How to Stain Wood Guide [All You Need to Know]

A wood carpenter applies a protective layer of transparent varnish. Hand with a brush close up on the table top

Has it ever happened that you have completed a DIY project like building a wooden cabinet or wooden bookshelf and felt that it was still unfinished?

This is probably because you might be looking to give that project a bit of vibrancy. After all, if you have made it from scratch, it is essential for it to stand out. Staining is a great way to achieve that perfectly smooth look on any wooden surface. It is not necessary but has a ton of benefits, especially with old furniture.

So, whether you are doing a bit of research or are looking for a foolproof way to stain wood without ruining it, we’ve got you covered. We have gathered some information on wood staining for you and created this comprehensive guide.

Now, without further ado, let’s jump right into it!

How to Stain Wood Guide

How to Stain Wood Guide 02

What Is Wood Staining?

To put it in simple terms, wood staining is a process to enhance the color. This is mainly done to bring out the natural color of the wood using a coating. The coating is tinted and is very similar to paint but does not add any extra color to the wood.

Staining is often mistaken for finishing and used interchangeably. Wood finishing is essentially done to add a protective layer to the surface. It also gives shine to the wood, but that is not the case every time. On the other hand, staining is just for enhancing the wood’s color and does not offer any protection.

How To Stain Wood

  1. Preparation

Much like with any process, preparation is key. The first thing that needs to be done is sanding the surface. Now, it is important to ensure that the board is sanded with the appropriate sandpaper and enough pressure is applied so that any pre-existing coating can be removed.

If the board is not sanded at all, the stain will not be even and crisp. Similarly, if the board is sanded lightly, there could be a chance that a bit of pre-existing coating is still there. This can be a problem since it will not allow the stain to soak in properly.

To prep the wood properly, sand it with 120 grit sandpaper, wipe away the dust, and sand it again. Next, use a clean damp cloth to wipe away the dust and fibers. After that, sand it once more with higher grit sandpaper.

  1. Conditioner

After you are done with prepping the wood, it is essential to condition it. Once you wipe the conditioner in, make sure to wait for some time before coating the wood. Not waiting after applying the conditioner might lead to the stain mixing with the conditioner on the surface and watering down the stain’s color.

If you are using softwood like pine or plywood, this pre-stain conditioner step is crucial. After conditioning, it is ideal to wait for about 5-10 mins before staining. You can also wait for longer but not more than 2 hours.

  1. Coat With Stain

Before starting the staining process, make sure that there is no wind and that everything you need is nearby. If there are any pets in the house or little kids, it would be better to keep them away from the workspace. When it comes to staining, the application is very simple.

The stain can be applied with a cloth, a brush, sponge brush, or anything you’re comfortable using as long as it gives an even coat. The painting tool can be stroked in the direction of the wood or against it. It is generally advised not to stroke sideways.

To get an even coat, apply long strokes and lift the brush gently at each stroke’s end. The main idea is to make sure that the stain does not drip or splatter.

  1. Wiping

As easy as staining is, wiping does require a bit of technique. Wiping the excess stain off is essential as it determines the shade that will stay. If you want a lighter tone, then immediately remove the excess material. For a darker tint, leave it on for about 10 mins and then wipe.

Now, we know the image of wiping in your head must be taking any cloth and removing the excess, but it is a bit more technical than that. We recommend taking a clean cloth and folding the edges. Then, gently run it along the wood’s direction (as you did with the brush) in long strokes.

Do not wipe anymore once the excess is gone. Wiping more than required will spoil the stain, and it will get pulled.

  1. Finishing

The next step in this process is finishing. Now, if the wood is being used indoors, there is no necessity to finish it. But if you do go ahead with it, make sure the stained wood has been dried overnight.

As we already mentioned, the finishing of wooden surfaces is only done to protect the wood. So, if you want to finish the stained food, a topcoat can create a protective layer. Ideally, the topcoat container should not be shaken but stirred in a figure 8 motion. Similar to applying the stain, the topcoat should also be applied in long even strokes.

Once the topcoat has been applied and dried, sand it with 180 grit sandpaper and wipe off the dust. Apply one more coat to give it a smooth and clean look. Ensure the wood is not overcoated with a top coat because, just like with the stain, applying a lot will not be smooth.

The type of finish depends entirely on the stain that has been used. Before exploring the types of finishes that can be used, let’s get into the different types of wood stains.

Best Varnishes for Wood

Types of Wood Stains

There are mainly four types of stains – water, gel, oil, and varnish-based – and they each have their own set of advantages. If the plan is to use the stained wood for outdoor use, then using a varnish-based stain is ideal. Basically, to select the ideal stain, it is important to consider the type of wood being used and its resting place.

  1. Water Based Stain

Water based stains have a ton of advantages, despite only being ideal for water based finishes. They have a shorter drying time and can also maintain the color for longer. Their quick-drying nature is why a lot of people choose to stain wood in segments with this stain.

