How to Stain Wood the Right Way

Stain does more than add rich and beautiful color to your wood project

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated January 5, 2023
 A male carpenter in a plaid shirt staining a wood plank
Photo: apomares / Getty Images


No experience? No problem.

Time to complete

45 minutes

Expect at least one hour for every 10 square feet of space.



You might need a few supplies.

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What you'll need:


  • Eye protection
  • Gloves
  • Putty knife
  • Power sander
  • Stirring stick
  • Bristle brushes
  • Foam brushes
  • Stain sprayer
  • Clean cloths or rags


  • Wood filler
  • 120 grit sandpaper
  • 180 grit sandpaper
  • Wood conditioner
  • Plastic drop cloth
  • Painter’s tape
  • Stain of your choice
  • Sealant of your choice

Learning how to stain your wood project allows the natural patterns of the wood to show through while tinting it a natural shade of brown, gray, amber, or black. But that’s not the only benefit to adding a wood stain finish. Staining wood properly protects the wood from spills, scratches, and natural warping. 

Everyone has what it takes to stain wood like a pro, but it’s not always as simple as choosing a stain and applying it. Use this guide to learn how to stain wood and finish your next DIY project like a pro. 

Prepping to Stain Wood

Before you begin staining, sand down the surface of the wood you’re working with. Sanding is important because it removes any existing paint or finishes and smooths and levels the surface. It also removes raised grain and evens out dried glue and filler.

One last prep step: Take the following safety precautions into consideration before using stains and protectants.

  • Wear masks and eye protection to shield yourself from airborne chemicals and fumes.

  • Wear gloves, long sleeves, and pants to prevent skin irritation.

  • Always apply stain outdoors if possible. 

  • If the project can’t happen outdoors, open all surrounding windows for ventilation during application and while drying.

  • Keep pets and children away from the work area at all times.

How to Choose the Best Wood Stain

The color of a stain is the biggest deciding factor, but it’s not the only factor to take into consideration. Different types of stains are better suited for some projects over others. 

Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based stains are arguably the most commonly used type of stain. They are best used for outdoor furniture, large surfaces, butcher block kitchen countertops, dressers, and desks.

Pros of Oil-Based Stains:

  • Easy to use and apply evenly 

  • Penetrate the wood deeply to prevent peeling

  • Approved for outdoor use

  • Produce a natural wood look

  • Can be applied with a bristle brush or a cloth

Cons of Oil-Based Stains:

  • Longer dry time when compared to other types of stain 

  • Contain higher VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than other options

  • Release strong fumes during use that can linger for days

  • Weak against UV light and mold without a protective finish

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains can hold their own when compared to other stain types. Consider using a water-based stain for indoor projects where strong fumes are a concern, smaller wood pieces, and kitchen cabinets.

Pros of Water-Based Stains:

  • Fast drying time when compared to oil-based stains

  • Typically last longer than other stains

  • Stay vibrant longer when compared to other stains

  • Easy to clean up water-based spills and splatters 

  • Mold- and mildew-resistant

  • Fewer VOCs than oil-based stains

  • Come in a wider variety of colors

  • Do not release strong fumes

Cons of Water-Based Stains:

  • Not as easy to apply as oil-based stains

  • Usually need a wood-conditioner base

  • Require multiple coats for color pigments to show

  • Work best on raw wood

  • Can’t withstand long periods of direct sunlight

  • Raise natural grain for a less smooth finish 

  • Tough to coat evenly due to quick drying time

Gel-Based Stains

Gel stains are very different from other stain types. They’re made from a thick, heavy-duty solution that’s more of a paint than a traditional stain. Gel stains sit on top of the wood instead of penetrating the wood. They’re best used on woods that don’t easily absorb stain (like pine, cherry, maple, and birch) and hardwood floors.

