Staining Wood – Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide

Staining is not something every wood project requires. It is often complicated to get right and staining is not always necessary. With that said, staining wood is often a very important part of the process that you definitely want to get right. So, how do you stain wood like a pro?

To stain wood, sand the wood twice with medium-grit sandpaper (100-120 grit), then sand the wood twice with fine-grit sandpaper and clean off the dust with a damp cloth; this will take care of imperfections on the surface of the wood and leave it smooth. Next, test the wood stain of your choice on a piece of scrap wood. After doing this, proceed and apply a pre-stain conditioner, and finally, apply the wood stain to your wood using a brush, roller, damp rag, or simply spray the stain. Ensure you apply the stain along and against the wood grain but never sideways and remember to wipe off excess stain before allowing the stain to dry.

Staining wood is fairly straightforward, but several techniques and other intricacies are involved in staining wood. Here we’ll teach you everything you need to know about staining wood. By the end of this article, you will be endowed with the knowledge and skills needed to transform your wood project to a masterpiece.

How Does Staining Wood Work?

Before going on to explain the steps involved in staining wood from start to finish, it’s important you get a good grasp of what wood stain is and how it works.

What is Wood Stain?

Wood stain refers to a pigment or dye made specifically for changing the natural color of the wood. This wood colorant is mixed with thinner and binders.

How Does Wood Stain Work?

The binder, thinner, and dye or pigment in wood stain all serve different purposes. The thinner is there to make wiping off excess wood stain easy, while the binder(s), which is usually in the form of alkyd, resin, or oil, is there to bind the dye to the wood surface. It is also very possible for you to find wood stains without binders or thinners.

How can wood stain change the color of the wood? Wood stain, whether composed of pigments or dye, is able to change the natural color of wood by penetrating wood.

Pigments find it hard to penetrate wood due to its weight. To solve this problem, the pigment is stirred to form a suspension before applying on wood. Once turned into a suspension, it will have the ability to stain wood. However, the result is a light stain due to the particles in the suspension just being barely able to find their way into the pores in the wood.

On the other hand, dye which is also a colorant needs only be dissolved in liquid, after which, you can proceed to apply it on the surface of wood; it has a better penetration ability than pigment.

Tip: You can vary how dark the stain appears by changing the dye to liquid ratio.


Things You Will Need Before Staining

Before you begin the wood staining process, you will need the following; In case you are missing any of the items, you can view our budget-friendly recommendations that can all be ordered on Amazon.

Preparing Wood Before Staining

To ensure deep penetration of the stain into the wood and a near-perfect result, you must make the wood ready to receive the stain. Here are the different steps you’ll need to prepare wood before staining.

Step 1: Inspect the Wood and Fix Defects

It’s not unusual to find defects on the surface of wood, so we recommend inspecting the wood for defects; this is usually the first step towards preparing wood for staining. Common defects to look out for include knots, splits, cracks, holes, and crevices.

Once identified, depending on the type of defect and the color of the wood, get a suitable grain filler. You can also mix sawdust from your wood with the grain to increase the resemblance between your grain and the wood. To apply the filler correctly, use the edge of a putty knife; you can also use it to remove excess filler.

After filling the defect, allow it to dry overnight; then, go ahead and use 200-grit sandpaper to smooth that section of the wood surface.

Tip: Whenever you notice protruding nails on the surface of your wood, instead of removing the nails; which will create nail holes, we advise that you drive the nails back below the surface of the wood.

Step 2: Sand the Wood

Sanding wood is a crucial wood preparation step before staining. When you sand the wood, you take care of dents, scratches, and other defects. In addition to this, sanding evens the distribution and absorption of stain throughout the wood.

Before sanding the wood, you need all the necessary tools and materials ready. Eye protection gear, nose ventilators, and gloves must be available. Also, ensure you have your orbital sander, sandpaper, tack cloth, and clean white cloth ready.

Tip: Ensure you are in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight when preparing wood to receive stain.

