Buying Guide

Types of Wood Stains and Finishes for Interior Use

Wood Stains
A wood dresser with drawers stained in various finishes.

A stain is a colorant applied to wood to change its color. Unlike paint, stains are designed to soak pigment into wood fibers with a solvent and then as it sets or cures, the color binds to the wood. There are different types of wood stains used for interior applications. To determine which type is the best interior wood stain for your project, you need to understand the differences. The type of stains will vary depending on its use and solvent base. 

Oil-Based Stains
A can of oil based wood stain on a white background.

Oil-based interior stain is what most people think of when it comes to wood stain. They are readily available and the easiest to use. 

  • They usually have a linseed oil binder that allows plenty of time to remove the excess before the stain dries. They are typically applied with a rag or cloth instead of a brush (although you can use a brush). 
  • Oil-based stains are the best wood stain for furniture or any large wood surface because of the slower drying time, which gives the piece a more even finish. 
  • Oil-based stains tend to penetrate deeper, leaving behind a richer color that is easy to refresh by applying another coat. 
  • They also have excellent surface adhesion that makes the surface resistant to peeling, giving the wood a more durable finish.
  • You do need to remove the existing finish first before you apply the stain.  You’ll need to use mineral spirits to thin the stain and for clean-up. 
  • They contain noxious chemicals and may require the use of a respirator mask when working with the stain. 
Water-Based Stains
A can of water based wood stain on a white background.

Water-based interior stains are easier to clean up and are fast drying. These stains use water as the binder, which makes it easy to clean up or thin with water. 

  • They are extremely resistant to mold and mildew and more environmentally friendly. 
  • Because of its quick drying time, water-based stains are perfect for small projects. 
  • They do not penetrate the wood as deeply as oil-based stains which result in softer colors, but you can obtain a darker color with successive coats. 
  • Water-based wood stains also have a tendency to raise the grain of the wood. 
  • You can apply water-based stains by brush or with a rag. 
  • For best results, apply to raw wood or wood with the existing wood finish removed. 
Gel-Based Stains
A can of gel stain on a white background.

Gel stains are in between a traditional stain and paint. Gels let some of the wood’s unique markings and texture shine through while giving the wood a crisp, consistent finish. 

  • Like oil-based stains, gel stains clean up with mineral spirits. 
  • When it comes to application, gel stain requires less preparation than regular stains and paints. 
  • They are thicker and messier to apply. Use a rag or cloth to apply for best results. 
  • Gel stains are the best wood stain for furniture or floors made of pine or other woods prone to blotching. Blotching is uneven coloring caused by varying densities and resin deposits in the wood. 

Tip: Gel stain adheres well even if the piece is not completely sanded down to the original wood.

A can of lacquer on a white background.

Lacquer is a speedy, durable finish that produces an intense, high shine finish. It’s a type of film-forming topcoat used to protect and add luster. 

  • It’s normally applied over stain as a finishing coat. 
  • It dries fast and is typically applied with spray equipment. 
  • Lacquer can be used for interior woodworking, cabinets, mouldings and trim, but is not suitable for exterior use.
A can of polyurethane varnish on a white background.

Varnish is used generally for a finish or topcoat. Varnishes can include polyurethane, shellac and lacquer. 

  • It's a clear, hard solution that is applied to wood to give it a glossy finish while forming a protective film around it. Like lacquer, it’s a finishing coat applied over stain. 
  • They have very little color and consist of a resin, a drying oil, and a thinner or solvent. Varnish stains are similar to oil-based stains but are a little bit thicker consistency. 
  • Varnish requires four to six hours or longer to dry and is overall more moisture-resistant than lacquer. 
  • Varnish can be used for any type of interior wood project.
Types of Wood Stains
Feature/Benefits Recommended For Other Considerations
Oil - Interior Wood Stain Requires more time to dry which allows for a more even finish. Penetrates wood deeper. Extremely durable. Less long-term maintenance. Large projects such as flooring or larger pieces of furniture. Apply with cloth or rag, brush or foam applicator. Needs solvents in order to clean brushes.
Water - Interior Wood Stain Dries quickly. Easy cleanup with soap and water. Available in a range of colors. Best interior wood stain for small projects such as furniture, cabinets, doors and moulding. Apply with a nylon/ polyester brush, foam brush, or staining pad. Easy to clean with soap and water.
No Drip Gel - Interior Wood Stain & Finishes Gives wood an even color. Does not raise wood grain. Durable and long-lasting. Comes in traditional colors. Any type of wood project. Apply with cloth or rag, brush or foam applicator.
Wood Finishes Varnish is used generally for a finish or topcoat. Leaves a glossy finish. Any type of wood project. Apply with brush.
Lacquers Used as a topcoat over stain or paint. Produces an intense, high shine finish. Any type of wood project. Apply with brush or paint sprayer.
A man wearing a respirator while staining wood.

There are a few cautions to take into consideration before working with stains. Stains and varnishes contain various amounts of volatile organic chemicals or VOC. These chemicals can cause skin and eye irritations, lung and breathing problems, and headaches. In general, water-based stains contain less VOCs, but the same precautions should be taken when using any type of stain or varnish. 

  • Use stains in a well-ventilated area. It’s a good idea to wear a respirator and to open windows or work in an outdoor space. 
  • Keep away from open flames. The chemicals in stain are highly flammable. 
  • Protect your hands with disposable nitrile gloves to protect your skin for staining or potential allergic reactions. Do not use latex gloves. Latex can dissolve when exposed to solvents.
  • Wear old clothing to protect yourself.
  • Make sure to wear safety glasses to keep the stain out of your eyes.
  • Keep pets and children away from the work area while you are using stain.
  • Do not pile or ball stain-soaked rags in the regular trash while they're still wet. They need to be thoroughly dried before disposal. 
Cleaning Stain
A person cleaning a paint brush.

Keep your paintbrushes and clothes in reusable condition by learning how to properly clean stains. 

For Oil-Based Stains:

  • Scrape off as much of the stain from the brush as you can. Run the bristles back and forth across a scrap piece of wood or cardboard to get more off. Rub the bristles on a rag.
  • Pour mineral spirits or turpentine into an empty metal can or bowl that will not be used for any other purpose. 
  • Immerse the paint brushes into the solvent and allow it to penetrate the bristles. 
  • Once most of the stain is removed, properly discard the solvent and pour clean solvent into the can or bowl. 
  • Swish the brush in the solvent to make sure all the stain is out of the bristles. You can use a wire brush to comb through the bristles to make sure all the pigment is out. 
  • Dry the bristles with a rag, then wash the brush with warm water and soap. 
  • Rags soaked in stain that are left in a heap can build up heat and easily combust and catch fire. Allow the rags to dry thoroughly before disposal. Spread the rags outdoors, on the ground or on a metal rack, until completely dry. Then you can throw them in the trash. 

Safety tip: Mineral spirits and turpentine should never be poured down your drains or outdoors. Put your used mineral spirits or turpentine in a sealable container and transport them to the hazardous-waste collection site.

For Water-Based Stains:

  • Scrape off as much of the stain in the same manner as described above for oil-based stains. 
  • Wash brushes and rags with warm water and soap.

The Home Depot carries a vast selection of interior wood stains and finishes to get your interior wood project done right. Looking for a tool to complete your project? The Home Depot delivers online orders when and where you need them.