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If you don’t like the color of your deck, dining table, or any other wooden object around your home, it can be easily changed using wood stain. This special type of paint is specifically designed for use on wood, and it’s available in a wide range of natural colors, emulating the appearance of mahogany, walnut, oak, and more. Some wood stains also come in more colorful hues, such as blue or pink, but they’re not as common.
When you’re shopping for wood stain, it’s important to consider the object you’re planning to use it on. There are different formulas for interior vs. exterior use, and many exterior stains also include a sealant to increase the durability of the finished product. There are both oil- and water-based stains to choose from, both of which have their respective benefits and drawbacks.
To help narrow down your choices, here are the best wood stains you can find today.
Best Overall: Varathane 1 qt. Classic Wood Interior Stain
For a reliable interior wood stain that comes in dozens of colors, you really can’t go wrong with Varathane Classic. This popular stain comes in both 1-quart and 8-ounce jars, depending on the size of your project, and it’s easy to use, allowing you to enhance the natural wood grain of your material.
This wood stain covers around 150 square feet per quart, and you can recoat it in two hours to build up the color to your desired richness—the brand recommends at least two coasts for best results. The finish penetrates deeply into the wood for long-lasting protection, and the final coat dries in around four hours.
This wood stain is available in any natural shade you can think of, and for additional protection of the material, you may want to apply a polyurethane coat on top of it. The Varathane stain cleans up with mineral spirits, and reviewers love that it delivers beautiful, rich color with just a few coats.
Best for Interior: Minwax Wood Finish Oil-Based Interior Stain
Another popular wood stain for interior use is from Minwax. This oil-based stain comes in 1-quart containers, and you can choose from several popular finishes that deliver natural wood shades. The Minwax stain penetrates deep into the wood, enhancing its natural grain, and it delivers rich color in just one coat.
This interior wood stain resists lapping, delivering more even coverage, and it dries in around two hours, allowing you to apply multiple coats in just one day. It covers around 137.5 square feet per quart of stain, and when you’re done, you can clean up your brushes with mineral spirits.
Best for Exterior: Ready Seal 1-Gallon Can Natural Cedar Exterior Stain and Sealer
For outdoor projects, such as staining a porch or deck, you’ll need a product like the Ready Seal Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer. This stain is sold in 1- and 5-gallon jars, as outdoor projects are typically larger, and it covers around 125 square feet per gallon. This stain and sealer combo can be applied to all types of hard and soft wood, and it will help protect the material from mold, mildew, and ultraviolet rays.
This particular stain has a Natural Cedar color, but the brand offers other shades, as well. The stain penetrates deep into wood in minutes, no matter the temperature outside, and dries to a durable, flat finish that resists chipping, cracking, and flaking. Plus, there’s no back-brushing necessary, making application significantly easier, and if you ever need to reapply, you don’t have to sand or strip the wood.
Best for Pressure-Treated Wood: DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain
Pressure-treated wood is popular for outdoor projects, as the material has undergone treatment that forces preservative agents deep into the wood, helping to prevent decay and increase its longevity. However, because the wood is already saturated with these preservatives, it doesn’t soak up the stain quite as easily.
To stain pressure-treated wood, you’ll need a product like the DEFY Extreme Exterior Wood Stain, and you’ll need to apply it when the lumber is as dry as possible. This semi-transparent water-based stain comes in 1- and 5-gallon sizes, and you can select from seven natural colors, all of which will enhance the wood’s natural grain pattern. The DEFY Extreme Stain is fortified with zinc, which helps to prevent color loss over time, and when you need to apply a maintenance coat, you don’t have to strip or sand the surface again.
Best Water-Based: SamaN TEW-212-12 Interior Water Based Stain
The majority of wood stains today are oil-based, but you can still find water-based products like this stain from SamaN. While water-based stains are trickier to apply, they’re eco-friendly, quick-drying, and easy to clean.
This stain comes in 1-quart and 12-ounce containers, and there is a wide range of colors available, including several non-brown shades. The SamaN stain is designed for interior use, and it delivers exceptional coverage, with 12 ounces covering up to 75 square feet. The formula typically delivers great results with just one coat, and it doesn’t raise the wood grain or leave overlap marks, making it easier to apply,
Reviewers say this water-based stain is surprisingly easy to use, even if you’re new to working with wood, and many love that the product is odorless during application.
Best with Sealant: BEHR Premium 1 gal. Cedar Naturaltone Semi-Transparent Waterproofing Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer
You can color and protect exterior wood in one step with this wood stain and sealer from BEHR Premium. This product is available in 8-ounce, 1-quart, 1-gallon, and 5-gallon containers, and you can also choose between semi-transparent and transparent finishes. The 100 percent acrylic formula is ideal for wooden decks, fences, siding, and more, as it provides a weatherproof finish that will resist UV damage, mold, and mildew for seasons to come.
The BEHR Premium Stain and Sealer can be applied using a brush, roller, sprayer, or pad applicator, and one gallon should cover up to 300 square feet on the first coat. The formula resists rain after just four hours, and the brand says it lasts up to six years on decks and up to eight years on fences. Plus, reviewers confirm that it’s easy to apply and clean up after, and many say it totally transformed their outdoor projects.
Best Colors: Varathane 1 qt. Premium Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain
For an unbeatable selection of colors, you can’t go wrong with the top-rated Varathane Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain, which is available in dozens of hues. There are both natural options like Dark Walnut and Golden Oak, as well as more vibrant hues, including Barn Red and Vintage Aqua.