You can choose to sand manually, use a belt sander or a hand-held orbital sander; however, remain careful when using orbital or belt sanders because there is a high tendency to create grooves surface blemishes or even make the surface uneven.

Whatever method you decide to use, make two passes with 120-grit sand and ensure that you sand in the direction of the grain.

It is important you start with 80-120 grit sandpaper because these sizes are suitable for removing the splinters and rough edges common to wood that hasn’t seen sanding before.

Next, move on to 200-grit sandpaper. These are perfect for smoothing out and getting rid of left-over splinters. Lastly, wipe the wood clean during and after every successful pass.

For the last pass, moisten the surface of the wood by using a damp rag just before sanding is completed. This procedure will raise any left-over splinter and hair in the grain, making the final sanding pass result in a smooth surface.

Step 3: Wipe the Wood Clean

Getting rid of sanding dust is essential in preparing wood before staining. Having a tack cloth available will get the job done. Once dirty, switch to a new tack cloth until the surface is free of dirt and debris.

Finally, dab a clean cloth into the mineral spirit and wipe it over the wood surface to perfect the cleaning process. You can also learn how to specifically stain basswood here.

Products for Preparing Wood Before Staining

After preparing wood for stain by following the steps above, here are some tested products that are additionally great for preparing wood before staining. In this section, you’ll learn how to use these different products for preparing wood before staining.

Application of Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

Pre-stain wood conditioners are available in two different cure times. Some products have a cure time of 24hrs, while others have a cure time of 30 minutes. These conditioners’ job is to condition wood fibers to be ready to accept wood stains.

As professionals, we advise that whether you opt for the 24-hour or 30 minutes cure time pre-stain wood conditioner, ensure you allow the pre-stain cure overnight, this will prevent you from having to deal with blotch marks and a spotty finish which results from failure to allow the pre-stain dry properly before applying wood stain.

Application of Black Tea Stain

Black tea stain is a new, tested, and trusted method that prepares wood to receive stain. To use black tea stain on wood, brew coffee or black tea for 30 minutes. After brewing, let the tea stay for 12hours before using a foam brush to apply the tea stain on the wood. After doing this, allow the stain to dry before you sand.

Once sanding is complete, wipe clean with a tack cloth and blow dust and debris with a blower. Finally, apply your preferred stain to the wood. Once you apply your wood stain, you’ll notice that wood treated with black tea stain will absorb the stain faster and better than wood not treated with a black tea stain.

Application of Shellac Washcoat

The shellac washcoat is mixed with thinning agents to give wood a weathered look after staining. Although this product used to prepare wood for staining is similar to the pre-stain wood conditioner in some ways, it works slightly differently.

Here, you apply the Shellac washcoat to wood and its job is to ensure an even finish is achieved. To attain this look, the Shellac washcoat creates a thin barrier that limits the amount of stain absorbed and seals the stain once absorbed to an extent.

Application of Polyurethane Washcoat

Poly washcoats work similarly to shellac washcoats; however, the difference here is that polyurethane washcoat is synthetically produced. It consists of oil-based poly and mineral spirit.

If you decide to opt for a polyurethane washcoat product to prepare your wood for staining, you need to be aware that this product is prone to a yellow tinge, especially when it is subjected to sunlight.

Step By Step Guide to Applying Stain on Wood

After cleaning wood and preparing it to receive stain, you are now ready to apply stain on wood. In this stage of the wood staining process, we’ll like you to know that there are two main methods you can adopt when you want to apply stain on wood. Rest easy, because here we’ll explain how to apply stain just as the pros do.

Method 1: Hand Application Using a Towel or Brush

Step 1: Divide the Wood into Sections

Before proceeding to stain your wood, instead of randomly applying stain over the surface of the wood, it’s crucial you divide the wood into different small sections.

Tip: If the project involves staining a wooden table, you can divide the table into the legs, drawers, and top.

Step 2: Mix the Stain Properly

Mixing the stain before applying it to the wood is the next step. This step is crucial whether you are using an oil-based or water-based stain. To ensure that the mixing is done correctly, avoid simply shaking the can of stain; instead, use a stick to mix the stain.

