The Ultimate Guide to Staining Plywood
Plywood is an excellent alternative to wood. It looks like wood, it’s less prone to warping, and best of all, it’s less expensive than wood! But the big question is, can plywood be stained?
Staining plywood is very similar to staining wood, but extra precaution should be taken during preparation to avoid sanding through the top layer, and to stain the edges of the plywood correctly.
Lets look a little closer at all the nuances that go into staining plywood correctly!
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Preparing Plywood For Staining
Before staining wood, there are a couple of things I typically do, like sanding, applying wood conditioner, and testing my stains and finishes on scrap wood.
Plywood should be prepared similarly, but there’s a little extra risk in some of these stages, since there’s only a thin layer of wood on the top.
Sand your plywood with 180 grit sandpaper, and only 180 grit. When sanding traditional wood boards, it’s best to start with a lower grit and work up, but if you try that with plywood, you’re likely to sand through the top layer.
Instead, carefully sand with 180 grit sandpaper. If you have a variable speed orbital sander, now is the time to lower the speed to the lowest speed. Otherwise, just be extra careful to sand lightly, especially near the edges where it’s easy to quickly sand through layers.
As long as I’m being careful and only doing a light sanding job, I’ve never had an issue sanding with the orbital sander.
Also, if you’re nervous and considering skipping the sanding process, don’t. There are a couple of benefits to sanding, including eliminating any marks from the manufacturing process. These are invisible to see now, but will become readily apparent when stain is added to the plywood.
The other big benefit is that sanding closes up the pores of the plywood, which results in a more even stain application. Always sand before applying stain!
Do You Need Wood Conditioner?
Wood conditioner dilutes the stain, helping the plywood absorb it evenly. However, wood conditioner isn’t always necessary.
First off, hardwoods like oak take stain really well, so if you’re using oak plywood, you’re probably fine.
Pine and birch plywoods are known for absorbing stain unevenly. Wood conditioner might be beneficial in these situations, but there are also other options you could use to control stain absorption.
Sanding (carefully, as discussed above) with 180 grit sandpaper narrows pores in the wood. Applying stain with a rag instead of with a foam brush allows for less stain to absorb into the wood, reducing blotchiness. And gel stain is a thicker stain that is intended for the exact purpose of staining blotchy woods and plywoods.
I try to avoid wood conditioner, solely because it makes the stain lighter and it’s therefore harder to control the shade. But that’s a personal preference, and wood conditioner is a great option for you to experiment with.
Regardless of what method or combination of methods you choose, I recommend testing them on some scrap plywood before applying them to your main piece. That way, you can be confident they’ll produce the result you want.
Make a Test Sample
What’s the best way to know if you’re going to run into blotchiness issues? Test your stain on some scrap wood before you start! That way, you can make adjustments to your process before accidently ruining your project.
I always test every possible finishing solution I’m considering. If I’m debating wood conditioner vs. only sanding, that gets tested on the scrap piece. If I’m debating applying with a foam brush vs rag, that gets tested too.
Often times, I test multiple shades of stain to make sure I get the exact shade I want. Frequently, my test pieces have 6-7 different tests on them, purely because I want to see all of my different options.
I also usually test the finishes as well, because stain always looks different after finish is applied, and I want to know what the final product would look like.
Here’s the back of one of my pieces, where I did a ton of testing to try and get exactly what I wanted. It’s wood and not plywood, but you get the idea:
While I prefer to test on scrap pieces of the project, if I don’t have any of those, I’ll test on an inconspicuous part of the project like I did in the photo above.
Choosing a Type of Stain When Staining Plywood
There are three primary types of stain easily accessible to consumers: traditional oil-based wood stain, gel stain, and water-based stain.
Traditional Oil-Based Stains
Traditional oil-based wood stain penetrates easily, and leaves a deep color on the plywood. It’s affordable and easy to find; it’s the stain you probably were planning to use until you read this section.
However, traditional oil-based wood stain can appear blotchy on plywoods like pine and birch. There are ways to mitigate this, which I discuss later in the article, but one option is to purchase a different type of stain.
Oil-based wood stain is also more toxic than its water-based counterpart, so if you’re not working in a well-ventilated area, or don’t want to expose yourself to hazardous fumes, you’re better off grabbing water-based stain.
Gel stains are a colored varnish, and are significantly thicker that traditional wood stain. They are also oil-based, but can be left on top of the wood indefinitely, unlike traditional stain.
They’re a great option for blotchy plywoods like pine and birch, because the thickness of the stain controls the amount that’s absorbed into the wood. This is the primary benefit of gel stain, so if you’re planning to stain plywood or other softwoods frequently, it’s the stain to keep in-stock.
Gel stains are more expensive than traditional wood stain, but they often negate the need to buy other products like wood conditioner.
Water-based stains are non-toxic and don’t emit hazardous fumes during the drying process. However, they do not produce as deep of a color as oil-based stains, and therefore often require multiple coats of stain to get the same shade.
Water-based stains are a great option if you’re looking to finish the piece with a water-based finish. While technically, as long as an oil-based stain has cured for a long enough time (24-72 hours,) it shouldn’t interfere with the adhesion of a water-based topcoat, there can be issues, and it’s not a risk I like to take.
I don’t use water-based stains very often, unless I have a solid reason for wanting to use a water-based finish. See more on choosing finishes in this post.
