Debbie S. posted a nice comment and a question about finishing materials for staining and varnishing minis. She had a House of Miniatures finishing kit, which included a stain, glaze and varnish. I used the House of Miniatures finishing materials on my Victorian bookcase. (See my March 12 blog for photos of the bookcase.)
When I purchased the finishing kit, the varnish had already gone bad; so I only used the stain. I wasn't sure how to finish it, though, until I attended a miniature show in Chicago. One of the professional furniture builders there recommended I use Deft semi-gloss. He noted that it dries quickly and goes on thin enough that it doesn't overwhelm the delicate work piece. I've used Deft ever since on all of my minis.
As far as stains go, I've used a variety of them. However, I don't use and don't recommend using water-based stains. The water-based stains raise the grain of the wood. Oil-based stains don't. Miniaturists don't need to be afraid of using commercial, oil-based wood stains.
Sherwin Williams used to sell small cans of stain that were about a half-pint volume. For miniatures use, they were perfect, since I didn't need very much of it. Now, however, I can only get their stains in quart containers. As long as you seal the can thoroughly, you can make one of those quart sized containers last a l-o-n-g time! (The stain doesn't dry out nor does it get a skin on the top of it like paint and varnish do.) If you have some friends in the hobby, you could by a quart of the stain, stir it up thoroughly, pour it out into a bunch of baby food jars, and share it with them!
The main thing to remember when using these stains is that you will need to stir the can (or jar) thoroughly each time you use it, because the dark pigments often settle to the bottom of the can. Also, if you're working with a wood grain that doesn't take the stain evenly (like pine wood), it's advisable to get a can of clear stain and apply that first to reduce the stain's uptake into the grain. This is especially important for end grain parts of the wood. They can become extremely dark, because they absorb too much of the stain - far more than the top and sides of a piece of wood.
Many of the paint stores will have displays showing the various colors of stain they have available. The display will often show how their stains look on various kinds of wood including pine, birch and sometimes oak. You'll get a sense from that display which color may come closest to meeting your needs. The commercially available stains may not offer a deep or dark enough color for your preferences. For example, I have not found a stain that matches the dark reddish furniture stain that Bespaq miniatures come in.
If you want to match the Bespaq stain, you may want to go to a paint store where the clerk is willing to work with you on customizing the stain. I found a nice, locally-owned paint store nearby that has worked with me on some of my paints and stains. A mom and pop store may be more willing to help you than some of the big paint or DIY stores. The paint store can add extra pigment to the stain, which will make it more opaque, but it will also darken it to a color you may prefer. Keep in mind that the darkened stain won't show as much of the actual wood grain as a lighter stain will.
Take a raw sample piece of the wood you used for making your mini when you go to the paint store; and start by experimenting with a dab of the various stain colors they already have. (Most paint stores will allow you to test a tiny amount of the stain at no charge.) If you're staining a kit, most of the dollhouse kits use bass wood. You can find that kind of wood in most hobby stores in the U.S. (I have no idea about other countries - sorry for my ignorance.) You can also mix and match stains, putting on one coat of a color and then adding another after the first one has dried.
If you want to have the wood grain show through and you're using a wood such as Walnut, then you don't even need to use a colored stain on the piece. You can use a clear, oil-based stain on it. This will darken your wood slightly with just that application alone. Let it dry a day or so before you apply any finish.
Before you do any staining, though, make sure you have sanded your piece to a smooth finish. (Start with 120 grit paper, then use 150 grit and then finish off your work with 220 grit.) I sometimes keep on advancing to finer grits. 3M makes an open coat paper (it's yellow in color) that comes in 320 and 400 grits. If I really want to smooth my wood, I'll go to that level of sanding.
When I build a furniture kit or make something from scratch, I usually sand the individual piece of wood first. I'll set the sandpaper down on a smooth, hard surface. A good, Masonite or plastic clip board with a smooth surface is ideal for this. The clip holds the paper in place and the smooth, flat surface under the sandpaper won't distort your sanding. I hold the wood piece by its middle and move it over the sand paper in the direction of the wood grain. After about 10 to 20 strokes, I reverse the direction of the piece in my hand and sand the same number of times on that same side of the piece of wood. That way, if my hand is accidentally applying more pressure on one end than the other, I even out the amount of material removed from both ends.
Once you're done with the sanding, make sure to wipe the piece down thoroughly with a tack cloth. Then you're ready to stain. I have applied my stains with a facial tissue; but some tissues can leave stained pieces of paper dust on the surface. If you have an old T-shirt or other cotton fabric you don't mind destroying, cut a small piece of that fabric and use it to wipe on the stain. With minis, a little goes a long way, remember!
Once the stain has dried, wipe the piece with a clean cloth to knock off any colored tissue dust (or regular dust). Next, spray it with Deft. Try to find a room that doesn't have a lot of sawdust in the air or thoroughly vacuum up your workshop before you begin to spray. No matter how clean your room, you'll still likely get some dust in the finish. I usually do a couple of coats with the Deft.
In between sprays, I gently wipe down the surfaces with 0000 steel wool. This removes most of the dust imperfections. You'll be able to feel any imperfections on the flat surfaces of the piece. I wipe it down with a tack rag after I've used the steel wool. Rub GENTLY with the steel wool - especially along any edges of the wood. It can cut clear down to your bare wood very quickly. If you want to add some luster to the piece and help protect the finish, you can also add some furniture paste wax to the piece. Be sure to thoroughly rub out the wax, though, after you've applied it to your mini.