On the surface they seem like a time saver, but there are some pros and cons.
hoto of stain being applied to wood with brush

Q: As much as I enjoy woodworking, I often wish I could fast-forward over the staining and finishing steps. I've seen products sold as all-in-one stains and finishes and have wondered if they are worth trying? 

A: Staining and finishing don't rank very high on the fun list for many woodworkers. Knowing this, finish manufacturers are constantly developing new products to make the job easier or faster. Enter all-in-one finishes. These products combine a pigment with a polyurethane finish, providing both color and protection to your project in one step. And just like traditional stains, all-in-one finishes are available in a range of shades.

On the surface (see what we did there?), all-in-one finishes sound like a real timesaver. They are faster than staining and then finishing in separate steps. But there are few shortcuts to success when it comes to finishing. And an all-in-one finish is no exception. Here's why:

Traditional stains penetrate into the pores of the wood, imparting color to the wood itself. After the stain dries, several clear coats of finish provide a protective layer over the wood (and stain). In contrast, all-in-one finishes are essentially just tinted polyurethanes. The pigment sits on top of the wood in the hardened finish layer. Because of this, the pigment tends to obscure the wood grain, resulting in a less-than-natural appearance.

Additionally, many users find it difficult to achieve consistent, even color with all-in-one products because any lap marks or variations in the buildup of the finish result in a streaky appearance in the stain. In our experience in the WOOD shop, the time savings is outweighed by the potential downsides to the appearance of the finished product, which is why if we choose to use any stain at all, we stick with a traditional stain followed by a separate topcoat. 

All-in-one finishes do have some advantages, though. Unlike traditional stains that require you to strip or sand the finish down to bare wood before staining, all-in-one finishes can be applied over an existing stain or finish after just a light surface sanding. This makes them ideal for refinishing, particularly if you wish to go from a lighter shade to a darker shade.

All-in-one finishes also work great on MDF. Just be aware that the pigment builds up with each coat you apply. To add surface protection without darkening the color, apply additional coats of a pigment-free polyurethane over the all-in-one finish. 

Have a question? Drop us an e-mail. askwood@woodmagazine.com