Using a stick to stir the stain is the preferred option because shaking the can will create air bubbles that can ruin the staining job.

Step 3: Wipe the Stain Over the Wood Surface

The next step to take is apply the stain on the surface of the wood. There are several tools (methods) you can choose or adopt. Here are a few of the more popular methods of applying stains on wood, but since we are discussing the hand application method, you’ll have to choose between a foam brush, paintbrush, pad applicator, or roller.

Apply a sufficient amount of the stain over the surface of the wood using any of the tools listed, and ensure that you apply a liberal quantity of the stain as too little stain will dry too quickly and lead to an uneven surface finish.

Step 4: Wipe off Excess Stain

Using an absorbent paper towel, wipe off excess stain and ensure that you follow the grain as you wipe the excess stain. Also, do well to stay away from cotton t-shirts as they do not absorb stains but spread them across the surface of the wood.

Tip: If you notice excess stain at the corner of the wood, get a synthetic bristle brush to wipe them off successfully.

Step 5: Allow the Stain to Dry

The number of hours, you should allow the stain dry will depend on whether you use a water-based stain or oil-based stain. 2 hours is the recommended drying time when working with a water-based stain, but oil-based stain that requires a longer drying time, you’ll need to allow the stain to dry for at least 12hours.

Method 2: Spray Method

Step 1: Wear Appropriate Protective Gear

It’s crucial that you wear protective goggles, respirators, and protective hand gloves when spraying stain on wood.

Step 2: Spray the Stain

Begin spraying the stain by hold your spray gun at a 90-degree angle and 6 inches away if you’re dealing with a large, flat, and wide wood. For narrow and smaller wood surfaces, reduce the distance to 3 inches to prevent overspray. Next, perform a second pass and always ensure that you spray a sufficient quantity of the stain to prevent the stain from drying too quickly.

Tip: When spraying stain on wood, always remember to leave a wet edge when you move from one section of the wood to another to prevent lap lines from forming on the surface of the wood.

Step 3: Wipe off Excess Stain and Allow to Dry

Once the first layer of coat is applied successfully, wipe off excess coat using a bristle brush and lookout for mistakes if there are any. If there are lap marks, restain the workpiece and wipe off excess stain.

After wiping excess stain off, allow the stain to dry. Ensure you let the stain dry for a minimum of 2hours. At the end of the 2hours dwell time, if you aren’t sure if the stain is fully dried up, allow it to stay longer.

Can You Stain Unfinished Wood?

Yes, you can stain unfinished wood. To stain unfinished wood, get the right tools, which are already listed above. Next, choose a well-ventilated work area and prepare the wood by cleaning, sanding, and applying pre-stain (see the subheading above for tutorials). Finally, stain the wood using a stain of your choice, wipe off excess stain, allow the stain to dry for 24hours, and proceed to apply finish on the surface of the wood.

While it is generally not advisable to purchase unfinished furniture, different people have various reasons for opting for unfinished wood. One popular reason is due to its reduced cost. Also, people who prefer their wood finish customized to their taste tend to opt for the unfinished wood.

Beginner Tips for Staining Wood

Beginners should adhere to these tips when staining wood. The tips discussed below will, without a doubt, help you in your staining journey.

Tip #1: Find the Best Location for your staining Project

The best spot for staining wood is a well-ventilated area. Do not stain in a spot directly under the sun to prevent the stain from drying too quickly and becoming tacky. Also, avoid excessive breeze.

Tip #2: Always Test the Stain

Testing the stain on a piece of scrap wood made of the same material as the workpiece is as essential as the wood staining process itself. By doing this, you can detect how the wood and stain react with each other without compromising your workpiece. You’ll also be able to tell if you like the final look after the stain dries.

If you do not have any scrap wood around, test the stain on a hidden part of the wood and observe how the wood and stain react before applying the stain.

Tip #3: Mix the Stain Container Well Before Applying stain

Proper mixing of the stain is necessary if you want to avoid bubbles and froth. Simply shaking the can of stain won’t do the trick. Instead, use a stick to mix the stain thoroughly before applying it to wood.

