Red oak, which is probably the most widely available oak at home improvement centers, is a very open-grained wood. It can leave a rather rough finished feel if you just sand, stain, and walk away. Here are some tips that have worked for me that should give you a finish that will feel great to the touch.
1. Sand your project to 180 grit.
2. Apply stain with a cloth, working it in by rubbing it. Wipe off the excess.
3. With the stain still wet, sand the project using 220 grit zirconium oxide (black) sandpaper. This creates a slurry with the sawdust and stain and will help fill in the open grain.
4. Wipe down the project with a finishing cloth.
5. Allow to dry.
6. Apply a coat of polyurethane. Allow to dry and rub with steel wool, or lightly sand with a fine-grit sandpaper.
7. Apply a second coat of poly. Allow to dry and very lightly rub with steel wool – this is mostly to knock down any bubbles that may have formed with the poly (most usually settle themselves), or any bits of dust/debris that may have settled on the finish.
8. Apply a coat of paste wax. The wax will fill in any marks from the steel wool. Wax on, wax off – don’t allow the wax to sit 10-15 minutes as the manufacturer may recommend. Buff it like crazy. It will go on hazy, but the more you wipe, the more luster you’ll achieve. Allow this coat to dry, and apply additional coats if you prefer.
Experiment with this technique on a piece of scrap red oak until you’re comfortable doing it on a completed project.
Another tip – I’ve used oil stain, then water-based poly. The drying time is very quick with the water-based poly. I’ve been able to stain a project one evening, then poly and wax it the next day. A pro-level finish done in two days.