! Click here.