Preparing the Table
Before you can stain a table, you need to strip the table of its previous finish. Do not skip this step. The new stain will not hold well if you do not strip the old stain, and the look of the whole table will suffer. The finish on the table is also likely to be uneven after use. If you do not strip it, the worn patches will shine through the new stain. Since staining a table is already a long and somewhat difficult process, take the extra time to strip the table well.
You should also consider the types of stain available before you purchase a can of stain. For instance, pigmented stains are colored stains with a binder mixed in. While these do offer attractively colored finishes, they might obscure the original wood. Oil-based stains are popular, but they take longer to dry and the smell is quite pungent. Water-based stains are growing in popularity due to the decreased drying time, odor and environmental impact. Dye stains provide great results for high-quality wood; they do not use pigmentation and they do not hide the grain.
Applying the Stain
Before staining, ensure the table is clear of all debris and dust. When you apply the stain, you can use a soft cloth, paper towel or small paintbrush. A cloth works best, since you will have the most control over the actual staining process. If you do choose a paintbrush, choose a high-quality paintbrush with natural bristles; the cost of a quality brush usually starts around $8. While a cheaper brush might work for some projects, any bristles that come loose from the brush will be permanently set into the stain of your table. Spend a little extra to get better results.
Apply the stain in steady strokes as well, following the grain of the wood and allowing the stain to work into the wood. For a lighter color, rub harder while staining. For a darker color, apply the stain lightly.
Once you are finished staining, the stain must dry for at least 24 hours. Let it sit, and then coat it with one to three layers of polyurethane to add a protective covering for the table. Apply the polyurethane with a thick brush. Again, invest in a quality brush, and brush thoroughly and smoothly.