How to Stain Wood? A Beginner’s Guide from Start to Finish

When it comes to wood stain, there are many factors to consider. Learn about the types of stain, how long it should dry, and everything else you need to provide quality products.

Staining wood is a matter of preference, and sometimes, you don’t need to do it. At times, a project could look much better by keeping the natural appearance of the wood. Therefore, you can get away with applying a clear finish.

How to Stain Wood

When necessary, wood staining is the best way to provide a vibrant appearance to the wood project. Staining is also useful for those times when you want to restore an old piece of furniture to its former glory and beauty.

However, you may be wondering which stain is the best. Then, you have to consider how to stain wood and not do it wrong. We are going to talk about all of these issues and much more.

What Is Wood Stain?

Wood staining is a process where you enhance the wood’s color to bring out the appearance of the natural grain and its beauty. Staining is often done with tinted coatings that are similar to paint. Though the term is used interchangeably with sealant and finishing, that isn’t quite true.

Stain for wood is not to be confused with painting or finishing. While some finishes do provide a one-step finishing and staining solution, we are going to discuss that later.

How to Paint Wooden Furniture

Traditionally, the finish is created to add protection to prevent wear and tear on the item and protect it from the weather if it is to be left outside. The finish also offers a shiny or ‘wet’ appearance, which can be a preference you prefer.

Therefore, when you stain the wood, you change its color or tint while finishing the wood gives it more protection and can enhance its look.

How Many Types of Stain Are There?

You can find four different types of stain used, including water-based stains, oil-based options, gel, and varnish-based versions. All four have a purpose and place, depending on a few things.

Before you can decide which type of stain to use, you need to know the type of wood you’re working with, the condition of it, the project you want to make, and where it is going to be.

If the project is designed to be used outside, you should think about a varnish-based stain. Let it dry fully, and you’re done. However, when you choose other stain options, you have to get the right sealing product to finish it completely.

An oil-based stain is applied to any finish, except for any water-based stains. A water-based stain can only be used with water-based finishes.

Everbuild Quick Drying Wood Stain Finish

Why Choose Water-Based Stains

With a water-based stain, there is less drying time involved. You aren’t going to have any fumes and can get a richer tint when staining wood. The colors of the wood can last longer, and the product isn’t flammable. You’re also going to find that it is easier to clean up if you make a mess. There is plenty of mildew and mold resistant and can act as a wood conditioner.

Those who want an inexpensive option might like Minwax. Otherwise, get an all-in-one with the Seal-Once brand.

Why Choose Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based stains often feature a longer drying time, but they produce a smooth finish. The oil can penetrate the wood more than a water-based version, so the seal is stronger. With oil-based stains, you have less maintenance with which to deal, and they hold up in harsh conditions.

A great product is from the Cabot brand, but it runs a little expensive. If you’re on a budget, the one from Varathane is suitable.

Considerations for Gel Wood Stains

Gel stains are thicker, so they aren’t going to run as a water-based option. The consistency is like that of mayonnaise. While it is loosely similar to wood-based paint, it can produce transparent colors. Plus, gel stains offer a thickening agent that makes them better than an oil-based stain.

The one thing to think about here is that the gel stain sits atop the wood and doesn’t get absorbed into the wood pores. Therefore, it works well for ‘sappy’ woods that don’t take well to the traditional wood stain.

For example, it’s possible to use them on fences and kitchen cabinets. You may also like them for birch, pine, and cherry wood. Minwax is a great choice for those on a budget, though General Finishes offers a variety of colors.

There is a concern for gel stains, though. The pool into any low spot of the wood. If you have corners, cracks, grooves, or crevices, you must be careful to remove any excess stain with a clean cloth. Otherwise, you have an uneven result.

Varnish-Based Stains

Unlike a water-based or oil stain, varnish stains are similar to alkyd paint, though they don’t provide as much color. In fact, you can use it as a topcoat for a piece of wood that has already been stained. This gives it a mirror-like reflection. Keep in mind that varnish stains aren’t as forgiving as the others.