Pros of Gel-Based Stains:

  • Don’t require wood prep

  • Can be applied on top of previous stains 

  • Durable and long-lasting in high-traffic areas

  • Still transparent enough to show wood’s natural patterns

Cons of Gel-Based Stains:

  • Can be messier than other stains

  • Tend to pool up in certain areas around the wood if the excess isn’t wiped off

  • Don’t apply evenly on wood furniture with a lot of grooves and angles 

  1. Fill Holes and Gaps

    A man filling a hole in a wood plank with wood filler
    Photo: luuuusa / Adobe Stock

    Depending on the type of wood and the look you’re going for, you may need to fill any cracks, gaps, and old nail holes with wood putty or filler. Doing so will give your project a smooth and cohesive look. Feel free to skip this step if you want more of a rustic, natural, or vintage aesthetic.

    For this step, you’ll need to purchase a wood filler of your choice and a putty knife to apply it. Carefully follow the directions on the wood filler label to achieve the best results.

  2. Sand the Wood

    The next step is to sand the entire surface. Use a medium-coarse sandpaper (120 grit) for the first round of sanding. Evenly sand the entire area you plan on staining. 

    Then, grab a clean but damp cloth to wipe off all dust from the surface. The water from the cloth will raise the grain. Raising the grain and sanding it will create a smoother and more even finish. 

    Step back and let the wood dry for at least an hour. Once dry, you should be able to feel small, hair-like fibers raised up on the surface. Sand the surface again with fine sandpaper (180 grit). For a silky smooth finish, run the sandpaper in the same direction as the grain (the tiny fibers on the wood surface) for a smooth finish.

  3. Apply Wood Conditioner

    Softwoods (pine, spruce, fir, redwood, cedar, etc.) can benefit from a wood conditioner. This step preps the wood for staining to prevent streaks and blotches. Most pre-stain wood conditioner solutions are applied using a brush. Read the product label carefully for specific instructions.

  4. Apply the Stain

    A person using a paintbrush to apply a coat of stain to untreated wood
    Photo: tatomm / Adobe Stock

    Now it’s time to apply the stain. Because of strong fumes and the potential for drips and splatters, it’s best to use stains outside. If that’s not possible, open all nearby windows, and cover surrounding areas using plastic drop cloth and painter’s tape. 

    There are four main ways to apply stain—the most common being brushes and rags. Other options include rollers and sprayers. Pick the best tool by following the instructions on the label of the stain can. 

    Next, open the stain can and use a wood or metal stirring stick to mix the stain thoroughly in the container until it’s smooth. Begin to lightly apply stain using your staining tool of choice. After applying each coat, immediately wipe up excess stain with a clean, dry cloth. 

    No matter which tool you use, it’s important to apply the stain one thin layer at a time. You can always add another layer to darken the wood, but it’s much more difficult to lighten the stain after applying too much. Continue to stain additional layers until the desired color and coverage are achieved. Ensure the previous layer has completely dried before applying a new coat.

  5. Apply the Sealant

    A male carpenter applying sealant with a paintbrush to a wood plank
    Photo: leszekglasner / Adobe Stock

    Applying a sealant will protect the wood from spills, scratches, and weathering. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to wait at least 24 hours before applying a sealant so that the stain has time to dry completely. Sealant is usually applied with a clean paintbrush—follow the directions on the label for best results.

DIY Wood Staining vs. Hire a Pro

Deciding whether to take on the wood-staining project yourself or hiring a professional to tackle it? That decision usually depends on the size and complexity of the job. For example, most homeowners can handle staining small pieces of wood furniture, but most would hire a local flooring professional to stain their hardwood flooring.

The cost of hiring a pro to complete a wood-staining project depends on the material in question. So, the average deck-staining costs $550 to $1,250, but the cost to stain cabinets ranges from $1,500 to $5,000.

Frequently Asked Questions

A finishing layer is an important step in the staining process. A top coat helps make a stain last longer by protecting it from spills, scratches, and natural weathering.

A lacquer finish is thin, fast-drying, and best used for cabinets, molding, and trim. It’s not recommended for outdoor furniture. Another option is varnish, which has a glossy finish with a protective film and is often used on outdoor wood objects. Polyurethane, known as “liquid plastic,” dries quickly but doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Lastly, a shellac finish adds a warm tint to wood but is affected by heat.

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Get quotes from top-rated pros.