How to Stain Wood

Wood stain
stevecoleimages/Getty Images

If you are accustomed to painting, you may find that staining wood is a completely different game. In some ways, staining is easier and more satisfying than painting. You typically have less area to cover, so you can take your time. And it's great to see the richness of the wood grain come through.

Yet in other ways, staining is an unforgiving, temperamental task. The stain is smelly and hard to clean up. If improperly applied, the stain can darken some areas while leaving other areas too light, producing a striped effect. But with the proper techniques and a few tricks, you can learn how to stain wood so that the color is smooth and consistent all the way through.

Basics of Staining Wood

Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Stains

You can buy either oil-based or water-based stain. Oil-based stain penetrates better and lasts longer. It can give the wood a richer, deeper look than water-based stains can. But oil-based stain is smelly, hard to work with, and difficult to clean.

The water-based stain has a less pronounced smell and dries quicker. While water-based stain's pigments might still be difficult to clean up, the stain's body or base material is easy to clean up with water only.

Using Wood Conditioner

Wood conditioning before staining is crucial to achieving a smooth, consistent color across the entire work material. Wood conditioner is used only for softwoods, such as fir, pine, hemlock, and so on. Press your thumbnail into the wood. If a nail mark remains, this is softwood.

Staining without properly conditioned wood is possible—and it can look decent—except you get far more consistent color if you condition the wood. Stain on highly porous softwoods will race into the porous grain before you can properly smooth it out. It has a tendency to suck into some areas more than others, resulting in a blotchy appearance.​

Conditioning is worth the extra step, considering that a small amount of wood container goes a long way. Plus, the wood conditioner dries fast. Usually, within 30 minutes you can proceed with staining.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 20 minutes (for about 10 square feet)
  • Total Time: 60 minutes
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Material Cost: $20 to $40

Tools and Materials

Materials

  • Wood conditioner
  • Wood stain

Tools

  • Soft, clean cotton rags
  • Dropcloth or plastic sheeting
  • Wood paint stirring stick
  • Latex or nitrile gloves

Safety Considerations

When staining, always work in a well-ventilated area. Work with latex or nitrile gloves to prevent stains to your hands. Always dispose of unused materials properly.

Apply the Wood Conditioner

With a brush or rag, liberally apply the wood conditioner to the wood. The conditioner will rapidly soak in, then pool up on top. Remove the excess with a clean rag.

Prepare for Staining

Stain is difficult to clean up. When stain contacts a porous flooring surface—grout, carpet, poorly finished wood—it will soak in and never come out. So, if this is a surface you care about, lay sheet plastic as a perimeter around the work material. Laying down contractor's paper over the plastic will catch spills and distribute the stain, rather than it pooling up on the plastic.

Just like paint, the stain has pigments that can separate from the base material. One way to mix the stain is to shake it. But do this about an hour before opening the container, to allow the stain to settle back down before use. Alternatively, you can stir the stain with a clean paint stirrer.

Put on your latex gloves. Open the stain container. Wad up the rag so that one end is about the size of half a tennis ball. Dip into the stain container and squeeze out excess back into the container. Your aim is to have a stain-dampened rag. If stain drips from the rag, it is too wet.

Stain the Wood

Put the stained rag on the work material and move it in the direction of the grain. Initially, the stain should rest on the surface rather than soaking into the wood. If it soaks in quickly, then your wood is still too porous.

Use the stain sparingly. Continue stroking in the direction of the grain, making sure that no excess is left on the wood.

Tip

You cannot build a darker color by rubbing on more coats of stain in this first stage. The way to deepen the color is to either let the stain rest on the wood for a few minutes before wiping it off or to apply a second coat after two hours.

Cleaning After Staining

One nice feature to using latex gloves is that, while holding the stain-soaked rag, you can invert your glove around the rag, forming a mini trash bag. Then, tie off the end of the glove. Since the stain is flammable, you should seal up the waste stain as best as you can. If you happen to spill some stain, now is the time to clean it up.