Water based stains are environment-friendly as they do not contain particles that cause any pollution. Moreover, it is non-flammable and has no fumes making it safer to work with. Water based stains are also easy to clean and also have a much richer tint.

If you plan to use a wood that is susceptible to rotting, then using a water based stain will be ideal. This type of stain also has excellent mold and mildew resistance, so there is no need to worry if the wood is being kept in damp surroundings.

However, using a water based stain can be time-consuming, and compared to other stains, the penetration of this stain is much lower. This is why it does not provide any significant protection to the wood.

  1. Oil Based Stains

In case you are using anything other than a water based finish, oil based stains are the ones to count on. These stains are quite versatile as they can be used on any type of finish. While they have a longer drying time, the finish is much smoother than any other stain.

Penetration-wise, oil goes in much deeper than water which is why it also has a deeper seal. Oil based stains are also long-lasting since they can withstand harsh weather conditions. Since it does not require a lot of maintenance, it is much easier to work with too.

The only issue with oil based stains is that they can stretch the working period on any project since it takes time to dry. Moreover, they are not mold-resistant like water based stains which can be an issue in humid climates.

  1. Gel Based Stains

Gel based stains are a bit thicker than water but are surprisingly easy to work with. Since it has a thickening agent, it is easier to apply. Plus, the colors are pigmented as well. If you plan on stain cabinets or fences, gel based stains are ideal.

However, it is important to remember that since gel based stains are thick, they tend to collect. If the wooden surface has any cracks or crevices, chances are the stain will pool in those areas. Be extra careful during the wiping stage of the staining process. If this type of stain is not wiped correctly, it can end up looking uneven.

The thickness of the gel, although mostly beneficial, is also the reason it takes a long time to dry. Moreover, it is crucial to apply this stain by hand using brushes and rags since it is too thick to be sprayed.

Other than that, this stain is great for wood that absorbs anything put on it or tends to blotch like pine or birch. Because gel based stains sit on the surface, it will not make the wood sappy.

  1. Varnish Based Stains

If you are looking for a stain that will enhance the wood’s natural color, varnish based stains are the one. These are unlike or gel based stains that have a little tint and only produce a transparent protective finish. Other than using this just as stain, it can also be used as a top coat for stained wood.

Since it has no color and is mainly transparent, it can create a very smooth reflective finish on the wood when done right. The only thing that is important to remember is that it is not as forgiving as water and oil based stains.

For varnish based stains, you need to wipe off the excess quickly to avoid uneven and blotchy coats. Plus, if not brushed evenly, it can cause bubbles. Another thing to be wary about with this stain is that it tends to become yellow over time.

Stains And Finishes

  1. Oil Based Polyurethane – Oil Stains

When looking for the ideal topcoat to finish an oil based stain, oil based polyurethane is the best bet. With just 2 or 3 coats, you can get the finish that is desired. Water based polyurethane is not ideal for this type of stain since it will require a lot of coats to get the desired look.

When it comes to oil based polyurethane, it is important to use a good quality brush. Try to resist the temptation to buy a cheap brush as those will shed their bristles, ruining the wood’s look. Instead, buy a foam brush as they are affordable and disposable.

While applying the top coat on oil based stains, it is important to maintain a balance regarding the quantity. Make sure too much is not being applied, as that can lead to drips and runs. On vertical wooden surfaces, like cabinet legs or chair legs should be painted with a thin coat.

Unless the wooden surface is exposed to harsh weather, we suggest going with standard two coats. Regardless of the number of coats, sanding the wood in between each coat is necessary. It will also help to apply the coat in a well-lit area to ensure all the flaws and drips are visible.

This type of top coat takes overnight to dry, unlike water based polyurethane. It is advised to sand this with 320 grit sandpaper, wipe the dust and apply another coat for a clean finish.

  1. Water Based Polyurethane – Water Stains

It is no secret that oil and water do not blend well together. This is why water based polyurethane is only meant for water stains. Application-wise, there is not much difference when handling this type of top coat. The only thing is there is no need to sand the wood in-between applications.

Around 3-5 coats are adequate to get the desired results, and each coat should not have a lot. Plus, even if more coats are applied, it will still be less time-consuming than an oil based top coat because water based ones dry very fast.

Kid Hand Varnishing a wooden shelf using paintbrush

Tips For Effective Wood Staining

If this is your first time staining wood, we recommend first testing the stain on a smaller piece of wood. This will be beneficial as it will allow you to get accustomed to the process, be more prepared about what to expect and give enough room to make mistakes.

Always stir the container well before using it, especially when using oil based stains. Those stains usually have dyes and pigments mixed with mineral spirits, which leads to color depositing all the way to the bottom of the container. Stir the oil based stain well to bring the color back to the surface. This will ensure proper coloration when staining.