Tip #4: Staining Tips When Using a Brush or Towel

Going with and against the grain works well if you use a bristle brush to stain the wood. However, if you choose to use a towel, move the towel in a circular motion across the surface of the wood.

Tip #5: Do Not Dispose Left-Over Stain

If you have any left-over stain in the stain can preserve it for future use after the staining operation is complete. Even if you do not stain wood often, you never know when you would need it again.

Tip #6: Remember to Add Top Coat after Staining Wood

Sealant or topcoats are meant to protect wood after staining. It’s important you remember that wood stain only adds color to wood and does not protect the wood from dirt or oil.

Popular examples of these topcoats include shellac, polyurethane, wax, and polyacrylic. They are meant to be applied before the stain completely dries. There are also all-in-one stain combos that serve as a stain and protective finish.

Should You Seal the Wood After Staining?

After staining wood, sealing is crucial to prevent bleeding. Additionally, sealing wood prevents the wood surface from being completely porous while increasing the strength and life span of the wood by actively protecting it from moisture, humidity, dents, and stains.

The type of sealer to use on wood after staining depends on the finish applied to the surface of the wood. For shellac, lacquer, and natural varnish, thinned white shellac is the perfect seal. However, you cannot seal urethane finish with thinned white shellac. The commercial sanding sealer is another popular sealing choice. It is perfect for sealing varnish, shellac, and lacquer.

To apply a sealer to finished wood, you’ll need a brush and the sealer of your choice either thinned white shellac or commercial sanding sealer. Apply the sealer over the surface of the wood using a clean brush and ensure that this is done along the wood grain.

Once complete, allow the sealer enough time to dry. This is usually about 2hours for thinned white shellac and one hour for commercial sanding sealer. After applying the seal, sand the wood with very fine sandpaper and wipe off sanding dust using a tack cloth.

Pros And Cons of Different Types of Stains

There are seven popular stains; oil-based stains, water-based stains, varnish, lacquer stain, water-soluble stain, meta-complex dye stain and gel stains, each of these different stains have their strengths and weaknesses, depending on the project at hand.

Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of these different types of wood stain.

Oil-Based Stain

Oil-based wood stains are the most popular of the seven different types of stain. This is because apart from the fact that they are the more widely commercially available option for staining wood, they contain natural linseed oil, which allows the user sufficient time to wipe off excess stain before the stain dries out, making them perfect for large projects.

Other ingredients in oil-based stains include resin which acts as the binder, mineral spirits, or petroleum distillates as some other manufacturers and varnish fondly call them.


  • Oil-based stains penetrate deeper into wood pores
  • Oil-based stains require less maintenance and tend to last longer in the long run.
  • Using oil-based stain results in a more even finish.


  • Oil-based stains take longer to dry.
  • Oil-based stains cannot be applied under water-based finishes.

Water-Based Stain

Water-based stains offer a wider variety of colors when compared to other types of wood stains. It comprises pigments, binder, and water; replacing the organic thinners present in an oil-based stain.

Since water-based stains have a very fast drying time, experts either divide the wood into smaller sections when working on a large project or add propylene glycol or lacquer retarder; these are both evaporating solvents. They have the disadvantage of diminishing the stain color, which defeats the whole purpose of staining.


  • Water-based stains dry a lot faster
  • Water-base stain is the more environmentally friendly option


  • Using them on large projects can be a difficult task as it requires intense supervision.
  • Water-based stains have low penetration

Varnish Stain

Varnish stains and oil stains share a lot of similarities, but the difference here is that with varnish stains the binder is a polyurethane varnish which eliminates the need to wipe off excess stain because the stain dries hard on the surface of the wood.


  • Varnish stains do not need an extra layer of coating
  • Great for restaining surfaces with worn out stains
  • Varnish stains give the wood a natural look.


  • Over time varnish stains tend to become yellowish over time
  • Varnish stain dry quickly.

