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How to Stain Wood: Everything You Need To Know

For a long time, I thought stained wood was just plain ugly. Turns out, there’s a right way to stain wood, and a wrong way to stain wood.

The best way to stain wood is by following these steps:

  1. Sand your wood with 180 grit sandpaper
  2. Remove any sawdust with a vacuum or cloth
  3. Stir the wood stain
  4. Brush stain onto the wood
  5. Remove any remaining stain with a dry rag
  6. Allow to dry for at least 24 hours before adding a topcoat

There are a lot of nuances, though, and definitely some things you should know to ensure your project turns out perfect, so keep reading!

Note: This blog contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive compensation (at no additional cost to you.)

Choosing the Right Wood Stain

You actually have a couple different types of wood stain to choose from before you apply a single thing to your piece: traditional oil-based wood stain, gel stain, and water-based stain.

Traditional Oil-Based Wood Stains

If you’ve already bought your stain, it was probably a traditional oil-based wood stain. If the stain is just vaguely titled “wood stain,” that’s what it is.

Traditional oil-based stain, is as you’d expect, an oil-based liquid. It’s more toxic that water-based stain, and emits heavy fumes during the application and drying process. Decent ventilation is a must, and if that’s not available you might want to consider using a water-based stain instead.

Oil-based stains should be applied underneath oil-based topcoats, and is great at staining hardwoods like oak. Because softwoods absorb stain unevenly, traditional oil-based stain often makes softwoods look blotchy, although there are some ways around that.

They’re are the least expensive stain on the market, and are sold by every major home improvement retailer. They’re an economical choice, but might not be the best choice if you’re primarily sanding softwoods.

When to Use Gel Stain

Gel stains are ideal for sanding softwoods (like pine, fur, and pretty much any inexpensive wood you find at big box stores,) because they’re thick. This reduces the amount of stain that’s absorbed into the wood, resulting in a more-even stain appearance.

Unfortunately, gel stains are significantly more expensive that traditional oil-based wood stains. They can also be difficult to apply in tight corners, so it’s better to apply the stain before assembling the piece.

Another cool feature of gel stains, is that unlike traditional wood stains, they will ultimately dry if left on top of the piece. Because of that, they can be used on top of previously finished pieces. To see an example of this, check out my cedar chest makeover!

Water-Based Wood Stains

Water-based stain is great if you’re working in an area with poor ventilation, or plan to use a water-based topcoat.

Otherwise, they’re more expensive without a ton of extra benefit. Water-based stains don’t penetrate as much as oil-based stains, and therefore take more coats to effectively stain the piece.

That time adds up fast, making water-based stains my least used type of wood stain.

Preparing Wood For Staining

There are a few things that need to be done in order to successfully stain your wood.

Sanding Wood

First off, the piece needs to be sanded. The amount of sanding you’ll need to do depends entirely on what kind of wood you purchased. Cheaper lumbers, like construction lumber (2x4s,) furring strips, and common boards will need to be sanded a lot.

In that case, I recommend starting with 60 or 80 grit sandpaper, and working your way up to 180 grit sandpaper. You can read more about this method in my complete guide to sanding wood.

More expensive boards should still be sanded with 180 grit sandpaper to remove any manufacturing marks, as well as slightly close the pores of the wood, which helps the wood stain evenly.

I never skip sanding wood, although I frequently do my sanding before assembling the piece, because it’s easier to use a power sander that way (and hand sanding is a pain!) The wood won’t become un-sanded, so it’s just fine if you have to sand a few days before you end up staining.

You might be tempted to skip the sanding. Don’t! It makes a huge difference. Here’s a comparison between stained sanded wood, and stained unsanded wood:

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking

It’s easy to tell that the sanded wood looks 100 times nicer. If you plan to work with wood with any regularity, an orbital sander will make the sanding process a breeze, and is 100% worth the cost.