You have less time to wipe away excess stain with a rag. The top choice here is from Minwax, and a similar product that’s a little cheaper is the one from Tried & True.

How Do You Stain Wood for Beginners?

When applying stain, you should prepare the wood species first. To do that, you should:

  1. Clean the unfinished wood with a rag before starting (t-shirts work well here)
  2. Fill up a spray bottle with two cups of water and add two teaspoons of white vinegar. This removes any sticky buildup.
  3. Mist your lint-free rag with this spray and avoid using paper towels.
  4. Rub the cloth over the wood in the direction of the wood grain.
  5. Don’t rub sideways, as this is across the grain.
  6. Let your wood dry completely before staining.

Some people wonder about wood conditioners. You can use a wood conditioner. Wipe it on there or brush it on with a foam brush and let it sit for roughly an hour. The wood conditioner works best with oil-based stain because it helps to protect the wood and can be repurposed later if needed. This is often called the pre-stain stage.

What Is the Best Way to Apply the Stain?

You have prepared the wood, so you want to apply the stain. However, you need to check the workspace. Make sure the project isn’t in the breeze, and there are no pets around. You need to have the foam brush, wood stain, and rag nearby.

  • With your staining brush or cloth, dip into the wood stain and stroke both ways (with and against the grain). Just don’t go sideways. This can be messy, but you want to lay down a generous and thick coat. Consider testing it on a piece of scrap wood.
  • It’s possible to control shading. Know how long for the stain to dry before wiping up the excess mess. If you want a light tone, wipe excess stain off immediately. Leave it about 10 minutes for a deep tone.
  • Try working on long and even strokes, lifting the brush slightly at the end of your stroke. Feathering, as it’s called, keeps the stroke appearance out of the stain.

This process can be called the pre-stain process. It ensures that everything is done slowly and correctly. You may also want to pre-stain to ensure that the results are uniform in appearance. This works well with oil-based stains.

Make sure you’re not rushing this part of the process because you want the foundation to be as perfect as possible.

How Many Coats of Stain?

Most people wonder how many coats they need. Before you do anything else, let the stain dry fully overnight. Then, you can apply another coat of stain if needed. The last step is to put on a topcoat. One coat of stain may be enough for an indoor project. However, those that are going to be outside most of the time should consider two or three coats of stain.


Once the project is dry, you can wipe it with a damp cloth. This is going to remove any dust. Applying stain is the first step. You want a topcoat at the end to protect the wood. Now that you know how to apply wood stain, you’re focused on the right way to finish your project.

oil based

Watco Rust-Oleum A65741 Danish Oil Wood Finish

With oil stains, consider a polyurethane finish. It gives a warm tint to the item. You’re going to need about two or three coats of the finishing product. It’s also possible to use reflected light to spot those flaws easily and try to get rid of any brush strokes.

You must consider the right applicator. Though cheap bristle brushes may appear to be ideal, they can shed bristles and leave them in the finished product. Consider a foam brush, which is just as inexpensive and can provide more even strokes.

They’re also disposable, so you can use them one time and be done. Apply the finish with an even, long stroke and go with the grain. Find the balance between thick and thin here.

Spread on a generous coating, but watch for runs and drips. Each coat has to dry overnight. This is similar to that of the wood stain. Though it takes a lot of patience, you are going to enjoy the results. Plus, the stain is going to be protected for many years to come.

If you expect the piece to see a lot of traffic or be in the elements, you should use four coats. Otherwise, two coats of stain should be plenty.

Make sure that the final coat is done in reflected light to help you see any runs, flaws, or drips. Study the brush strokes and match them as best as you can. To do that, feathering is key here. This can also help smooth out the bubbles.

Thinner coats of stain should be used on the vertical wood surfaces, such as the legs. That prevents running best. Of course, you are probably impatient now but take your time. You’re going to see the result in your mind’s eye and ultimately speed up the process. Resist the urge as much as possible.

Can You Stain Wood Without Sanding?

