How to Stain Wood

...Without Mess or Messing It up

Wood stain
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If you're accustomed to painting, you'll 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 wood grain come through.

Yet in other ways, staining is an unforgiving, temperamental task. It's smelly and hard to clean up. If improperly applied, the stain can go crazy on you, darkening some areas while leaving other areas too light.

Staining Materials and Tools

  • Wood Conditioner (See below)
  • Oil-Based Stain: You can buy either oil-based or water-based stain. Oil-based penetrates better and lasts longer. In other words, long-term benefits. The water-based stain has a less hideous smell and dries quicker: short-term benefits
  • Latex Gloves or Heavier Rubber Gloves
  • Paint Stirring Stick
  • Large, Clean, Soft Cotton Rags
  • Newspapers
  • Sheet Plastic

1. Wood Conditioner or Not?

With experience, woodworkers come to accept the wisdom of wood conditioning before staining. As it turns out, it's a pretty good thing.

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. 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, giving you a blotchy appearance.​

Conditioning is worth the extra step, considering that a small container goes a long way (1 quart does 500 square feet); is cheap (under $10/quart); and dries fast (within 30 minutes you can proceed with staining).

2. Preparation

Stain stains. The instant stain hits any remotely 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 which 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.

3. Staining

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.

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 about ten minutes before wiping off or to apply a second coat after 2 hours.

4. Clean Up

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 stain is flammable, it's good to seal up waste stain as best as you can. If you happen to spill some stain, now's the time to clean it up.