How to Stain Wood

How to Stain Wood

Halfway between paint and varnish is stain, which brings its own pigment to the project but allows the look of the wood to remain dominant. Stains generally include a pigment or dye suspended in water or mineral oil as a solvent. You apply it wet, the solvent dries away, and you're left with a consistent coat of color. Oil-based stains dry slowly and don't raise the grain of the wood. Water-based stains dry more quickly, don't carry odor, and clean up with soap and water—however, they likely necessitate a final sanding. If you like the color of your wood as is, skip straight to a protective finish. If you want to darken or change the look of your wood, apply stain first, and then a protective topcoat of varnish or another finish (see How to Refinish Furniture with Varnish).

Pick a Color

The color you apply isn't always the color you end up with—stains typically change hue as they dry. And because a stain's color is influenced by the underlying wood, even the samples at the store are only best guesses. If you need to match a target color, the only way to do it right is to try a stain on a scrap or an unseen corner of your piece.


• Fine sandpaper

• Sanding block

• Chemical-resistant rubber gloves

• Rags

• Old sock or disposable paintbrush


• Wood stain

1 Prepare the surface. Because stain rests in the pores of a piece, stain must be applied to bare, sanded wood. To start, unscrew any functional or decorative elements. With new wood, simply sand with fine-grit sandpaper to open the pores. With old wood, strip away any existing finish (see How to Strip Paint from Wood) and then sand.

2 Apply the stain. There are many ways to apply stain, but the best method depends on the size of the wood's pores. To ensure full saturation of the large pores of "open-grain" woods" (oak, ash, and mahogany), use an old sock wrapped around your gloved hand to work the stain into the wood, scrubbing across the grain in a swirling pattern. With closed-grain woods—like cherry, aspen, and birch—use a brush to apply stain in long, gentle strokes.

How to Stain Wood

3 Wipe the stain. The longer you leave a stain to dry before wiping, the darker the finished color. However, pools or droplets of stain left on the surface will create an uneven finish. Ideally, you would apply only as much stain as would reasonably dry to a consistent, flat color. However, wood tends to have uneven absorption, so once your piece has dried, you'll need to wipe it free of excess stain with a dry rag. Wipe in straight lines with the grain of the wood. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 for a second and even a third coat.

How to Stain Wood