You don’t have to sand the wood before you put on the first coat of stain or the topcoat. However, we recommend that you lightly sand the first coat of each with 320-grit sandpaper. Then, you can wipe away or vacuum the dust before applying the next coat. Most people prefer to sand the wood stain after each coating of stain and sealant.

water based wood stain

When using stains that are water-based, consider sanding the item first to rough up the surface a tad. Just make sure you don’t gouge it. Remove all of the dust with a shop vac and then seal your piece.

Polyurethane (water based wood stain)

If you use a water-based polyurethane topcoat, it’s about the same process as the oil one. However, you probably don’t need to sand between the coatings.

Just make sure that you’re not using water-based polyurethane on an oil stain. Water and oil don’t go well together, so the water-poly could bead up on the stain and isn’t going to coat it.

You should also avoid using too much stain on each coat because you could raise the wood grain. You are going to see better results if you put down three or five thinner coats. These dry a lot faster, so you can get the work done quicker.

Final Thoughts for Finishing

Most people prefer to seal wood projects with an alkyd varnish with a good sanding sealer. This is easy to do, but you can’t confuse it with polyurethane varnish. Though polys are a good choice for outside furnishings that see heavy traffic or harsh conditions, you only get one chance to get it right. If you do it wrong, you are stuck with those results or have to strip it all and redo it.

Alkyd varnish is forgiving. This way, you can sand out the runs and drips before adding the next coat. You are going to see two primary options online or at a hardware store. Gloss options are shiny while the satin is flatter. If you desire a sheen that isn’t exceptionally shiny, it might be best to buy one can of each and mix them equally to give you a semi-gloss appearance.

The undercoat should be a sanding sealer to give you the perfect base for the wood varnish topcoat. It’s made with many more solids than a clear coat, so you’re going to get a smoother surface when you sand. If you choose an alkyd varnish, your best bet is to get it online.

When staining wood, make sure you choose the same manufacturer for the materials. This stabilizes the process and keeps the viscosity, tones, and colors consistent.

How Long Does It Take Stain to Dry?

The length of time it takes for wood stains to dry depends on the type. If you’re using oil-based versions, you must let it dry overnight. Water-based options only take a few hours to dry between coats.

What Do You Need for Staining Wood?

To stain wood effectively, you need the right stain. Consider the stain colors available and choose one that works well with the wood surface. The stain color doesn’t have to be the same as the natural wood finish. You can make it darker. To prevent blotching, you need some clothes, such as t-shirts. You may also want to consider conditioners to help with imperfections in the wood and prevent problems later.

Brushes are also important, and you can find inexpensive options. You also need the wood piece that you have made or want to modify.

Wrap Up

Learning how to stain wood is quite easy. However, you do need to think about the wood stain you want to use. Everyone can find out what to do, but it is a process to stain wood. You can use a variety of products, including water, gel, varnish, and oil options. Just remember that stain isn’t the same as the finishing product. It affects the color and tone of the wood to bring out its natural beauty. When you finish it, you’re sealing out environmental damage and moisture. This step isn’t mandatory, though it can make it look more professional and high-quality.

Why trust Handyman.Guide?

s written by Itamar Ben-Dor, who has 25 years of experience in renovations, carpentry, locks, creation, landscaping, painting, furniture construction, and furniture renovation, works with concrete, plumbing, door repair, and more.

This article was written by Itamar Ben-Dor, who has 25 years of experience in renovations, carpentry, locks, creation, landscaping, painting, furniture construction, and furniture renovation, works with concrete, plumbing, door repair, and more.

Disclosure: participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for publishers to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Itamar Ben Dor

Itamar Ben Dor

My father is a practical engineer, and as a hobby he was also involved in construction, renovations, carpentry and woodwork at home; So there was always tools, saws, drills and more at home. Already I was a little kid Dad and I would renovate the house. Once we built a shed for garden tools, once we did flooring for the garden, once we renovated the bathroom and that’s the way it is. Long before there was an internet, directories and plans. We would build things, kitchen cabinets, install electrical appliances, do flooring, pour concrete and more ... I in this blog want to pass on to you the experience I have gained over the last 20 plus-minus years since I was a child to this day and give you information about the best tools, project plans, guides and more.