I have a whole post devoted to choosing an orbital sander, but if you want the quick version, I recommend this one.

Wood Conditioner

Most woodworking bloggers swear by wood conditioner… I don’t. Let me tell you why.

First off, wood conditioner doesn’t actually “condition” the wood, that’s a load of BS. What it does do is fill your wood pores with wood conditioner, so that when wood stain is applied the wood pores don’t absorb quite as a much of it.

This helps softwoods like pine absorb stain evenly. It works, and it’s an effective way to stain softwoods.

But it’s not the only way to stain softwoods, and it bothers me that so many people pretend like wood conditioner is a must. (Is Minwax paying them to say that? Actually, probably.)

Sanding, which is something you should be doing anyway, is also a really effective way to close wood pores. The finer the sawdust, the more it gets into the pores of the wood and helps to control stain absorption.

This is why you should stop sanding at around 180 grit. If you sand much further than that, you risk closing the wood pores and reducing stain absorption.

I’ve found sanding to 180 grit and applying with a rag (more on that in a second) is typically enough to make my softwoods take stain nicely, making wood conditioner an unnecessary expense.

As mentioned, I also apply my wood stain with a rag. I dip the rag in the stain, then blot it a bit on another rag or piece of scrap wood. That way, the rag isn’t saturated with stain when I rub it on my wood.

Instead, the rag only has a little bit of stain on it, which helps me control how much stain is absorbed into the wood. Since only a little bit of stain is available and therefore absorbed, it’s really easy to apply the stain evenly across the wood.

I actually have a complete experiment post where I compare wood conditioner to other methods of controlling stain absorption. Check it out for more info!

Test Sample

Before I stain any woodworking project, I always, always, always make a test sample of my planned stains and finishes first.

This comes from many finishing disasters, where my final product didn’t look anything like what I wanted it to. By making a test sample from scrap wood leftover from the build, I know exactly how my stain and topcoats will look on the wood before I apply them to the final piece.

The test sample is called a test sample for a reason – I usually test multiple stains and options. I test with a foam brush vs a rag, wood conditioner vs no wood conditioner, different colors of stain I’m considering with different topcoats, etc.

That way, I can choose the finish plan that looks most like what I’m trying to achieve. If there will be adhesion or drying problems, I’ll know BEFORE I apply the finish to my project, not after I’ve already made a mess of things.

I highly recommend making a test sample for every project you do. It may seem like an extra annoying step, but you’ll avoid so many mistakes by doing this that it will save you tons of time in the long run.

How to Stain Wood

Step 1: Sand the Wood

You’ll want to sand the wood up to 180 grit sandpaper. If you’re working with nicer lumber, a thorough sand with 180 grit sandpaper is probably enough.

If you’re working with less expensive lumber, check out this full post on sanding wood before staining.

Don’t skip the edges or the end grain!

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking

If you can, sand before assembling the piece, that way it’s easier to sand everything evenly because all surfaces will be flat.

Step 2: Remove Any Sawdust

Sanding creates a lot of fine sawdust, and you want to remove it from the piece. Sucking up the sawdust with a shop-vac has always worked well for me, but a microfiber cloth works too.

Don’t worry to much about this step. If a few dust specs remain, it’s really not a big deal. You just want to get most of the dust off the piece.

Step 3: Stir the Wood Stain

This isn’t quite as important with gel stain, but if you’re using traditional wood stain or water-based stain, you’ll want to make sure you’ve thoroughly stirred the stain before you start.

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking

Pigments in stains are heavy, and quickly fall to the to bottom of the can, even in just a few hours. Therefore, it’s important to stir, otherwise the stain at the top will look diluted, and be dramatically different that the stain at the bottom.

I often just shake the can before I open it – that does a good job of distributing any pigments at the bottom. You wouldn’t want to do this with wood finishes, since shaking introduces air bubbles, but this isn’t a big deal with wood stain, where any excess stain gets wiped off the piece anyway.

