How to Select, Stain, and Finish Plywood for Woodworking Projects

how to stain plywood

Plywood is one of the most versatile and cost-effective building materials, and as a result, it is also one of the most popular. So many home DIY projects involve the use of this type of wood, and in order to give it a finished look, most turn to stain. We have put together a comprehensive guide to help you understand which plywoods to use and how to stain plywood. 

Before you get started on staining, ​make sure you've finished buying, measuring, and cutting all of your wood. We'll walk through the right steps for selecting plywood, but we haven't provided any guidance on how to best cut your wood. ​​This guide focused on learning about the different types of plywood, and how to best stain them.  

​Selecting Your Plywood

Those interested in DIY home improvement may be familiar with using plywood as a substrate or structural wood where the finish is not a factor.

You may not be familiar with the process of staining and finishing plywood.   For that reason, we put together this guide on how to stain plywood in your own home improvement projects.

Types of Plywood

First, there are two main types of plywood:

  • plywoods made from soft woods, such as fir and pine. These are typically found at the big box home improvement stores, and often times referred to as construction grade plywood. When you think of your traditional plywood, this is usually softwood in construction.
  • ​plywoods made from hard woods. In this type, the surface layer of at least one side is high quality hard wood. This type of ply can be used to make furniture and cabinetry that will end up looking like solid food.
types of plywood

​Hardwood vs Softwood

Hardwood plywood is always of a high grade and it is relatively easy to stain and finish. However, it is much more expensive, and sometimes defeats the purpose of using plywood as the wood of choice.

To find quality hardwood ply in a variety of different species, you typically need to go to a specialty lumber yard. Your typical Home Depot will probably carry one or two varieties of hard plywood, but your selection will be limited.

Softwood, on the other hand, comes with a letter grade as a part of the plywood's grading system. This letter grade is uniformly given throughout the industry, and ranges from A (the highest quality construction grade) to D (the lowest quality).

Plywood Grades

​You'll get the best staining results by using grade A plywood, but all types can be stained with a little bit of upfront work.

Grade A is sanded smooth and may have some repairs made on the wood's surface by the manufacturer. ​These repairs can include oval-shaped sections of wood that have been cut out and replaced to disguise a flaw. 

Grades B and lower have more blemishes and the repairs will more obvious as you look it over. By the time you get to Grade D, there are large knots and splits, and often times the manufacturer hasn't made any repairs

Most sheets of plywood are different grades on each side. This means that you might find a sheet of ply that is Grade B on one side and Grade D on the other. This is typically fine, as you'll usually be staining just one side for your woodworking project.

Man holds a sheet of grade b plywood

Grade B Plywood

Man holds a sheet of grade C plywood

Grade C Plywood

Be sure to select the better side for staining!

For instance, plywoods in Grades A-C is readily available at your local home improvement store, and usually for a very reasonable price. This makes it a great option for your DIY project. And, with the right steps, you can stain the plywood for a gorgeous, finished look.

If you're using softwood plywood, the next step is to repair your wood, to the degree you feel necessary. The manufacturer will probably have made some repairs, but you might want to add your own as well.

Preparing Your Plywood for Staining

​The degree to which you need to prepare your plywood for a stain depends on the type and grade of ply you have. A hardwood or Grade A plywood probably won't need much prep at all, but a lower grade will.

​Use Wood Filler to Fill Holes

If your plywood has dents, holes, or splits, you can use a stainable wood filler​ to fill the gaps in.​ Be sure to select a wood filler that is both stainable and sandable.

​Avoid wood putty, as it does not hold stain the same way wood filler does. The stain won’t penetrate on ​repairs with putty. ​

Ply wood in need of fill work before staining

​Sand Your Plywood

​High grade and hardwood plywood is already sanded pretty smooth. These plywood surfaces should be sanded lightly using a 220 grit sandpaper. If you choose to use a powered orbital sander for this light sanding, be very careful that you do not sand through the thin, outer layer of the plywood.

For lower grades of softwood ply, which is commonly what a lot of DIY homemakers use, you'll want to consider sanding in several steps. First, starting a lower grit such as 150, sand evenly across the side you'll be staining. Then, finish with a higher grit such as 220.

No matter what type of wood you have, sanding is a very important step to do before staining. You won't want to add stain to a plywood surface that hasn't been sanded.

After sanding, you'll want to wipe the surface with a tack cloth. This removes the remaining wood dust that is left over from the sanding process. For the best stain results, you need to pull the loose dust and dirt off the surface. 

