How to Stain Wood

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Stain both changes and enhances the appearance of wood, giving it depth and color. While this project doesn’t take much practice, good preparation and staining techniques are essential for getting professional-looking results. This article covers the steps to ready wood to accept stain and walks you through how to apply stain like a pro, no matter what stain or application method you use. 

How To Prepare Wood for Staining

Properly preparing your wood before staining it is essential to avoid a sloppy, uneven finished product. This section covers everything you need to know about preparing wood for stain, helping you achieve a perfect stain job every time. 

  1. Check the weather forecast. Stain dries as moisture is absorbed into the air via evaporation. If the air is too hot, too cold, or too full of moisture already, it will affect the dry time, and can even keep stain from drying. For best results, choose a day between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity no higher than 70%. If you’re working in a climate controlled environment, set the controls to those parameters. 
  2. Learn about the wood you’re staining. Not all wood accepts stain easily, such as particle board.

Stains react with the natural tannins of the wood, so wood low in tannins is difficult to stain. Pine is the prime example of this phenomenon. You can add tannins to pine by brushing on strong black tea. This method should only be used with brown stains, as tea will darken the color of the pine. 

Tight-grained woods such as maple have difficulty absorbing pigmented stain. Using dye-based stains instead can help improve your results. 

Knotty areas of wood are very dense, so it is difficult to get even stain absorption on these areas compared with knot-free wood. Use a solid stain or gel stain for the best results on knotted wood, but be prepared to accept some variation in color. 

More basic woods like plywood accept stain, although the results will vary based on the type of plywood.

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  1. Remove the old finish (if applicable.) While it is possible to stain over some finishes, it’s difficult to predict the results. You’ll get cleaner, more even color if you remove the old finish

You can use paint stripper, varnish stripper, or wood bleach, depending on the type of finish. If you don’t mind losing some of the material, you can quickly remove the finished portion of the wood using a power sander and coarse-grit sandpaper, between 40 and 60 grit. 

Darker stains are harder to remove than lighter ones.

  1. Sand the wood. Stain only penetrates the top layer of wood cells. Sanding after staining will change the color, eventually removing it, so all sanding must be done before the first coat of stain is applied. 

When refinishing wood, the initial sanding should already have been completed, and you can start with 120-grit sandpaper. Using a sanding block or power sander, sand out roughness until the wood is smooth to the touch. 

For new wood that has never been finished, you’ll need to start with 80-grit sanding paper before moving up to 120-grit. If the wood you’re working with is rough, the first step is to sand with a coarse sandpaper, then medium (80-grit), and finish with fine sanding paper of at least 120-grit. 

  1. Fill gouges or scratches. Superficial damage to wood can be repaired with wood filler, a thick putty that will obscure the grain of the wood wherever it is applied. Smear into the hole, gouge, or scratch with a putty knife ,then scrape off the excess with a clean putty knife. Choose a stainable wood filler to ensure the filled area will evenly accept stain. 
  2. Wet the wood, and sand again. When exposed to liquid, the cut fibers within the wood will lift up. This is called ‘raising the grain’. Wipe the entire surface of the wood with a damp cloth and allow it to dry. Then, sand with 180 or 220 grit sandpaper for a super-smooth finish. 
  3. Remove dust. Using a shop vac or household vacuum, clear the dust from the workpiece and clean your workspace to the best of your abilities. Wipe the wood with a tack cloth (cheesecloth covered in wax) to remove any fibers or dust that clings to the surface.

Sawdust, dirt, or debris that is on the wood when it is stained will affect the outcome of your stain product, so take your time with this step and be thorough.  

How to Stain Wood

To stain wood, you must choose the right products and tools for your specific situation. Following the steps below will help you get a great result you will be happy to look at for years to come. 

  1. Prepare your workspace. Use a drop cloth to cover the floor or ground beneath the wood you’re staining. Change into comfortable clothes. Mix the stain thoroughly, using a paint stirrer, and pour it into a clean container. 

Large yogurt containers work well if you’re brushing or wiping on stain. Using a clean container will prevent you from introducing bacteria into the stain, which is important if you want to store the extra stain and use it again.   

If you’re spraying on the stain, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to thin it to the appropriate viscosity for your machine, and pour it into the fluid chamber. Some sprayers also have the option to feed directly from the can. 

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  1. Do a test. Use a spare piece of wood as a test board. The board should be prepared according to the instructions above, and should be the same species and age as the wood you’re looking to stain. Brush, spray, roll or wipe on the stain, using whatever method you intend to use for your wood stain project. Allow the stain to dry and evaluate your results.

To decide how many coats you need, try adding a second coat of stain to only half the board, after the first coat is dry. This will allow you to compare the two options side by side. It’s rare for traditional stain to require more than two coats, although gel stain often requires three. 

  1. Apply the stain. Traditional (water or oil-based) stain can be rolled on to large surfaces (like floors) using a roller. For rough wood like fences, a ⅜ inch nap roller will give you the best coverage.

A paint sprayer gives very even results, but will use more material than rolling or brushing, and you need to be careful to cover anything in the area that you don’t want stained. Sprayers result in a lot of overspray.

