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 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 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 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