This interior stain comes in 1-quart jars, and it delivers up to 275 square feet of coverage per container. The semi-transparent stain features nano pigments for rich, clear color, and it dries in just one hour, allowing you to finish your project faster. Then, all you have to do is clean up with mineral spirits and enjoy your newly colored decor!
Best Wipes: Minwax Wood Finishing Cloths
Most wood stain needs to be applied with a paintbrush, but for small projects, you can simply use the Minwax Wood Finishing Cloths. These convenient wipes are saturated with stain, so you can simply swipe them over the wood for easy application.
These Wood Finishing Cloths are available in several popular shades, and you get eight wipes per package. The stain dries in one hour and is easy to clean up with soap and water—just be sure to wear plastic gloves to protect your hands during application—and reviewers say the clothes are effective and easy to use.
What to Look for in a Wood Stain
Take some time to properly consider the various factors that may impact your decision, like the type of wood, the opacity of the stain, and the difference between oil-based and water-based products, so that you can find the best wood stain for your next project.
Type of Wood
Most people immediately think of deck or fence boards when they think of wood stain, but a stain can be applied to a wide variety of objects, like chairs, tables, dressers, and more, so it's important to consider the type of wood before choosing a stain. For instance, walnut, cherry, and mahogany wood are known to have very small pores that help to protect the wood from moisture, but this natural protection also makes this wood difficult to stain because the small pores don't absorb stain very well.
Alternately, oak and ash easily absorb most types of stains at a balanced rate, making them ideal for deck boards, fencing, and furniture. Pine and cedar absorb stains very quickly, but due to this high level of absorption, a water-based stain can leave pine and cedar looking blotchy and uneven. Use oil-based stains on pine and cedar to get an attractive finish. Alder, birch, and maple should be stained with a water-based stain because they have a lower level of absorption that would not effectively absorb oil-based stains.
Opacity and transparency are terms that both refer to the level to which the stain can be seen through. The most opaque a stain, the better it is at covering the wood surface, while a more transparent stain would show the natural grain of the wood. It should be noted that opaque stains are a better option for UV protection because transparent stains allow the light to penetrate to the wood instead of reflecting the UV rays.
There are four main opacity levels for wood stains including solid, semi-solid, semi-transparent, and transparent. Solid stains are the most opaque and provide the best UV protection, though the natural appearance of the wood cannot be seen through these stains. Semi-solid stains are a good option if you want to protect the wood from UV radiation, but also want to see some of the natural wood grain.
Semi-transparent stains allow you to see most of the natural wood grain, but there is a semi-transparent layer of stain that can tint the grain and moderately protect the wood from UV rays. Transparent stains are completely clear and are really only useful for protecting the wood from moisture, making them a great choice for sealing decks and fences without covering the natural wood grain.
Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Stains
The type of wood and the type of stain are key components that should be compatible to get the best results. Stains can be split into two broad categories: water-based and oil-based stains.
Water-based stains are known to be easier to absorb, so they work well with wood that has a low absorption rate, like alder, birch, and maple. These stains are also a good choice for oak and ash, though even water-based stains are not that effective with walnut, cherry, and mahogany. Water-based stains dry quickly and are more environmentally friendly than oil-based stains.
Oil-based stains are best for woods that have a high absorption rate, like pine and cedar, though they are also great for oak and ash. While these stains take longer to dry, they also penetrate deeper into the wood, increasing UV resistance. This slow drying period also allows the wood to absorb the stain more evenly, resulting in a smooth finish.
How do you stain wood?
Staining wood isn't a difficult process, though to be successful it's important to take your time and ensure that the surface is clean and dry before applying the stain. Use a pressure washer to remove dirt and old paint from the wood, then allow it to dry.
Stain can be applied with a paintbrush, roller, or paint sprayer, so choose the option that works best for your project. Also, make sure to cover any surfaces or objects that you don't want to stain. On average, the stain will take between 24 to 48 hours to fully cure.
How do you remove stain from wood?
Removing stain from wood is usually a two-part process that involves stripping the stain and varnish coat from the wood with a chemical paint stripper, then sanding the top layer of wood to remove any stain that has seeped into the wood.
Apply the chemical stripper with a paintbrush and allow it to soak for 15 to 20 minutes, but make sure to put on long clothes, safety glasses, protective gloves, and a respirator before starting. Use a plastic paint scraper to scrape off the varnish and stain, then dip a steel wool pad into the chemical stripper and use this steel wool to lightly scrub every corner and crevice of the wooden surface.
When you are satisfied that you have removed as much stain and varnish as possible, wipe down the wood with a wet rag and allow it to dry for about 24 hours before sanding to remove any remaining stain.
How long does wood stain take to dry?
Typically, stain takes about 24 to 48 hours to fully cure. After application, wood stain may be dry to the touch within 30 minutes to two hours. At this point, you can add a second coat of stain, if necessary. However, the stain isn't fully cured at this point and may be vulnerable to physical or chemical damage.
How do you prep wood for stain?
Preparing the wooden surface beforehand is one of the most important steps in staining wood. Use a pressure washer to quickly clean away any dirt or loose pieces of wood and allow the wood to dry. When it's dry, you can apply stain to the exposed wood.
However, if the wood is already painted or stained you will need to strip the wood with a chemical stripper, then sand the wood to remove any excess paint or stain. After this is complete, you can wash the surface with a pressure washer and allow the wood to dry before applying stain.
Why Trust The Spruce?
Additional research for this article was provided by Timothy Dale, a seasoned home improvement expert who specializes in plumbing, construction, and product recommendations, among other topics.