If you learn how to stain wood, it will open lots of avenues for you as a do-it-yourself. When constructing new furniture, a new world of color possibilities will open up. Restoring old furniture can include accenting the beauty of wood grains. Reusing existing furniture, cabinets, and floors will become an option in renovation projects without limitations base on their current color.

Wood-working projects will have more options in terms of customization after you learn how to stain wood. But, before embarking on this journey, it is important to understand what wood stain is and what to take into consideration when using it.

What is Wood Stain?

The type of stain is determined by the liquid used as a carrier. The carrier is the substance that contains the pigments and dyes being applied. The pigments and dyes in the stain are retained in the wood after the carrier evaporates. They can accent the appearance of natural wood grain and change the color of the wood.

There are two main types of stain, oil-based and water-based. Both types of stain are applied using similar techniques. However, there are a few differences that are important to consider.

Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based stains use mineral spirits as a carrier. This type of stain does a good job preserving wood grain and protecting the wood. Oil-based stains are available in many colors and are a go-to for staining woods with pastels.

Right before use, oil-based stains must be stirred thoroughly. When left to sit, the pigments and dyes may separate from the mineral spirits and settle on the bottom of the can. They also give off a lot of fumes while drying. This makes proper ventilation is especially important when using oil-based stains. This stain type requires a longer drying time than that necessary for water-based stains.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains use water as a carrier. They provide an even stain and are available in a wider range of colors than oil-based stains.

Generally, water-based stains do not separate as easily as oil-based stains. They have a shorter drying time and release fewer fumes, making them more appealing for someone experimenting with how to stain wood. If you need to minimize fumes for reasons such as working in a tight space, water-based stains may be the way to go. Confirm the stain selected is low in fumes by reading the instructions carefully or asking a representative at the hardware store.

Why Is It Important To Learn How To Stain Wood?

Stains are used to change the color of wood while retaining the natural beauty of the wood grain. Stains can be used on wood for new construction as well as on existing pieces of furniture. For example, if you know how to stain wood, re-staining existing kitchen cabinets become a doable, lower-cost alternative to buying new cabinets when renovating a kitchen.

Instructions, Tips, and More

Know Your Wood Type

  • Hardwoods may take more coatings of stain than softwood. Examples are oak, beech, ash, elm, birch, and walnut. Aspen and boxwood are very soft hardwoods.
  • Softwood may be more inclined to take up stain unevenly because they are more likely to have uneven wood grain. Examples are pine and cedar. Fir is a very hard softwood.

Choose Your Sandpaper

  • Sandpaper with a lower grit number will result in a rougher surface. A rougher surface is able to absorb more stain. Taking up more stain makes the stain darker.
  • Sandpaper with a higher grit number will result in smoother wood. A smoother surface is less able to absorb the stain. Taking up less stain makes the stain lighter.

Preparing Wood

  1. Apply wood conditioner to help stain evenly. The uneven grain patterns are often seen in softwoods, which can make them more likely to stain unevenly if left unconditioned.
  2. Clean the wood surface, so it is free of dirt, debris, and so on.
  3. Sanding wood(You may want to check Our Best Sanding Machine) can take several steps, depending on how smooth the final product needs to be. Start with (60 or 80) low grit to remove irregularities in the wood.
  4. Use a higher (100 or 120) grit to create an even surface. If you would like the stain to be able to penetrate the wood deeply, stop sanding at this particular grit. If you would like a lighter stain, begin to sand with increasingly higher grit until you reach 200 or higher. Stop when the wood is sanded appropriately for the amount of staining desired.
  5. Wipe down the wood to remove debris after sanding is complete.

Applying Stain

  1. Stain can be applied with a brush, sponge, rag, or clean cloth. Apply the stain generously to the wood. If working with a brush, apply the stain both with and against the grain. Apply the stain in a circular motion if working with a sponge, rag, or clean cloth. Regardless of the method, the goal is to apply an even coat of stain over the entire surface.
  2. Wait for 5 to 15 minutes before wiping off the excess stain. This will allow the stain to absorb. A longer wait time will cause a darker stain. Wipe off excess in the direction of the wood grain. Wiping in this direction will accent the wood grain in the final product.
  3. If desired, apply additional coats of stain to deepen the color. Repeat the same application process.
  4. Let the wood stain dry in a well-ventilated area for at least 6 to 8 hours before finishing the wood. Read the instructions for the specific stain as they will have a more specific drying time.

Finish the Wood

Wood stain alone does not protect the wood. A stained piece of wood left unfinished will be more prone to scratches, damage from having liquids spilled on it, and drying out. To protect the wood, use a wood finish.

After the stain is dry, apply a wood finish such as polyurethane or tung oil to protect the surface. Like paint, finishes come in several levels of gloss: matte, semi-gloss, gloss, and clear. Select a finish based on the gloss desired and the amount of use the wood will see. The finish selected for a high traffic hardwood floor may differ from that selected for a bookcase.

Apply the finish in even coats with a brush. For more specific information, consult the product instructions.


  • Before buying or using any stain, make sure you read the entire can. Make a note of information such as the time a stain much set before reapplication or the drying time necessary before applying your finish.
  • Read the instructions on the wood condition and the finish.  There is nothing more frustrating than wondering why a project did not come out right and realizing the poor results could have been avoided by reading the instructions.
  • Test on scrap! To determine the right amount of sanding and staining desired, test your stain on wood left rough and sanded smooth. You can also test the effect of applying a single coat or multiple coats of stain.
  • Water-based stains can be applied on top of oil-based stain, but first, the mineral spirits in the oil-based stain need at least 24 hours to evaporate.
  • Leftover stain can be used at a later date if closed and stored.


  • Stain stains so wear gloves and old clothes. Stain works not only on wood but can stain skin and clothing.
  • Protect your eyes by wearing safety glasses.
  • Work in a well-ventilated space. Avoid inhaling fumes. Oil-based stains release more fumes as they dry than water-based stains.

How to Stain Wood 101 – The Conclusion

If you learn how to stain wood, you will be able to add new luster to old wood or give character to new furniture. It can be used to accent the natural warmth of wood grain or to create a striking statement through the use of pigments. Before setting out on a staining project, several factors must be considered: the wood type, how the wood is prepared, and the type of stain used.

The type of wood affects how and how well a stain is picked up. Hardwoods have well-defined grain, which will be easier to stain more evenly. However, it may take more coats before achieving the desired effect. Softwoods tend to have irregular grain and require more prep work to ensure a stain will be absorbed evenly. However, they take up stain more easily, requiring fewer coats.

How It’s Prepared?

How wood is prepared for staining can affect the coverage of the stain. The use of wood condition can minimize blotching of stains, which is more often seen when softwoods are left untreated before stain application. The grit used to sand the wood also affects the amount of stain picked up. The rougher the wood, the more stain will be absorbed.

Types Of Stain

The type of stain also affects the staining process. Oil-based stains may be a better option if trying to enrich the natural color and grain of wood or achieve a pastel color. However, fumes are a greater concern when working with oil-based stains. Water-based stains have better coverage and come in a greater array of colors. While they are lower in fume, they do not penetrate the wood as deeply as oil-based stains and offer the wood less protection.

Now that you have learned how to stain wood you should be able to breathe new life into old furniture or start that project you have been eager to get to with just the right color of wood. Remember: read all product instructions; use proper safety gear; and enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

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