I find applying finish, even stain, with a paper towel really does a great job. It seems to lay on the stain or finish gently and thoroughly. I run the air filter overnight before finishing to clear all dust out of the air, and find it helps prevent drifting particles from landing on the project while wet. I also have found that a pe-stain helps with even staining.
I do my sanding before and after staining, and my secret weapon is using the flexible 3M sanding sheets that are both flexible and extremely long lasting. I seldom sand to more than 220. I also use the shaped sanding blocks (from Rockler), including both the curved and flat blocks. The 3M material conforms beautifully to the block's inside and outside curves, and with the triangular flat blocks, provides a fine point for the corners of the frames I often make for my wife's paintings.
The pictures are of the sanding blocks and my favorite Aussie filler (Timber Mate) that takes stain beautifully. That filler often allows me to get corners looking perfect, even though there is a slight warp or twist in the stock. It also does not shrink so once you apply and smooth it, it stays that way and covers lots of small errors. The sandpaper picture is there because I can never remember the name of the stuff.
Timber mate comes in a variety of types to match the wood stock you are using. I think that's why it finishes exactly matched to your stock.
Finishing is one of the most daunting parts of learning woodworking, and detailed posts like yours really help newbies get started. It can be daunting when you consider all the methods and materials out there.
The more I do, the less I accomplish.
Last edited by DesertRatTom; 06-12-2018 at 10:22 AM.
Reason: add details