How to Stain Wood: Tips for Newbs and Old Hats Alike

picture of stained wooden floors and a brick wall

Staining wood has been used for centuries to enhance and preserve wood projects. Learning how to stain wood properly will save you time, headaches, and heartache. After spending hours making a perfect trinket box, ruining it during the staining process can be crushing (yes, the voice of experience is whispering in your ear).

Every type of wood has peculiarities. Likewise, different types of wood stains act differently. Understanding these perks and quirks will help you make good selections. If you already know the basics, we apologize for the simplicity of the first few sections. You may skip ahead. If you are new to wood staining, read everything.

Your finished projects will be the masterpieces you set out to produce. Our master woodworkers have years of experience and will reveal tips and tricks about staining projects. Put on your safety glasses and nitrile gloves. We’re about to have some fun!

Difference Between Stain and Paint

The most notable difference between paints and stains is in the final appearance. Paints cover wood grain, adding color to the surface of a project. Stains bring out the natural coloration and grain of the wood. Although some color variations are available in stains, you should invest in purple paint if you want a purple deck.

Both paints and stains protect wood surfaces. They are both available in acrylic (water-based) and oil-based. With one look at a stain and a paint side-by-side, the most notable difference is the product’s thickness or consistency. Stains are much thinner than paints.

The other significant difference is in how they work on wood. Paint is a cover and stays on top of the surface of the wood. The stain is a penetrant, so it soaks into the wood.

When it comes to cost, a stain is almost always the less expensive option. While paint offers a greater variety of colors, it also hides the natural beauty of wood projects.

In addition to wood stains, there are concrete stains available. If you look at redoing that old driveway, staining the concrete can add some pop to your property. You can’t use regular wood stains for concrete, though, so make sure you’re in the right department when you’re purchasing stains.

Difference Between Water- and Oil-Based Stains

brush applying warm toned stain to wood

The type of project you are staining will have a bearing on whether you should use an oil-based or water-based acrylic stain. Applying a stain to a wooden deck is much different than adding some color to an interior stair rail.

If you have questions about stains, it is always encouraged to ask your local paint and stain specialists. You’ll find them in your local hardware or paint store and sometimes at the big box home improvement warehouses.

Looking at the pros and cons of oil and acrylic stains will help you make the right choice of stain for your project.

Oil-based stains

Using oil-based stains requires a bit more preparation, safety precautions, and cleaning materials. Oil stains require Linseed oil or mineral spirits as a thinning agent and mineral spirits for clean up.


  • Provides a more even finish
  • Extremely durable and long-lasting
  • Deeper penetration


  • Drys slower – easier to get a more even finish
  • Susceptible to mold and mildew

Oil-based stains are great to use on exterior projects. They penetrate deeper, which produces a richer color and adds protection to the wood surface.

Water-based stains

The ease of cleanup makes water-based stains very popular for project woodworkers. They create a nice finish but are not as easy to work with and clean up with water. No special precautions or materials are needed other than latex gloves (unless you want stained fingers).


  • Quick-drying
  • Easy cleanup
  • No harmful odor or fumes
  • Not flammable
  • Breathable stain (no venting or respirator required)
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Resistant to mold and mildew


  • Not deep penetrating
  • Require multiple coats for deeper coloration
  • More difficult to use due to quick drying time

While there are many advantages to both stain bases, the ultimate decision depends on each individual’s preferences. Consider the type of project you are staining. Oil-based stains do withstand exterior conditions better.

Selecting Your Stain

Using the pros and cons of oil- vs. water-based stains, you should be able to make an informed decision when selecting your stain.

Vintage Wooden Jewelry Box on flower table cloth
“Vintage Wooden Jewelry Box” by vintage19_something is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Picture frames, jewelry boxes, and furniture all offer unique ways to display wood projects. If this is the type of project you primarily work with, water-based stains would be a good option.

If you have an older home with real wood baseboards, chair rails, door frames, and crown molding you are touching up, then oil-based stains will offer greater longevity.

The type of project you are staining has a bearing on what stain you select. Many woodworkers keep a variety of stains on the shelf. Stains are not like paints — a little goes a long way. Unless you are staining an entire outdoor deck or another large project, you probably can buy the quart or pint-sized cans.

Stains are available in cans, sprays, gels, and combination stain and finish. For our purposes here, we are only using the mainstay type that comes in paint-style cans. Call us old-school if you must, but we like the tried-and-true methods.

Stains are colored to match natural wood colorations, not a specific type of wood. If you can’t afford mahogany wood for your project but want the vibrant, reddish hue, you can buy the white oak and use a mahogany stain to obtain a very similar shade.

How to Stain Wood

The first step in staining your project is to collect the supplies you will need to complete this process:

  • Sandpaper or blocks in varying grains
  • Cleaning cloths (old t-shirts work great)
  • Disposable gloves
  • Paintbrush
  • Dropcloth
  • Wood filler (optional)
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner (if needed)
  • Wood stain in a shade of your choice
  • Topcoat sealing product (optional)

Once you have your material assembled, you can set up your work area to begin staining your project. Lay your drop cloth under your work area. The stain is stain, and it stains. Wear old clothing, coveralls, or a shop apron to avoid ruining anything with a wayward splash.