Gel Stain

Gel stain consists of jelly pigments that prevent them from flowing even when applied on vertical surfaces. They also contain powdery thickening agents, liquid resins, and mineral spirits to make the colors consistent. This type of stains were created as far back as the 20th century to fix blotching and splotching, a common problem with staining pine.

To successfully apply gel stain on wood, ensure you use a staining towel and wipe the stain in a circular motion across the surface of the wood.


  • It’s easier to remove the color of gel stains from the surface of the wood as they do not penetrate deep into the wood.
  • Gel stains do not drip
  • Sanding is not necessary after using gel stains


  • Gel stain dries slowly and have very low penetrating ability
  • Gel stains are not suitable for complex surfaces with grooves, crevices, and corners.

Lacquer Stain

When time is of the essence, lacquer stain is the best option because of how quickly users can apply them; this is possible due to volatile organic xylene and ketones. They are the popular option among professionals, and it is usually a 2 man job where one person applies the stain while the other removes the excess stain.


  • Lacquer stain helps reduce the time between staining and finishing as they dry fast.


  • They have a very pungent smell
  • Two people are needed since it dries very fast
  • It is prone to air bubbles.

Water Soluble Dye Stain

This stain is the only available type of stain sold in powder form. They were originally developed to dye fabrics, but today they have been repurposed for wood. To use the water-soluble dye stain, simply mix the powder and water in a ratio of one ounce per quart.

Tip: When using water-soluble dye stain to stain wood, avoid using tap water because it may contain calcium, sodium, magnesium, or other minerals which may affect the color; instead, use distilled water.


  • Water-soluble dye stain is available in a variety of colors
  • It requires little maintenance.


  • It tends to fade when exposed to UV light, so it is unsuitable for wood placed outdoors.

Meta-Complex Dye Stain

The best non-fade stain is the meta-complex or metalized dye stain. These stains are also called non-grain raise stains (NSRS) and they made from metals like nickel, cobalt, chromium, or cobalt. Metalized dye stain which is a ready to use stain is usually mixed with glycol, methanol, ethanol and sprayed on the wood surface.


  • They do not fade quickly as they penetrate deeper than pigment


  • Metalized dye stains dry too fast



Q: Is It Safe to Sleep in A House After Staining the Floors?

A: After staining the floors in a house, do not sleep in the house for at least five days. This is because stain fumes are toxic, and breathing them in poses a huge health risk. Thirty days after application, the wood stain becomes nontoxic; this, however, doesn’t make the wood classified food-safe by the FDA.

Q: What Is the Difference Between Wood Stain and Varnish?

A: Unlike varnish, which serves as a protective layer on the surface of the wood and prevents wood from dents and other accidents, stain penetrates the wood fibers and changes the natural color of the wood.

Q: Is It Better to Stain with A Rag or Brush?

A: The best way to apply stain is by dabbing a lint-free rag into the stain and wiping it over the surface of the wood. Using a rag gives you better control over the amount of stain you are applying, it also makes it easy to remove excess stains. On the other hand, brushes tend to leave brush strokes and might be uneven except when handled by a professional.

Q: What Happens When You Don’t Wipe Off Excess Stain

A: After staining wood, you should always remember to wipe off the stain after 10minutes; this is because the material used in making wood stain is not designed to sit on the surface of the wood. Instead, it’s supposed to penetrate the wood. So, if you don’t wipe off excess stain, the surface of the wood will get sticky once dry.

Q: How Can You Tell If a Stain Is Dry?

A: A sure indicator that oil-based wood stain is dry is when you notice that the surface of the wood is not sticky and it doesn’t emit any smell. For water-based stains, the surface of the wood will feel cool when touched, and when you sand it lightly, you’ll notice a powder residue.

Final Thoughts

Now that you’ve learned how to stain wood like a pro, with constant practice you’ll be able to move from an amateur to an expert. However, as you progress in your wood staining journey, we’ll like you to always remember that wood staining shouldn’t be rushed, especially for beginners. Instead, take your sweet time and get it right. Then, not only will you be impressed with the results, but you’ll also be able to show off your creativity.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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