How to Stain Wood Like a Pro

Person staining wood furniture

From floors to fences and decks to dining tables, wood staining is a great DIY way to protect and enhance your wood project or furniture. However, staining wood can be tricky because, if done incorrectly, it can leave a blotchy or streaky finish. So how do you do it correctly? This article will explain how to stain wood like a pro.

What is Wood Staining?

A close-up of stained wood
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Staining wood is the process of adding color to the surface of the wood while allowing the natural grain and texture of the wood to show through. It can also act as a layer of protection for the wood, preventing moisture from warping it.

Stains are different than paints in that they penetrate deeply into the wood to enhance the natural look, whereas paint is thicker and lies on the surface, completely covering the grains, knots, and nature of the wood.

Choosing a Stain

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The first thing to know when choosing a stain is whether it’s going to be used inside or outside. It’s also important to know that you can’t mix types of stains on the same project, so once you pick one, you have to stick with it.

Here’s a rundown of the different types of wood stains and finishes.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains dry quickly, have low odor, and are environmentally friendly. They come in a variety of colors and resist mold and mildew well. Use a rag or brush to apply and clean up with soap and water. 

Oil or Synthetic-Based Stains

For hardwoods like oak or maple, oil-based stains are the best choice because they bring out the details of the wood grain. They take longer to dry than water-based stains, have a strong odor, and require more sanding. Apply with a foam brush, bristle brush, or lint-free cotton rag, and clean up with mineral spirits.

Gel Stains

Gel stains are a mix of paint and stain, and because they are thicker than liquid stains, they are best for furniture or floors made of pine or other woods that blotch easily. While messier than liquid stains, gel requires less preparation because it adheres well to wood that hasn’t been fully sanded down. Apply with a foam brush or lint-free cloth and clean up with mineral spirits. 

Water-Based Finishes

Water-based finishes work well on soft, absorbent woods like pine, plywood, and cork because they create a stronger surface. These types of finishes raise the grain more than oil-based stains do. They also take longer to dry. 

Natural Oil Finishes

Natural oil finishes are not only decorative but also protective. They seep into the wood and replace its natural oils. Use natural oil to protect and rejuvenate cutting boards, furniture, decks, and flooring. The main 100% pure wood oils are linseed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil, although there are many types of oils you can use. They can be applied to bare wood or over stain.


While most people interchange the terms “varnish” and “wood finish,” they are not the same. Varnish is actually a unique blend of resins, oils, and solvents that can only be purchased from specialized shops. It’s not widely sold or available to the general public and isn’t recommended for most DIY jobs.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Polyurethane is more likely what you’re referring to when you say “varnish.” It’s a thick coating that protects well against chemicals, high heat, scratches, and abrasive surfaces. It dries hard and is inflexible, so it’s best for projects like floors, cabinets, stair railings, or other items that don’t bend. It has a relatively long dry time and will emit fumes and a strong odor until it is completely dry, so ventilate well when using this product. Apply with a brush or rag and clean up with mineral spirits. 


Lacquer is similar to polyurethane in that its finish is high-gloss, it’s durable, and it adds a highly protective layer. The difference is that it dries much more quickly and is applied using a sprayer instead of a brush or rag. 


Shellac enhances the natural grain of the wood. It is applied in multiple, thin coats to form a hard, shiny barrier on top of the wood. It’s not as durable as lacquer or polyurethane, though, so it’s better to apply it to decorative pieces than a dining room table, for example. You can apply it with a rag or brush and clean it up with mineral oil. 

The Right Tools

Two paint brushes on a wood surface
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  • Pre-stain wood conditioner (optional): For soft or porous woods, a wood conditioner can help reduce the likelihood of streaks and blotchiness. You would apply this immediately before the first coat of stain.
  • Stain
  • Sandpaper: #120-180 and #220-grit 
  • Power sander (optional): You may want to choose a power sander for larger jobs.
  • Tack-cloth: Use a sticky cloth to wipe away dust between sanding and staining.
  • Lint-free cloth: Use a lint-free, clean cloth to wipe away excess stain (old cotton t-shirts work well).
  • Stain applicator: You’ll need a natural bristle paint brush, foam brush, or a clean rag to apply your stain. Refer to the stain’s instructions.
  • Drop cloth: Use a drop cloth under your project to protect the floor from drips or spills.
  • Mineral spirits: Use mineral spirits to clean oil-based stains out of brushes. 
  • Wood sealer/finish (optional): Wood sealers and finishes protect wood from water damage, scratches, and wear. 
  • Protective equipment: Protect your face, hands, and lungs with a mask, goggles, and gloves, especially if you’re using oil-based stains and mineral spirits. Also, be sure to work in a well-ventilated area. 

Surface Preparation

person sanding wood with sandpaper
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1. Repair

Repair all nicks, scratches, dents, and other imperfections before starting your project. If you see any major holes, fill them in with wood putty or filler and then smooth with sandpaper. 

2. Sand

Sanding before staining is crucial because staining enhances the wood – blemishes, nicks, dings, and all! If you don’t have a smooth surface, every blemish will stand out.