While there is no strict rule on what kind of tool to use, many people prefer bristled brushes. We recommend trying foam brushes and paper towels instead, as they are more affordable and disposable. Unless you invest in a high-quality brush, there is no point in spending money on brushes with bad bristles.

As we have mentioned before, over-coating can mess up the whole project, but under-coating can also be an issue. No matter the wood stain, a minimum of two coats is a must. Whether you sand between coats or not, remember to remove the excess stain and always let a coat fully dry before applying the next.

It is crucial to remember that oil based stains have fumes, so it is advisable to use them in an area with proper ventilation. If you want to avoid fumes altogether, choose water based stains. The application process for both is fairly similar, and water based stains are available in a wider variety of colors.

Things To Do Before Wood Staining

Before staining a wooden piece, ensure all handles, hinges, or knobs are removed. This is mainly to ensure that any metal hardware attached to the wood is not damaged in the staining process since the stain can change its color.

Staining can get messy so put on some old clothes in case the stain gets the clothes. It will also help to have a lot of rubber gloves with you as these products easily stain the skin as well. It is advisable to cover any parts that might come in direct contact with the stain.

In case you are looking to make the wood a specific color using a stain, it is possible to mix two different stains to create that color. However, be mindful of the fact that oil and water stains do not mix. Also, try to buy the stains you intend on mixing by the same manufacturer for optimal results

While preparing the wood, it will help to turn off the lights and shine a torch from a low angle to check for any scratches and imperfections. It is easier to point out any issues this way and ensuring the sanding is done correctly before moving on to staining.

Key Points

A few takeaway pointers to remember is that choose the stain and the wood well. Do ample amount of research before driving to the nearest home depot and picking up any can of wood stainer. Also, do not expect staining to give the same result as finishing since those are very different processes.

After you are done with staining the wood, finishing it is not mandatory unless the wood will be kept outdoors and exposed to harsh climate. However, for the general longevity of the newly stained wooden piece, a topcoat can be applied.

Hand with a brush varnishes wooden boards

Final Words

With that, we finally come to the end of this comprehensive guide on how to stain wood. We hope that whenever you plan on starting a staining project, this guide can help figure the process out every step of the way.

Before we leave, we would like to clarify that staining is not tricky, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Other than sticking to a few important points, it’s all about trying it out repeatedly to see what method is ideal for you to get the desired result. It may be time-consuming, so have patience and trust the process.

Now, we shall take your leave. But don’t worry! We will be back soon with more comprehensive guides. Until then, stay safe!

Related Articles

9 Best White Face Paint For Cosplay, Clowns & Halloween

8 Best Face Paint For Kids Reviewed

6 Best Body Paint | Top Brands Compared

5 Epic Face Painting Supplies That Will Improve Your Designs

6 Best Body Paint For Cosplay Reviewed

Learn How to Body Paint With Brilliant Results Right Now

5 Best Airbrush for Body Painting Reviewed

16 Brilliant Face Painting Techniques to Feed Your Imagination

11 Best Face Painting Kits 

13 Best Paint for Furniture 

13 Best Paints for Bathroom Ceilings 

13 Best Ceiling Paints  

11 Best Polyurethane Protective Coatings  

What is the Best Wood for Outdoor Furniture 

13 Best Spray Paints For Metal

7 Best Airbrush for Miniatures & Model 

11 Best Gold Spray Paint  

How to Make Resin Jewelry 101 

11 Best Epoxy Resin For Crafts 

5 Best Polyurethane for Floors  

9 Best LVLP Spray Guns 

5 Best Epoxy Resin for Tumblers  

10 Best Epoxy Resins For Wood  

9 Best Exterior Wood Stains Today 

9 Best Varnishes for Wood

13 Best Spray Paints For Metal

7 Best Sprayers For Staining A Fence

7 Best Airbrush For Models & Miniatures  

10 Best Clear Coat for Kitchen Cabinets [Buyer’s Guide]

7 Best Polyurethane for Floors 

8 Best Wood Lacquer

11 Best Miniature Primer [Reviews & Buyer’s Guide]

11 Best Miniature Primer

5 Best Rose Gold Spray Paint

9 Best Paint Sprayer for Lacquer

7 Best Sprayers For Staining A Fence

9 Best Paint Sprayer For Lacquer


Anna Vaughn

Anna Vaughn

Immense painting experience recommends Anna. She shaped The Little Painters, a small local painting workshop for children that invites the little ones to explore painting through simple and creative means in a safe, loving and extremely colorful environment. In her home panting studio she plays with all paint mediums but watercolor is her expertise.

Posted in DIY

Read next

Stainless steel kitchenware on the table

Ceramic vs. Stainless Steel Cookware 101 [All You Need to Know]

Popular Small Saltwater Fishes

11 Popular Small Saltwater Fishes You Need to See

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *