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How to Apply Stain to Wood (Step-by-Step Beginners Guide)

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Wood staining is an often overlooked part of woodworking but is vital to the appearance and durability of your work. Wood staining seeks to slightly change the appearance without completely losing the woody look.

Wood staining may not be necessary for every wood, but when it needs to be done, it should get the best hands. This puts beginners at a disadvantage as they may struggle to properly stain their wood pieces. Nevertheless, with the right information, anybody can stain wood.

Applying stain to wood involves using a brush, rag, or foam to rub the stain on the wood. This is done to improve the aesthetics of the wood.

Wood staining has evolved from the use of wax in the 17th century to more sophisticated water and oil-based stains today. These stains evoke different feelings depending on the type of stain you use.

Difference Between Stain and Finish

Difference Between Stain and Finish

Wood stain and finish are often misused words as many people assume they are the same. However, staining and finishing involve different materials and serve different purposes.

A wood stain focuses on the appearance of the wood while finishing protects the wood from fade and damage. A stained wood will still require finishing to protect it.

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Step by Step to Apply Wood Stain

You can apply wood stains perfectly even if it is your first time by following this guide.

Step 1: Choose the Type of Stain

There are several wood stains available so choosing the type you want to use is the first step. Choose the best one suitable to the type of wood you’ll be staining, your level of expertise, and the durability capacity of the stain.

Step 2: Prep Wood

Prep Wood

Place the drop cloth on the ground before placing the dropping wood on it. This cloth will collect chippings and stains, so it doesn’t touch the ground. Prepare the wood by cleaning it with the tack cloth and ensuring the surface is free from dirt and is dry. Allow it to dry out where necessary. Also, ensure there is no finishing on the wood. Remove the previous finishing by using a stripping agent. Next, sandpaper the wood to ensure a smooth and even surface, and then clean with a tack cloth.

Step 3: Use the Pre Stain Wood Conditioner

The porous and soft nature of wood means you need a thin layer on the surface before applying the stain. This layer is created by the pre-stain conditioner. Using your bristle brush, apply the pre-stain wood conditioner on the surface of the wood, ensuring to cover all the surface. Allow it to dry.

Step 4: Mix the Stain

While waiting for the pre-stain to dry, you can use a stick to properly mix the stain of your choosing so pigments that may have settled at the bottom can get stirred. Read the instructions to know whether to stir or shake the mixture as some stains are not to be shaken. Dilute the stain with the right thinner. Oil-based stains tend to use mineral spirits, while water-based stains use water to dilute the mixture. You should bear in mind that the amount of solvent you add will determine the intensity of color you get.

Step 5: Apply Stain

Apply Stain

Using your bristle brush, foam brush, or sprayer, depending on the type of stain you choose, apply your stain to the surface of the wood. Carefully apply the stain as some drip. Some stains also require more than one layer to check and apply accordingly. Apply in a circular motion for deep grain wood or along the grain for others.

Step 6: Clean Excess Stain

Before wiping excess stains off, you need to allow the wood to soak in some of the stains. The time you should wait depends on the type of stain used. Oil-based stains take longer to dry, so allowing for 10 minutes before cleaning off excess stains is ideal. On the other hand, water-based stains are fast-drying, so you should clean the stains with your lint-free rag after two minutes.

Step 7: Allow to Dry

The different types of stains have varying drying periods, which depend on their viscosity. Water-based stains tend to dry faster, with some drying under 15 minutes. The more vicious oil-based stains, on the other hand, take a considerably longer time to dry, with some taking over six hours.

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Types of Wood Stain

There are different types of wood Stains you can use to elevate your pieces. These stains vary in final appearance, method of application, and even price.

1. Oil-Based Stain

Oil-Based Stain

This is the most popular type of wood stain and the reason is not far-fetched. It penetrates feely, which is especially important when working with wood-light large grains. It is also quite durable with most even containing vanish, as well as linseed oil. You can use mineral-based spirit to thin it if the paint is too thick. With oil-based stains, you can apply a finisher on top.

2. Water-Based Stain

Water-based stains are more environmentally friendly than their oil counterparts as they contain water-based dyes. You can thin them using water. You’ll need to apply carefully and consistently as this stain type tends to run off. Water-based stains have lower durability as the stain does not penetrate deeply.

3. Varnish Stains

This type of stain uses varnish as a binder and oil as a thinner. They are hard drying and are perfect for small projects; however, you may need to apply a couple of layers to get it ready.

4. Gel


This is a high viscosity liquid stain with thick jelly-like pigments. Being vicious means it does not drip, but it also means it takes a long time to dry and will not penetrate deeply. It is new, having been first used in the 20th century.

5. Lacquer Stain

If you’re looking for a quick application, this stain takes only 15 minutes to dry as they are thin. They also penetrate well, which means they can last long. Because of their thin nature, they’ll run and drip, which makes them difficult for beginners to handle.

6. Metal Dye Stain

This is a stain that includes metals like nickel and cobalt that helps to reduce the facing of the stain. This type of stain is long-lasting. You may need to thin the stain before applying. The nature of the stain means it can be sprayed onto the surface.

7. Water Soluble Dye

These are stains that come in powdered forms and require mixing with water in the ratio of one ounce of dye powder to one quart of water. Increase the quantity of dye to make a darker color. This stain is best used on indoor wood as they fade quickly when exposed to UV light.

Materials Needed to Apply Wood Stain

  • Pre stain wood conditioner
  • Stripping agent
  • Wood finishing coat
  • Stain
  • Stain applier (sprayer, bristle brush, foam brush)
  • Lint-free rag
  • Drop cloth
  • Tack cloth
  • Thinner (mineral spirits, water)
  • Sandpaper


These steps will lead even a complete novice to complete their first wood stain and produce a beautiful appearance. Bear in mind that you may need to apply finish to the wood to reduce fading and protect the wood. The choice of finish depends on your needs.

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