Wood is an elegant material that is often used to construct floors, furniture, walls, doors and door frames, cupboards and more. The adaptable nature of wood allows it to be used in a diverse range of applications to create a variety of styles. Stains allow you to further augment wood’s natural beauty by adding color, enhancing the appearance of wood grain and emphasizing grain contrast. Choosing which kind of stain to use depends primarily on what type of wood or object you’re applying the stain to. Staining requires little more than time, patience and technique, making it an ideal project for a do-it-yourselfer. Adding stain to worn or damaged hardwood floors or an old piece of furniture can breathe new life into objects and make them seem brand new again. Keep the following questions in mind as you prepare your next staining project:
• What are the characteristics of oil-based stains?
• What are the characteristics of water-based stains?
• What types of stains are available?
• Which applications are they best suited to?
• What methods should you use when applying stain?
Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Stains, Types and Application
Traditionally, wood stain has been oil-based. More recently, however, water-based stains have begun to gain in popularity. Each type offers different qualities, and choosing which one to use depends on what you’re staining, how much time you plan to put into the project and your personal preferences. Stains are also available in different formulas, each of which have different properties or are applied through different means. While stains enhance the look of wood, they do not protect it from scratches or wear and tear. You’ll need to apply a finish after staining to protect your project.
Oil-Based Stains vs. Water-Based Stains: Oil-based stains have been in use for many years. They provide depth of color and minimal raising of a wood’s grain, though the topcoat may take on a slight amber tint over time. Water-based stains dry more quickly and can be easily cleaned up with soap and water. Because of their fast drying time, it may be easiest to work on small sections when using water-based stains to avoid drying before you are finished. They give off little odor, are more environmentally friendly and provide a clear topcoat. Water-based stains also provide a wider range of intense colors. Both types provide excellent durability.
• Oil-based stains create traditional coloring
• Water-based stains can be used to achieve more contemporary coloring
• Water-based stains may raise the grain somewhat and require sanding afterward
• Oil stains dry more slowly, allowing them to penetrate more deeply
• Oil stains can be cleaned up by using mineral spirits
Stain Types: Generally speaking, there are five different stain types: gel stain, wiping stain, combination stain/finish, spray stain and water-based liquid stain. They differ in the types of surfaces they are best suited to, how they are applied and their characteristics. One of the primary differences between types is the viscosity level, or thickness, of gel stains compared to thinner-bodied stains. Gel stains may be somewhat easier to apply for novice woodworkers because they provide equal coverage for both porous and nonporous areas. They don’t drip or splatter, which makes them ideal for applying to vertical surfaces. Thin-bodied stains, however, provide more depth because they actually penetrate the surface. Wiping stains are very versatile and can be used with nearly any wood surface that hasn’t been finished before. Different stains may require multiple coats, so be sure to consult the manufacturer’s instructions. The chart below highlights the main features and characteristics of each type.
|Combination Stain/Finish||• Combines wood stain with
• Saves time by applying both
• Multiple coats provide deeper
penetration and more durable
||• Foam brush
• Bristle brush
|Gel Stain||• Doesn’t penetrate
• Leaves grain appearance intact
• May be used on previously painted
• Thicker viscosity is ideal for vertical
• Oil based
|• Nonporous woods
• Foam applicator
|Spray Stain||• Provides consistent coverage
• Easy to apply
|• Intricate or hard-
|• None needed
|Water-Based Liquid Stain||• Dries quickly
• Easy cleanup with soap and water
• Available in a range of colors
• Foam brush
• Staining pad
|Wiping Stain||• May be oil or water based
• Penetrates wood pores to seal and
• Available in a range of colors
• Use on unfinished surfaces
• Foam applicator
• Lamb’s wool pad
Application: Regardless of which type of stain you select, you’ll want to stir it thoroughly before you begin to work. The pigment settles to the bottom of the container over time, so you’ll get an uneven finish if you don’t stir before applying. Test stain on a scrap piece of wood or inconspicuous area, like the back of a piece of furniture, before you begin to make sure it provides the look you want. It’s best if you can use a test piece of the same type of wood as the object you’ll be staining. Sand the work surface until it’s smooth so the stain doesn’t look blotchy when it is applied. Interior stains are generally applied with a brush or rag and then wiped off to control how deeply the stain penetrates. Brushes are ideal when working with irregularly shaped areas while rags are excellent for use on flat surfaces. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions to learn what temperature your work area should be set at. If the temperature is too hot or cold, it can severely affect drying time. Make sure your work area is well-ventilated, wear gloves and use a face mask if the stain emits hazardous fumes.
• When stain is properly applied, no brush or lap marks will be visible
• Rags provide greater control during stain application
• Rub stain into the surface with a circular motion, and then wipe it off in the direction of the wood’s grain
• Water-based stains dry more quickly, so you’ll have to work faster when using them
• Apply conditioner before staining to achieve higher quality results
Conditioner: Prior to staining, it may be necessary to apply conditioner. Conditioner prepares the surface of wood, particularly soft or porous woods such as pine and alder, to receive a coat of stain more evenly. It dries fairly quickly, so applying it won’t cause you to lose much time.
Finish: Stain enhances wood’s appearance, but finish protects it and keeps it looking good. Once stain has dried, you’ll want to apply the finish. Finishes may be oil or water based and are available in both brush-on and spray-on forms. You can also find formulas that serve as both a stain and finish, saving you time by allowing you to apply them both at once.
Tack Cloth: Once you’re done sanding, you’ll need to clear off the dust. Brushes and dry rags aren’t the most effective way of doing this, as they may leave some debris behind. Tack cloths are pieces of sticky cheesecloth that pick up dust and sanding debris much more efficiently, paving the way for a higher quality stain.