Project Guide

How to Stain Wood

1
How to Stain Wood
Product photos of cans of wood stain.

Of the different wood and deck stains, oil based wood stain tends to seep into the wood pores without raising the grain. Water-based wood stain tends to stain more evenly and be more environmentally friendly. Gel stain is thicker, providing better control of the color. Many interior wood stains and deck stains are formulated with pigment or dye.  If you are short on time, look for fast drying wood stain that is dry to the touch within an hour.


As the name suggests, stain can leave permanent discolorations on whatever it touches. Put down drop cloths and take all other precautions when staining wood. Follow these steps to learn how to apply wood stain like a pro.

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Sand Thoroughly
A woman sands a handrail.
  • The best way to stain wood is to prepare the wood surface by sanding it with a sanding block or orbital sander. Sandpaper with a lower grit number will make wood rougher, allowing more stain to absorb and create a darker color. 
  • Start with 120-grit sandpaper on refinished pieces. With new wood, start with 80-grit and then treat it as if you're refinishing it. 
  • When you have removed imperfections and sanded the entire surface, wipe off the dust and loose sandpaper grit. 
  • Sand with 180-grit until you've removed all the marks left by the 120-grit and the surface appears level. 
  • Brush clean. 


When learning how to stain furniture, remember that a chemical wood stain remover, used to manufacturer's instructions, can extract stain from places the sander can't reach.

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Wet the Wood
A woman wets a wooden handrail with a cloth.
  • Wipe down the wood to raise the grain. If you don't raise the grain now, the stain will raise it later, but re-sanding to get the wood smooth again removes much of the stain. 
  • Let the wood dry, then sand with 180- to 220-grit paper. 
  • Remove dust with a clean cloth. 
4
Apply Conditioner or Filler as Needed
A brush applies wood conditioner.
  • Some softwoods like pine and some hardwoods, such as cherry, turn blotchy when stained. In this case, consider applying a pre-stain wood conditioner, which seeps into the wood fibers to seal the material and prevent the uneven absorption that causes blotching. 
  • If you use a gel stain, you can apply it without needing a conditioner. 
  • Some woods such as mahogany and oak have an open-grain structure that needs filling to provide a smooth finish. Grain filler is a pigmented paste that comes in a variety of colors. Choose one to match the wood or stain color and apply with paint brushes or rags to manufacturer’s instructions. 
  • Remove excess with a scraper and lightly sand after drying. 
5
Stain the Wood
A brush applies stain to a wooden handrail.
  • Thoroughly stir the wood stain before applying. 
  • Use a rag or cloth instead of a sponge, which may absorb the stain. When applying, the cloth should be wet but not dripping. Test on a piece of scrap wood.
  • How you apply the stain onto the wood — cross grain or with the grain — is less important than applying plenty of it. Follow manufacturer’s directions for the staining application instructions. 
  • Stain usually cannot be removed after application, so it’s better to apply thinner coats and add more as needed, rather than apply too much and have a darker color than you want. 
  • When using exterior stains and sealers, try to schedule it for a time of mild temperatures and dry weather.
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Remove Excess Stain
A woman removes excess stain with a cloth.
  • Remove the excess stain with cleaning wipes — old T-shirts work in a pinch — by wiping with the grain. 
  • If the stain has dried too much, it will be difficult to remove. Loosen it by applying more stain and rubbing vigorously. If it dries hard, paint thinner will loosen it. 
7
Apply Sealant as Needed
A brush applies sealant to stained wood.
  • Applying a topcoat sealer is not required, but a finish protects the stained wood from scratches and keeps it from fading over time. 
  • If applying a polyurethane finish with a brush, apply one to two coats. 
  • If using a spray can, hold 8 to 12 inches from the surface and apply two or three light coats. 
  • Be prepared for drying time to take at least a day. 

Learning how to apply wood stain provides an alternative to painting a piece of furniture while emphasizing its natural color and texture. Whether using interior wood stains or exterior stains and sealers, mastering how to apply stain can give any old wood surface a whole new look.