On raw wood, use #120-180 grit sandpaper to start. Sand in the direction of the grain, and once smooth, switch to #220 grit sandpaper to finish it off before staining. If you’re refinishing a piece, sand all the way down to bare wood if possible. 

It’s important to use the combination of the rougher grit to smooth the surface and the finer grit to finish because if the surface is too smooth, it won’t accept the stain, but if it’s too rough, it will absorb too much and end up nearly black.

If you’re using an orbital sander, be very careful to not make any swirl marks. While they’ll be hard to see before the stain, they’ll become obvious afterward. 

For more details, check out our guide on how to sand wood.

3. Clean

Now you have to get rid of every speck of dust. Use a vacuum to remove all the visible dust, then use a tack cloth to pick up the rest. Finally, using a wet, lint-free cloth, wipe the wood so that the entire surface is wet. The wood must be completely free of lint, hairs, fuzz, dust, and dirt before staining. 

Techniques for Applying Stain

Person's hand holding a paintbrush against wooden fence
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1. Stain

Staining wood is fairly easy – just wipe it on and then wipe it off. However, there are some technique tips to make your project look amazing.

  • Stir the stain thoroughly before and during your application. Some people add stones, marbles, or other small items into the stain can to help move the pigment around so it’s well mixed. 
  • Practice on scraps first so you know how long to leave the stain on, how many coats you want, and how the finish or sealer will change the look. Adjust as necessary on scraps until you achieve the look you want, and then start on your project.
  • For a lighter color, wipe off the stain right away. For a darker color, let the stain sit on the wood for 5-10 minutes.
  • Be sure to use thin coats so the stain dries properly. Thick coats will remain tacky and end up peeling.
  • You can either dip your brush or rag into the stain and apply it to the wood, or you can pour a little stain onto the surface and spread the stain with your applicator.
  • Wipe or brush in the same direction of the grain as well as against the grain, but not across the grain. 

2. Remove Excess

Use your lint-free cotton rag to wipe away excess stain as you work. Don’t allow puddles to form, and clean up any drips right away.

3. Seal/Finish

Choose the best seal or finish for your job and apply it according to the directions on the can. 


It’s important to care for your paintbrushes so you can use them again and again. 

For oil-based stains:

  • Remove as much of the stain from the brush as you can by swiping the brush on a clean scrap piece of wood, cardboard, or a clean rag. 
  • Pour mineral spirits into an empty metal can or bowl and soak the brush until the stain has dissolved. 
  • Discard the solvent and pour more solvent into the can or bowl and repeat the process until the stain is completely gone.
  • Dry the brush with a clean rag, then wash the brush with warm water and soap.
  • Be sure to properly dispose of chemicals!
    • If you pile up rags soaked in stain or mineral spirits, they can build up heat and spontaneously combust. Fires can spark from mineral spirits at as low as 104 degrees. Be sure to hang-dry your rags or lay them on the ground outside before disposal.
    • Do not reuse the container you poured mineral spirits into, except for the same purpose.
    • If you’ve only used a small amount of mineral spirits, you can just let it evaporate. Pour up to a half-inch of the liquid into a disposable foil tray and put it outside out of reach of children or pets. You can then recycle or reuse the tray (for the same purpose). 
    • Alternatively, take your leftover mineral spirits (and the soaked rags) to a hazardous waste disposal facility. 

For water-based stains:

Remove as much of the stain as possible in the same manner as described above, and then wash your brushes with warm soapy water.

Safety Tips

When using oil-based stains and chemicals like mineral spirits, always protect yourself.

  • Be sure your work area is properly ventilated.
  • Wear PPE, including a mask or respirator, long sleeves, pants, and shoes. Wear gloves to protect your hands. However, don’t use latex gloves because some of these chemicals can dissolve latex.
  • Chemicals can be flammable, so dispose of rags properly. Dispose of all chemicals and rags at a hazardous waste disposal site. 


Do I need to use a pretreatment?

Pretreatments prime the wood and prepare it for a bolder finish. If you want to achieve a deeper color with a lot of the grain showing through, a pretreatment will help. On the other hand, if you want a more subdued color, a lye pretreatment would be a good choice. Lye pretreatments result in a washed-out effect. 

How long will my stain last?

Wood stains fade over time, especially with a lot of wear and tear or exposure to sun, rain, and wind. The stain on a piece of furniture indoors will last significantly longer than your uncovered deck, for example. Typically, decks and fences will need to be stained every 2-3 years while your office desk might only need to be done once. 

Do I have to use a finish on my project?

Without a finish or sealer on your project, it will be very prone to water damage, wear, and tear. Not only does this final step make your project look amazing, but it will keep it looking great for years to come. When choosing your finish or seal, be sure to pick the same base as your stain (water-based or oil-based).

Wood Staining Summed Up

Hopefully, you now feel equipped to tackle this DIY job. However, if it’s caused you to take a step back and second-guess yourself, all is not lost. Local paint professionals are ready to help with your wood staining project. Whether your woodworking skills end when the paintbrushes come out or you just don’t have the time to do it, we’re here to help.

Main Photo Credit: puuikibeach / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Alissa Cassidy