Step 4: Brush or Rub Stain onto the Wood

As mentioned above, I usually dip a rag into the stain, blot it somewhere else, then rub the stain onto the wood. Always rub in the direction of the grain, so that any rub marks blend into the grain.

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking

A foam brush works for application as well, and the nice thing about foam brushes (versus normal paintbrushes) is that they’re so cheap they’re disposable.

Oil-based wood stain is a hassle to clean up (it requires mineral spirits,) so being able to throw away the brush at the end is a huge timesaver.

To apply the stain with a foam brush, dip the brush into the stain, and paint the stain onto the wood. It doesn’t actually matter which way you paint the stain, but it will matter in the next step which way you wipe it away.

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking
Step 5: Wipe Away Excess Stain

If you’ve applied with a rag, this step is unnecessary since there was no excess stain in the first place.

But if you applied with a foam brush, chances are there’s a bunch of stain sitting on top of the wood. You absolutely must wipe the excess stain away.

The number one wood finishing disaster (I’m making this up, but it sounds right) comes from people who don’t wipe away excess stain. Excess stain will never dry properly, and will stay sticky for days and weeks. It must be wiped away.

Grab a rag, and wipe away the stain in the direction of the grain so that any marks blend into the grain.

Once you’re removed the excess stain, lay your rags out to dry. Wood stain is combustible, so you really don’t want to leave your wet rags in a pile, since there is a risk of them spontaneously combusting.

Lay them flat, then once they’re dry you can safely throw them away.

Step 6: Allow the Wood Stain to Dry

Oil-based wood stain requires 24 hours of dry time before a topcoat can be applied. I recommend waiting at least that if you’re applying an oil-based topcoat, and I’d wait at least 72 hours if you’re applying a water based topcoat.

Water-based and oil-based products often run into adhesion problems if they’re used together and one isn’t fully dry, hence the 72 hour recommendation. I often try to avoid this altogether by matching my stain and finish to both be oil or water-based.

Water-based wood stains dry much faster, and can typically be coated with a topcoat in the same day.

If you’re wondering about recoat times (aka, adding another coat of stain,) I’ve found that more than one coat of oil-based wood stain is typically unnecessary. It doesn’t do anything, and is a waste of my time.

Gel stains and water-based stains typically have a recoat time of 2-4 hours. Check the can to be sure for your exact product.

You should sand after the first coat of water-based stain to flatten any wood grain the water raised, but it’s unnecessary after that. You don’t need to sand between coats of gel stain or oil-based stain.

Woods That Stain Poorly

Unfortunately, there are some woods that just stain poorly. Some you can probably guess; I’ve mentioned that softwoods are blotchy the whole post. I’ll talk more about combating that in the next section.

But some hardwoods stain poorly too. Maple is known for its tight grain, and because of this, the wood pores struggle to absorb stain. Poplar has green tints to it, and often stains strangely. As a result, poplar is typically considered a “painting” wood.

Some woods, like rosewood and teak, are super oily, and therefore reject stain altogether. Birch is a hardwood, but stains blotchy just like the softwoods do.

The best hardwood for staining is usually oak, and it’s available at most home improvement stores (as well as specialty lumber stores.) However, hardwoods in general, including oak, are significantly more expensive than softwoods.

If this is one of your first woodworking projects, or even just your first time staining, I’d start with cheaper softwoods. That way, you’re not ruining a $40 board if you make a mistake.

And while there are a few extra steps to make sure softwoods turn out well, it’s really not that difficult.

Tips for Staining Softwoods

As I mentioned above, the best way to reduce blotchiness in softwoods is to control the amount of stain absorption. Here are my favorite techniques:

Sand Thoroughly

Sanding to at least 180 grit can clog the pores of the wood, and reduce stain absorption, leading to a less-blotchy appearance when staining softwoods.

