Wood Staining Basics – Woodworking for Mere Mortals

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Biggest Wood Staining Mistakes and Misconceptions | Wood Staining Basics

A lot of new woodworkers get the urge to stain projects. There’s not anything wrong with wood staining, but there are some misconceptions about it and how to use it that I want to clear up.

Choosing colors

Before staining wood, ask yourself why you want to change its color. One of the decisions that goes into selecting a type of wood for a project is its natural color. Seeing natural grain and color immediately pop under a protective finish is super satisfying.

But really, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Personally, I sometimes like to stain oak with a golden oak stain. It gives it a rich, natural color that doesn’t look fake. The whole idea behind stain is that you can color wood, but not cover up the grain like paint does.

Yeah, but what about drab, boring wood?

Wood stains are probably most commonly used on pine boards and plywood. Typically, pine is the cheapest lumber you can buy and its light color can make it seem like a blank canvas. It seems so commonplace that we may feel the need to make it appear more sophisticated by adding some color. Keep in mind, like all woods, pine will also darken over time to a rich yellowish hue. I think pine is a beautiful, highly underrated species and can look fantastic with just a clear finish.

But since it’s pretty inexpensive, why not experiment with some color? This makes sense and trying out different stain colors can be fun.


Stains can look unnatural. When you go to the home center or hardware store to select a color, you will see all kinds of samples. But in my experience, most of them don’t really look much like the wood species their names imply. If a bold, dyed look is what you like, own it! For a more natural look, go subtle with shades. A slight alteration to a wood’s color can go a long way on an entire project.

The biggest misconception about stain

Stains don’t protect wood. Stains color wood. Aside from some stains that come with a polyurethane blend, or say, colored danish oil, you will need to apply a topcoat over your stain to protect the wood from UV damage, scratches, spills, etc.

For some reason a lot of people begin woodworking thinking that staining wood is a requirement for a completed project. Mostly they are confusing wood stain with a wood finish. A protective wood finish is a requirement for most projects. A stain is not.

No turning back

Another thing to keep in mind is that once you commit to a color and apply it to your project, the deed is done. There is no undo button. Unlike paint, which just sits on top of the wood and can be sanded off, wood stain penetrates into the fibers of the wood like a sponge absorbing water.


Make sure you sand the wood well before applying stain. Any scratches will be enhanced by stain.

Sanding will also help open up the pores of the wood so that they can absorb stain better. Start with 80 grit to remove big scratches and imperfections, then move up to 120 and finally 220 grit. Make sure you remove any sanding dust from the surface. Vacuuming is ideal to remove any dust from inside the wood’s pores.

Applying stain

Don’t brush on a coat of stain like you would paint and just wait for it to dry. You’ll be frustrated and disappointed when parts of it still feel sticky after a couple days. When wood has absorbed all the stain it wants, the rest just sits on the surface and doesn’t like to dry.

To keep this from happening you must wipe off excess stain after applying it. By the way, this isn’t some woodworking hack…the label on the can will tell you exactly how to apply stain correctly. Read it!

The applicator you choose for applying stain doesn’t really matter. You can certainly use a brush if you like but I would rather use a foam brush. They are cheap and disposable making cleanup a lot easier. But my go-to method for applying stain is to use a rag. Old t-shirts are great for this, but even paper towels work for smaller projects.

But again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to wipe it down with a clean dry cloth. Don’t slack off on this part.

Ugh! It’s blotchy!

Wood stains have a nasty habit of distributing themselves unevenly on softwoods such as pine causing blotching. This is especially cruel since pine is most likely the kind of wood you want to stain.

To reduce blotching you need to apply a wood conditioner or sanding sealer before applying stain. Stain manufacturers will recommend their own conditioners. Basically, conditioner will stabilize the wood to allow stain to penetrate more evenly.

Quickly brush or wipe on the conditioner, let it penetrate and wipe it off, just like stain. Now you need to apply the stain before the conditioner completely dries, usually within two hours or so.

What about that topcoat?

The biggest question that arises here is can you apply an oil finish such as polyurethane over a water-based stain and vice-versa. Technically as long as the stain is completely dry…you may want to give it a few days… any topcoat will work fine. Personally, I prefer not to chance mixing oil and water products and will use oil finishes over oil stains and water-based finishes over water-based stains. With lacquer, I’ve never had any problems applying it over either type of stain.

So there’s my tips and tricks for using stain! Try it out for yourself and see what you think.

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