Bristle brushes are another option for applying traditional stain. The works well for corners, crevices, carvings, and edges. 

For gel stain, a foam brush is your best choice for even coverage, and has the added benefit of being cheap enough to discard instead of clean. 

  1. Wipe up excess. When applying stain with a brush or roller, keep a clean rag handy and immediately wipe up any drips or splashes before they start to dry. Use clean rags to rub the stain into the wood for more even coverage.  

For gel stains, you don’t need to rub anything in, simply wipe up any obvious globs left behind by the brush. 

A properly calibrated paint sprayer won’t leave excess stain behind, and should not drip or run. 

  1. Wait for the first coat to dry. Quick-dry stain formulations may be dry to the touch within an hour. Water-based stains are usually dry within two hours. Oil-based stains take longer, between six and eight hours. On humid or cold days, any stain will take longer to dry, but no matter what method or product you use, it should be dry to the touch within 24 hours. 
  2. Apply additional coats, if needed. Since stain is not a wood protection product, applying additional coats is discretional. If the stain looks uneven or you were hoping for a darker color, additional layers may solve the problem. It is typical for gel stain to look streaky and uneven after just one coat, but this will disappear with subsequent applications. Plan on two or three coats when using gel stain, and wait 24 hours between each coat. 
  3. Protect the wood. Stain is intended to change the color or appearance of wood, not protect it from impact, moisture, and fungus. Although oil-based stains do provide some level of protection, it’s not enough for high-use areas like tabletops or floors. A few coats of clear polyurethane will seal in the color and keep the wood in great condition. Choose a polyurethane with a base that matches your stain – oil poly for oil stains, water poly for water stains

Learn more about the best wood finisher for your specific project.

What’s the Best Way to Apply Stain? 

The best way to apply stain is dependent on the size and orientation of your project, as well as the stain product you are using. 

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  • Sprayer: If you have a lot of vertically-mounted wood to stain, as in the case of fences or exterior siding, the best stain sprayer will get the job done quickly and easily. There is no need to rub in or wipe off stain applied with a sprayer. It is important to cover any surrounding surfaces, including plants or bushes, if using a spray device. 
  • Roller: For large horizontal surfaces such as decking, wood floors, or stairs, a roller is the best choice of applicator. Use a roller with an extendable handle or attach the paint roller to a wooden broom handle to reduce strain on your back from bending over. 
  • Brush: If you’re staining a smaller piece of furniture, apply the stain with a brush. Bristle brushes work best for liquid stains, while gel stains will go on more evenly with a foam brush. Brushes are recommended for corners, crevices, and carved wood. 

What Kind of Stain Should I Use?

You have three choices when it comes to stain. Most people opt for either an oil or water based stain, but gel stains are becoming more popular.

  • Oil-based stains have a stronger smell and a longer dry time, and are available in limited colors. They provide some protection to the wood through the presence of drying oils, which penetrate the wood’s surface and form an elastic barrier. 
  • Water-based stains dry more quickly and because they are water soluble, clean up is a breeze. They are available in a wide variety of color options. Although they may not be as durable as oil-based stains, their longevity has improved in recent years. 
  • Your third option is gel-based stain. Gel stain is available in very limited colors, but its thick consistency makes it easy to apply without worrying about drips. Gel stains give the most even, consistent color of the three wood stain options. 

Should I Condition Wood Before Staining?

Many softwoods and some hardwoods have a grain structure that makes them difficult to stain. Conditioner penetrates the wood, temporarily sealing it off. This prevents parts of the wood from absorbing more stain than other parts, thereby eliminating the main cause of blotchiness.
You can use a wood conditioner on any wood, but pine, cherry, and maple are three types of wood that should always be conditioned before staining. Other species that may benefit from pre-conditioning are fir, alder, and birch. 
Choose an oil-based conditioner to prepare wood to accept oil-based stain. For wood destined to be stained with a water-based product, use water-based conditioner. The stain usually needs to be applied within 15 or 20 minutes of conditioning the wood.

Do I Need to Prime Wood Before Staining? 

You should only use a primer on wood if you plan to apply a solid stain. 
Solid stain contains large pigment particles that obscure the grain of the wood. Primer also obscures the grain of the wood, and has the added benefits of making the stain easier to apply, providing some additional protection to the wood, and making the stain last longer. 
Use a paintbrush, roller, or sprayer to apply the primer and wait for it to completely dry. 

Should I Fill the Wood Grain Before Staining?

For open-grained woods such as mahogany, filling the grain will give you more even coverage when working with stains. 
The cellular structure of wood varies in size, shape, and design depending on the type of tree and how it was cut. Open-grained woods essentially have large pores. If you stain without filling these pores in, the surface of the wood may look uneven.
Grain filler is a colored paste that is applied with a brush or a rag. Choose a grain filler close in color to the stain of your choice. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to work the filler into the wood grain, scraping off any excess with a scraper or clean putty knife.

Conclusion

To get the best results, properly prepare your wood to be stained by removing old finish and sanding the surface. Choosing the right stain and applicator for your desired results is important to getting the outcome you desire. 

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.