Preparing your project

Before staining your project, you need to prepare the wood to accept the stain. The surface should be free of any imperfections, which of course means grabbing that sandpaper.

Related Read: How to Sand Wood Perfectly

If you have a small palm or orbital sander, you can use that to speed up the process. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper (80 to 120 grit), then shift to finer grit sandpaper (180 to 220 grit). Wipe down the surface with a lint-free cloth in between each grit change.

After sanding, wipe the dust with a clean, dry cloth. In between each round of sanding, wipe the surface with a damp (not wet) cloth. This raises the grain of the wood and gives you a better final surface.

If you are working with a softwood, you should condition the wood before staining to avoid blotchy results with your stain. With some hardwoods, such as mahogany, you may need to use a filler to achieve a completely smooth finish.

Applying your stain

When you are ready to apply your stain, be sure to stir it thoroughly in the can. Using a damp cloth (old t-shirts again), dip the cloth into the stain and then rub it liberally across your piece. Always wipe in the direction of the grain.

You could also use a brush for this step, but the rag offers better coverage with less streaking and “heavy” spots. Thinner layers work better. If you want a darker finish, apply additional coats of stain. Each coat will add more color.

Once you have your piece thoroughly covered, wipe away excess stain with a clean, dry, and lint-free cloth (yes, of course, those old t-shirts).

Clean up right away, especially your rags. Once the stain dries on them, it is never coming out, and you can toss that rag right in the trash. It’s just an old t-shirt, but reusing them is excellent for the environment.

Grab a cup of coffee and a muffin. Check your Facebook or Instagram. This is the “hurry up and wait period.” Let your piece dry, or “cure,” for at least 24 hours.

When your project is finished

Once your stain is dry and you have given it time to cure, it’s time to think about final finishes. There are many choices available, from varnish to polyurethane. They each have advantages and disadvantages.

Related Read: How to Apply Wood Finish Without Runs or Drips

In the end, your decision will probably be based on the type of project you are completing and what you want in the final look. Some projects don’t need a top coat and are beautiful with their stain shining through.

Types of penetrating finishes available:

  • Tung oil
  • Danish oil
  • Linseed oil
  • Walnut, soy, and lemon oils

Types of surface finishes:

Some final finish products will add a look of yellow to your piece. Be aware of that, so you don’t get a shock. Others fade over time and “yellow.” Most are clearly labeled and will warn you of any color-changing or aging effects. Read the labels.

Whether you are resurfacing a table, reconditioning an outdoor deck, or adding a finish to a jewelry box, you want your project to look fantastic. Take your time, select great products, do the project right.

Handy Tips for Future Projects

We use old t-shirts as shop rags. They are versatile, lint-free, and washable. Try to stick to lighter colored shirts and don’t use any that have iron-on transfers (you can use the back panel). When cut, each t-shirt will make four shop towels.

Wear gloves. Otherwise, you may have stained hands for the next several months. We use nitrile gloves most often. They are easy to find, disposable, easy to store in a draw or on a shelf, and available in various sizes.

Wear old clothes, coveralls, or a shop apron. We know we mentioned this earlier, but we don’t want you to ruin your favorite jeans.

Ventilation and Safety

We also mentioned earlier that water-based stains are safe to use without extra steps for ventilation. However, the same rule applies to them as with low-VOC paints. It would be best if you still ventilated even though you technically don’t have to.

If you are using oil-based stains, please remember that the stains and thinners are flammable. A bucket of used rags left in the corner can combust. Don’t leave clean up tasks undone. When you clean rags with mineral spirits, lay them out on a flat surface to dry. Do not ball them up in a pile and stuff them in an old coffee can.

Ventilation is crucial when using oil-based stains. They should be used outside when you are able. If you use them inside, keep windows open and use a small oscillating fan to move the air around. Follow ALL the safety warnings on all the labels.

If you are using oil-based inside, please make sure that a second person is in the area but not breathing the same fumes in your shop. They’re not a canary. Tell them you will be working with stains, and ask them to check on you periodically.

Cleaning up the Easy Way

We try not to waste anything. When we cut out our old t-shirts, we save the sleeves. We use the sleeves as cleaning rags, too, then we throw them away, which makes cleanup easy. This is a great trick if you’re working with icky, messy stuff.

Keep a sticky lint roller in your shop. When you have a lot of sanding dust on your bench, you can roll most of it off, so it isn’t flying around in the air. When you use a small foxtail to finish up, you aren’t making more of a mess.

Always keep your shop as clean as possible. Getting stray dust or dirt in the finish on a project you just spent hours making perfect is depressing.

Making It Last

When we do projects, we may expect them to last forever. We do have a reasonable expectation that they will last a few generations, though. Taking care to select a good finish is part of making things last.

We hope you enjoyed our discussion of stains and finishes. May your next project become a masterpiece. Let us know in the comments what you’re working on.