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I'm builduig a ledger for indoor use (to support a work surface) with with some 2 by 4s cut to size, my question is, should I stain or paint them to protect them? for spills etc, or is staining indoor wood purely for cosmetic reasons?

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A true wood stain does not build a "film" on the surface. It only changes the color of the porous wood fiber near the surface. You will want a film-forming finish if your goal is to make it easier to clean up spilled liquids. A paint will do this, but if you want to preserve the look of the wood, then 1 to 3 coats of a polyurethane based finish will also work well. Polyurethane is a clear, durable finish that is resistant to many chemicals and also to normal wear and tear.

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It doesn't matter unless the room is going to have an extreme amount of humidity, temperature changes, or was subject to a lot of chemicals. What you are worried about with a ledger is warping or the bolts rusting. If I wanted to protect a piece of wood from elements I would use an oil based primer and paint as I would use in a bathroom.

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Stain or paint - whatever suits your fancy, or colour scheme. :)

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