How to Stain Plywood
Step 1: Carefully Sand the Plywood
Lightly sand the plywood with 180 grit sandpaper. Be extra cautious around the edges of the plywood, where it’s easy to sand too much and expose the lower layers.
I do usually use my orbital sander for this, but am extra careful to sand lightly. If you have a variable speed orbital sander, this is the time to use it on a lower speed.
Step 2: Wipe Down the Plywood
Grab a microfiber cloth, and wipe down the plywood. I don’t typically wet my cloth, simply because then I have to wait for the wood to dry before staining, and that’s a hassle.
I’ve found the microfiber does a good enough job of getting the sawdust off the wood. Stain isn’t like finish; since the stain isn’t going to sit on top of the wood, there isn’t really any danger of sawdust getting stuck and creating flaws.
While you don’t want giant clumps of sawdust hanging out on your piece while you stain, a few specks here and there will simply get wiped off during the staining process.
Step 3: Apply the Stain to the Plywood
When using traditional stain or gel stain, I like to apply with a rag. This allows me greater control over the absorption, and really helps reduce blotchiness.
I make sure to stir the stain before I start, then dip the rag into the stain and rub it onto the wood, rubbing in the direction of the grain.
When using water-based stain, I apply the stain with a foam brush, and wipe away the excess after the stain has sat on the wood for a few minutes.
Step 4: Wipe Away Excess Stain
If you used a rag to apply the stain, there probably isn’t any excess stain, so this step isn’t necessary.
If you used a foam brush, then you absolutely must wipe away any excess stain 2-5 minutes after application. Wood stain left on the wood does not dry, it just turns into a sticky mess after a few hours (with the exception of gel stain, which does ultimately dry if a thin coat is applied.)
Always wipe with the grain, so that any swipe marks you make blend in!
Step 5: Allow Stain to Dry
Oil-based wood stains have a long dry time, requiring 4-6 hours between coats, and 24 hours before applying finish on top of stain.
The good news is that oil-based wood stain rarely requires more than one coat. In fact, when I’ve tried to apply a second coat, I’ve found it doesn’t have any affect at all.
Water-based wood stains don’t take as long to dry, and can typically be recoated in 2 hours and topcoated in 3 hours.
Staining Edge Banding
I didn’t really talk about the edges of plywood in the above section, because it really deserves it’s own spot.
Realizes that if you try to stain the edges of raw plywood, it will look nothing like the rest of the wood. The inner parts of the plywood that are exposed on the edges have a completely different composition from the top layer that you stained.
Raw edges of plywood will take stain completely differently then the presentation layer.
There are a few options. First of all, you could design your project to hide any raw plywood edges. This is what I do most of the time; you can see a nice example of that in this TV lift cabinet.
Secondly, you can use edge banding on the edges of the plywood. Edge banding is a thin veneer ironed on to the edges of the plywood. It is stainable, and stain can be applied the same way it’s applied to the rest of the plywood.
Note that the edge banding might not take stain the exact same way your plywood did. Definitely test the stain on the edge banding in advance so you know exactly what it will look like.
Staining Birch or Pine Plywood
Blotchy plywoods like birch and pine absorb stain unevenly, which creates blotchy results. There are a number of ways to reduce this, however they all take the same approach, which is to reduce stain absorption.
Methods can be combined together to create the best result. I always test my options on some scrap plywood in advance to make sure things look right before I stain.
Here are a few options for reducing stain absorption:
Apply a Washcoat
Washcoats, such as wood conditioner, are a thinned finish that creates a barrier over the wood, so that less stain soaks into the pores. This creates a more even result.
Wood conditioner is one type of washcoat, but you can thin any finish and use that as well. I have an entire post on wood conditioner and washcoats here, so check it out if you’re considering going this route.
Sand With High-Grit Sandpaper
While I recommend 180 grit sandpaper in the post, higher grit sandpapers create smaller pieces of dust, which more easily clog the pores of the wood. When the pores of the wood are clogged, less stain is absorbed.
Try sanding with 240 grit sandpaper instead of 180 grit. Once again, sand lightly and carefully – sanding too much can expose the lower layers of plywood, which don’t stain well.
Using Gel Stain
Gel stain is a thick stain that mostly sits on top of the wood. Because it doesn’t soak in as much, it doesn’t cause blotching in the plywood.
I love gel stain for this reason, and use it all the time when I’m staining softwoods and pine plywood. If you’re not sold on it yet, check out my post on gel stain, so I can convince you it’s worth a try!
Best Plywoods For Staining
If you’d rather avoid the blotchiness altogether, prepare to spend the big bucks. A 4′ x 8′ sheet of 3/4″ Red Oak Plywood costs almost $60 at Home Depot.
Unfortunately, this is probably your best option. Home Depot also had birch and maple plywoods available for similar prices, but neither of these stain well. Birch is blotchy, and maple has a really tight grain that struggles to absorb stain at all.
Lumberyards and wood specialty stores have a larger selection of hardwood plywoods available, but they’re going to be even more expensive than the red oak. It’s possibly worth it if you’re looking for a unique wood project, but I wouldn’t spend that kind of money if you’re planning to stain the wood.
The red oak plywood is the way to go if you’re looking for a hassle-free staining job.