How to Stain Wood: Tips for Large and Small Projects

By: Kealia Reynolds How to
Cropped view of male carpenter applying stain to wooden deck. Horizontal shot.

This is your essential guide to staining wood for projects both large and small.

The time required and total cost of the project will vary depending on the size, surface area, and type of wood you’re staining. A typical can of wood stain will cost $15–$50 per gallon, and projects can take anywhere from an hour to a full day.

Types of stains

There are two types of wood stain—oil based and water based.

Oil-based stains take longer to dry than water-based stains do, so they allow you to work for longer. If this is your first staining project, an oil-based stain will make it less likely that your coats will be uneven. Also, oil-based stains won’t raise the grain on the wood, so you won’t need to worry about sanding the finish.

Alternatively, water-based stains dry quickly. Though this ensures that you’ll finish your project faster, it also means that the stain will set more quickly. Unlike oil stains, water-based stains don’t give off strong odors or fumes and also come in a wider variety of colors not available in oil-based stains.

Woods that stain well

Wood reacts differently to certain stains. Before you begin a new project, confirm the wood type that you plan to use for your project, and match the appropriate stain to it.

  • OakOak is common and very popular to stain because it has large pores that absorb and retain stain well.
  • Ash or chestnutThese woods are coarse-grained yet have similar pore structures to oak, so they retain stain just as well as oak does.
  • BeechThis heavy, pale-colored wood won’t blotch when stained. Beech can be stained to appear similar to dark cherry, making beech a popular DIY project candidate.
  • PinePine performs best with a light stain or finish. The natural grain of pine is unevenly dense, so it’s best to use a pre-stain wood conditioner before staining pine.

Hard-to-stain woods

Some types of wood possess characteristics that make them difficult to stain. Consider the above alternatives if you’re starting a project from scratch.

Painting wood with brush.

Step-by-step instructions: how to stain wood furniture

If you’re refurbishing an old piece of furniture, block out ample time to complete your project. There are eight critical steps to refurbishing and re-staining wood furniture.

If the furniture has minor dents, chips, or nicks, prep the surface accordingly.

Materials

  • Goggles and gloves
  • Painter’s tape
  • Drop cloths
  • Wood conditioner
  • Wood stain
  • Wood finish
  • Stripper for paint removal
  • Sandpaper
  • Dry rag
  • Natural bristle paint brush (for oil-based stains)
  • Synthetic paint brush (for water-based stains)
  1. Prepare the work area and yourselfEnsure that your work area is well-ventilated to allow fumes to escape. Place newspapers or a drop cloth on the floor and cover nearby furniture to prevent stains on other surfaces. Protect eyes and hands by wearing safety glasses and rubber gloves. You’ll also want to wear old clothes, as stains are permanent.
  2. Remove existing wood finishIf the furniture already has a stain or a varnish finish, remove the finish by sanding the surface until the wood is smooth and even. After sanding, wipe away dust with a dry cloth and ensure that no dust remains on the furniture. This allows the new stain to bring out the color variation in the wood.
  3. Test the stainAlways test your selected stain on wood scrap before staining a larger area. You’ll want to make sure the color appears as you intend. Protect parts of the furniture you don’t want to stain with painter’s tape.
  4. Apply stain conditionerThis step is critically important for pine, birch, alder, cherry, or mahogany furniture. Apply a thin coat of pre-stain wood conditioner with a fine paintbrush. This prevents blotchiness and uneven paint marks. You’ll need to let the conditioner set for 10–15 minutes or longer (or according to the conditioner’s directions).
  5. Prep the stain solutionStir the stain thoroughly. This redistributes settled any dyes or pigment throughout the stain to ensure even color throughout the mixture.
  6. Brush on the stainApply a water- or oil-based stain with a paintbrush or rag. When using a paintbrush, work with the grain of the wood to apply a nice, even coat.
  7. Remove excess stainWipe off excess stain with a rag. If you want a lighter stain, wipe off immediately, darker stains can sit for longer as long as they don’t drip.
  8. Use a finishAfter the stain is dry—oil-based stains will take longer to dry than water-based stainsuse a clean, fine-haired brush to apply a clear stain finish if desired. A clear finish is that it will seal the color of the stain.
Male carpenter applying stain to deck. Horizontal shot.

Step-by-step instructions: how to stain a wooden deck

Test the condition of your deck stain by dropping water on the surface. If the water soaks into the wood and does not bead up, then your deck needs a new coat of stain.

Materials

  • Goggles and gloves
  • Drop cloths
  • Painter’s tape
  • Deck cleaning solution
  • Wood stain
  • Wood finish
  • Stripper for paint removal
  • Flooring sander
  • Dry rag
  • Garden hose or pressure washer
  • Natural bristle paint brush (for oil-based stains)
  • Synthetic paint brush (for water-based stains)
  1. Prepare the work area—Clean your deck with a hose or power washer and a cleaning solution two or three days prior to beginning your project. Remove all items from the deck and sweep off any debris. Clean between the slats and ensure all holes have been fixed. Cover nearby plants, windows, and walls with plastic (securing with painter’s tape) to protect them from stain splatter.
  2. Sand the deckUse a floor sander or palm sander to sand the deck in the direction of the grain, sanding down splinters or uneven areas. Wear safety goggles and a face mask to protect yourself from debris.
  3. Prep the stain solutionStir the stain thoroughly to ensure that dyes and pigments are evenly distributed. Test the stain on a small area to ensure it’s the color you’re expecting.
  4. Apply the stainWorking from one end of the deck to the other (make sure you can get off the deck without walking on fresh stain). Apply the stain in thin, even layers to get an even color. If a second coat is necessary, wait for the first coat to dry before applying.
  5. Allow the deck to dry completelyStain will take about 48 hours to completely dry. Make sure the stain has dried before uncovering plants, walls and windows, and before putting back any furniture.

More tips for wood-staining projects

Never mix oil- and water-based stains. While it’s possible to mix two colors of stain to make a custom color, only do so if made by the same manufacturer. Ask a home improvement store pro before mixing two colors.

A water-based finish can be put over an oil-based stain, but only after waiting a full 24 hours. As most stains don’t include a finish in their solution, you’ll want to apply a finish to the material after 24 hours or as the instructions of your stain product recommend to lock in and seal the color of the stain.

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