Knots that a manufacturer has filled in plywood

Apply a Sealer (Optional)

​Compared to hardwood, softwood ply can sometimes stain unevenly. What this means is that the soft plywood will take stain more in some areas than in others, causing dark and light patterns that can sometimes look unnatural. 

Apply a sealer to your plywood before staining reduces this blotching effect, but it also reduces the amount of stain absorbed by the wood. So, in general, you get a lighter but more consistent staining result. 

Sealers are typically very easy to apply - usually you use a simple brush to stroke it onto your plywood surface. Follow the directions on the sealer container to ensure you apply it properly. The moisture in the sealer may raise the grain on the wood again, making it feel rough again. If so, lightly sand over the surface by hand with 400 grit sandpaper.

Applying a sealer is not difficult, but by doing so, you'll need to add more stain to your plywood. Or, you might be alright with a lighter colored final result. 

One great option is to test a sealer on an extra piece of plywood, and then apply a stain to see what the finished result will look like. This will ensure you have the right finished look. 

How to Stain Plywood​

At this point, you have successfully prepared your plywood for staining. While it can seem arduous to do the leg work involved in filling and sanding, the finished product will look a lot better as a result. 

Select​ Your Stain

​Wood stains come in two types: water based stain and oil based stain. Generally speaking, here are the main characteristics of each:

Water based stains

  • ​Easy clean up with water
  • Quicker drying time
  • Best for smaller surfaces

​Oil based stains

  • ​Longer clean up with solvent
  • ​Extended drying time
  • ​Ideal for larger surfaces

​Many first timers opt for water based stains because of their easy application and clean up. However, oil based stains will give you a better finished product, especially on a larger surface.

Related: How to Thin a Wood Stainer

Next stain choice: each of these come in either liquid or gel form. Confused yet? ​Here are the general characteristics of liquid and gel stains:

​Liquid stains

  • ​Simple and quick to apply
  • ​Limited control of finished look
  • Better used on larger surfaces

​Gel stains

  • ​Slower to apply to surface
  • ​More control over finished look
  • ​Ability to fix imperfections
  • More difficult to use on larger surfaces

To sum it up, many beginners prefer to start with a liquid stain because it very easy to brush on and wipe off. While faster and easier, you have a lot less control of the finished product.

Stain​ Your Plywood

  1. ​For a liquid stain, apply the first coat, using long and even strokes. If you're using a gel stain, instead apply the first coat with a cloth, rubbing the gel into the wood evenly as you go along​.  ​In either case, wipe the stain off before it dries on the plywood.
  2. ​Let the first coat dry. With a water based stain, the drying time is typically only a few hours. However, with a oil based stain, you'll need to let it dry overnight.
  3. ​Before applying a second coat, examine the plywood for both coloring and dryness. Applying subsequent coats will help to darken the coloring, along with potentially applying additional richness to the color and grain.
  4. ​Do not sand between coats of stain. The only sanding you have left to do is at the very end, once all the staining is done ​and you've applied a finish.
  5. Once you’re satisfied with the color, you can wipe the wood with a tack cloth again and apply a coat of finish like polycrylic or polyurethane. ​
how to stain plywood

Photo credit: - Jaco - Jahluka on Flickr / CC BY-ND

​How to Stain Oak Plywood And Other Hardwoods

​The process for staining oak plywood and other hardwoods is the same as the process for staining regular plywood, with one or two small exceptions. Working with harder woods on your DIY projects can pose a few challenges, but often yields a much nicer result.

Hardwoods such as oak, cherry, maple, mahogany, and birch are not typically found in cheap plywoods, but make for great pieces of wood for fine woodworking and furniture making.

​When staining these hard woods, you don't need to add any wood filler to their surface because they are generally without blemish. As a matter of fact, one of the main reasons for selecting these types of hard plywood is because you appreciate the look of the wood's exterior.

Other than that, ​you also might want to skip sealing your plywood before staining. These hardwoods accept stain very well, and don't benefit much from the use of a sealer. 

how to stain oak plywood

Conclusion

Your DIY home improvement project may require the use of stained plywood. We hope this guide has helped you to understand how to stain plywood, and we wish you the best of luck in your home improvement projects!

Fun Plywood Facts

  • Plywood is made of three or more thin layers of wood bonded together with an adhesive.This use of thin layers of wood​ dates back to approximately 1500 b.c. when Egyptian craftsmen bonded thin pieces of dark ebony wood to the exterior of a cedar casket found in the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amon. Encyclopedia.com
  • ​Because plywood is made in layers, it is incredibly strong but also light in weight. ​WoodworkBasics.com
  • ​The word ply derives from the French verb plier, "to fold", from the Latin verb plico, from the ancient Greek verb πλέκω. ​W​ikipedia

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