You can also sand to higher grits, like 240. If you’re going to do this, it should probably be something you test on your test sample, so you can decide if you prefer the 180 or 240 look.

Keep in mind that the more you close the pores, the less stain will be absorbed, which could also affect the shade of the stain.

Apply With a Rag

Applying stain with a rag can help ensure that only a limited amount of stain has contact with the wood. This is another way to control stain absorption; when using a foam brush, the wood will take all the stain it can, but with a rag the wood can only take the stain it has access too.

Remember to lay out your rag to dry when you’re done. Spontaneous combustion is to be avoided.

Use Wood Conditioner

Wood conditioner, if applied following the directions on the can, dilutes the stain, restricting the pigments that stain the wood. This results in a lighter shade, but also reduces blotchiness.

Unlike the rag and sanding methods, wood conditioner is a consumable good, which means it regularly costs money to purchase. That’s probably the main reason it’s not my go-to option.

Gel Stain

Because gel stain is a thick, pudding-like texture, less stain can soak into the wood. This helps control stain absorption, and reduces blotchiness. It also is usually applied with a rag (applying with a foam brush just wastes a lot of product,) which also helps with stain absorption.

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking

Gel stain is significantly more expensive than traditional wood stain, though, which is certainly something to consider when there are other options for controlling absorption.

Washcoat

Wood conditioner is actually a type of washcoat, but I wanted to mention other things that could be done as well.

A washcoat is a thin layer of finish that dries on top of the wood before applying stain. When stain is applied, the washcoat prevents stain absorption.

Pretty much any finish can be thinned down and used as a washcoat. I like using Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, since it can be used with any type of stain.

That said, this is still not my most frequently used method, especially since the products have to be thinned down, and that takes some experimentation to get right.

Staining End Grain

If this is your first time finishing wood, be aware that without some extra work, the end grain of the wood takes stain completely differently than the rest of the piece. Here’s a nice example of this, from when I didn’t know any better:

Staining wood can be nerve-wracking the very first time. Come learn everything you need to know about how to stain woods, especially if you're staining softwoods that don't stain well! #woodworking

See that really dark end of the dowel rod? Ideally, it would be similar to the rest of the piece. Obviously, it wasn’t.

The end of the wood is really absorbent when stain is applied. Luckily, all of the techniques I listed for softwood above can also be used on the end grain.

I typically sand the end grain to a higher grit than I sand the rest of the piece. That’s usually 240 grit, with the rest of the wood sanded to 180.

Then I apply the the stain with a rag, being extra careful not to have too much stain on my rag. I recommend practicing this technique on scrap wood before trying it on your actual piece.

If you want more detail on this, check out my full post on staining end grain. I did a full experiment with all the techniques, so you can check out the pictures and see what looks best to you!

Finishing Wood After Staining

Just to clear up any confusion: in most cases, wood stain is not the same as wood finish. Wood still needs a topcoat to protect it after stain.

The exception to this is if you used a Stain+Poly product, like Minwax’s Polyshades. I actually hate these things (they’re difficult to use,) and I don’t recommend them. I should also mention that the Stain+Poly products act more like finishes than stains, so the instructions I’ve written above really don’t apply.

Regardless, you probably need a finish. I recommend picking a finish/stain combo that is of the same type. Oil-based stain with oil-based finish, water-based stain with water-based finish. Gel stains are oil-based for this purpose.

By matching your stain and finish, you cut down the likelihood of error. It’s definitely possible to mix and match, but if your stain product isn’t fully dry, the finish will struggle to adhere properly.

I also want to mention that wax-free shellac is a great option that adheres to anything. Yay for universal finishes!

I love Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, which works as a great shellac finish, but can also work as a sealcoat to put between the stain layer and the finish layer if you’re worried about adhesion.

This was really just a brief overview, but I have a whole post dedicated to choosing a finish. Go check it out if you’re not sure what finish to use, or if you just want more info on the various wood finish types and what they’re good for!

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