Can You Stain Over Paint?

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You've probably heard of painting over old stained wood, but what about the opposite—staining over paint? This actually works, and it creates a custom finish with fun, even surprising, effects.

Stain over paint is suitable for smaller projects like refurbishing old furniture or even decorating doors and woodwork. It's a great way to transform a thrift store nightstand into an heirloom-style piece with rich, dark undertones. Or, you might stain a child's painted bedroom dresser and turn it into adult-worthy guest room furniture with a glazed, lacquered look. Or maybe streak dark stain over a small painted table for a dramatic, wood-like grain.

You can fine-tune the finished product by adjusting the degree of sanding or by using different stains and application methods. The possibilities are endless, and it's always fun to experiment with this simple, low-cost project.

Safety Considerations

When using stain, always work in a well-ventilated area such as a garage with an open door or a covered patio. The odor of stain can be unpleasant and even harmful in closed conditions.

Troubleshooting Tips

  • While you can stain over paint, realize that you are creating a unique look, not an authentic stained wood-grain look. For that, first strip off all of the paint, then apply the stain.
  • Paint with greater gloss means that the surface is less porous. The stain will more easily slide off, resulting in a lighter color. Flat sheen paint has greater porosity and absorbs more stain and turns darker.
  • Silicone caulking or types of glues completely shed stains and will result in light spots.
  • Areas of unsealed wood putty or wood filler readily absorb the stain and produce dark, noticeable spots.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 1 hour for a small item such as a chair or nightstand
  • Total Time: 1 1/2 hours
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Material Cost: $10 to $20

What You Will Need

Equipment/Tools

  • Sandpaper
  • Stain application devices such as a natural or synthetic bristle brush, foam sponge brush, cotton cloth, or roller frame and roller cover
  • Drop cloth
  • Eye protection
  • Latex gloves or similar waterproof gloves such as nitrile gloves
  • Clean rags or tack cloth
  • Plastic sandwich bags
  • Sharpie marker

Materials

Instructions

Prepare the Work Area

Lay a drop cloth under the item and extend the cloth a couple of feet beyond to catch stain splatter.

Remove Accessories

If working on an item such as a dresser or nightstand, unscrew hardware, hinges, and all other items that will not be stained. Bag these items and their screws, label the bag with a Sharpie and set them safely aside.

Test and Assess the Painted Surface

Experiment on a sample remote area since paint sheen and general surface conditions dramatically affect the outcome.

Sand the Surface

Sanding the surface gives it more tooth, or porosity, to grab the stain. Not all surfaces need to be sanded. This is done for decorative effect, not for durability, so sand as much or as little as you wish. Clean the surface with a clean cloth or tack cloth.

Mix the Stain

As with paint, stain carries pigments and must be thoroughly mixed. Stir the stain carefully with a clean wooden stirring stick. Since bubbles may form, let fifteen minutes pass before you begin using the stain.

Apply Stain to the Paint

Stain quickly separates; be sure to thoroughly mix the stain before using. Gel stains are less viscous than conventional stains, making it easier to dispense the product on the surface and control drips. A little stain goes a long way, especially applied on these less absorbent painted surfaces. Dip just the tip of the brush bristles in the stain. Transfer the brush to the painted surface, starting at one edge, and brush gently. If the desired effect is a dark stain, aim for multiple thin layers of the stain rather than one single thick layer.

Let the Stain Dry

Stained surfaces tend to dry to touch within two hours. Allow for at least two hours between coats, if you are applying additional coats. Let the final coat dry overnight before reinstalling the hardware or using the piece.

How to Get a Faux Wood-Grain Look

  • Using a rough-bristled, inexpensive chip brush will give the surface a heavy, streaked look much like wood grain.
  • Layer two different shades of stain, one darker than the other.
  • Move the staining brush mostly in the same direction to mimic wood grain.
  • With the brush, occasionally create long, narrow ovals, similar to wood knots.

How to Achieve a Smooth Look and Feel

  • For the smoothest stained paint, use a staining pad or a high-quality natural bristle paintbrush.
  • For a physically smooth surface, work through the sandpaper grits from lower grit numbers to higher, such as from #120, to #150, and ending with a #180 grit.

Stain Over Paint: Tips for Success

  • With oil-based stains, use only natural applicators like horse hair brushes or cotton pads. With water-based stains, you can use either natural applicators or synthetic applicators like foam sponge brushes.
  • With a clean, dry cloth, vigorously wipe freshly applied stain in the direction of the grain to blend and deepen it.
  • Stain over the raised texture of fancy crown molding, ceiling medallions, or the delicate tracery of furniture filigrees. The stain will highlight the raised sections and create visual depth.
  • Rolling with a thick-nap roller cover will give the item a stippled look.
  • Chipped paint produces the highest color contrast since the stain soaks into and darkens the areas of bare wood while remaining lighter colored on the painted areas.
  • Try a sponge for a marbled effect. With a gloved hand, soak the sponge with stain, squeeze it out, then dab it on the work surface.