Staining is a matter of preference and it is not always necessary. Sometimes, your project may look way better if you keep the natural look of your wood and maybe just apply a clear finish.
When needed, staining can be a great way to give a more vibrant look to your wood project. Staining can also be very useful if you want to restore the former beauty of your old piece of furniture.
The question is: which stain do you choose? And then, how to stain wood without botching your project? In this article, I will try to answer all of your questions.
What Is Wood Staining?
Wood staining is the process of enhancing the color of the wood to bring out the visibility of its beautiful natural grain. Staining is done using a tinted coating which is a bit similar to paint. People often use the word “staining” interchangeably with finishing or sealing, which technically isn’t correct.
Technically, staining should not be confused with wood finishing or wood painting. Although, there are some finishes that offer a one-step staining and finishing solution. But more on that later.
Traditionally, finishing was created solely to provide additional protection against the weather and daily wear and tear. A finish can also provide that wet or shiny appearance, which is also a matter of preference.
So, a “stain” changes the wood’s color or tint and a “finish” offers protection and gives it an enhanced look.
Types Of Wood Stains
Primarily, there are four common types of stain used today: water, oil, gel, and varnish-based stains. All four have their place and purpose depending on a couple of different factors. To decide which stain to use, consider what type of wood you will be working with, its condition, the project you intend to build, and its final resting place, so to speak.
If the project piece is to be purposed for outdoor-only use, you may consider applying a varnish-based stain, let it dry and call it a day. When using other types of stains, you will have to match it with the sealing product you intend to use to finish the workpiece.
Oil-based stains can be applied under any finishes, except those that are water-based. Water-based stains can only be used under water-based finishes.
Advantages Of Water-Based Stains
Advantages Of Oil-Based Stains
Do Gel-Type Stains Have Any Advantages?
Gel stain is thicker, so it doesn’t run like water-based stains. Its consistency is close to that of mayonnaise, actually. Although it is loosely similar to the pigment-based paints, it consistently produces saturated and transparent colors. In addition, gel-type stains have a thickening agent that makes it much easier to apply than the other stains.
The major thing to remember with gel-type stains it that they sit on top of the wood (instead of being absorbed into the pores like water and oil-based stains) which makes it a good choice as a finish for the “sappy” woods that have trouble drinking in traditional stains.
There Is A Catch
There is one itsy-bitsy little downside to gel-type stains:
If your piece has intricate grooves and detail work, you should probably opt for one of the traditional stains: water-based for inside pieces and oil-based for outdoors.
Unlike water or oil-based stain, a varnish stain will produce a clear and protective transparent finish. Varnish-based finishes are a bit similar to alkyd paint, but they don’t color the wood as much. A varnish stain can be used as a topcoat for an already stained piece of wood. A smooth application as a finish will give you that ‘mirror-like” reflection if the initial staining was done with care.
How To Stain Wood
Now that you have chosen the right stain for your project’s wood, the next step is to clean the wood surfaces.
The basic approach is a 6 step process:
- Clean unfinished wood with a damp rag before staining.
- Fill a spray bottle with 2 cups of water. Add 2 tbsp. white vinegar for heavily soiled, unfinished wood that has sticky residue or similar buildup.
- Mist a lint-free cleaning rag with the spray. Don’t use paper towels, because it will leave behind particles that could affect the final finish.
- Rub the damp cloth over the unfinished wood, rubbing in the direction of the wood grain to prevent splintering.
- Do not wipe sideways across the grain.
- Let the wood air dry fully before staining.
Should You Condition The Wood?
Some people believe in conditioning the wood before staining. If you want to use a commercial conditioner, wipe or brush it on the surface lightly and let it sit for about an hour or so.
Applying The Stain
Now we get into the meat of the matter. The wood has been prepped and it’s time to apply the stain. But first, a quick check of your workspace is important.
If so, let’s begin!
- With a staining brush, foam brush or cloth, stroke both ways, with the grain and against it. Don’t stroke sideways. This can get a little messy but the important thing is laying down a nice generous coat.
- You can control the shading, to a point, by how long you leave the stain on the wood before wiping up the excess. Wipe the stain off immediately for a lighter tone. To achieve a deeper tone, leave it on for 5-10 minutes before wiping.
- Try to work in long, even strokes and gradually lift the brush toward the end of each stroke. This is called feathering, and it helps to keep the brush strokes from being too noticeable and marring the stain.
Don’t Rush This Part
Take your time and get the foundation as close to perfect as you can. And if it’s not perfect don’t beat yourself up. You’ll do better on the next project.
Let the stain dry completely overnight before applying a topcoat. If your project is to be used indoors you can consider the project finished. You won’t need to seal, just apply a good polish every few weeks to give it a nice glow.
After your finish has completely dried, wipe with a lightly dampened cloth to remove any dust accumulation that may have settled.
Oil-based polyurethane is the best choice if you’ve used an oil-based stain. It will give a warming tint to the piece whereas a water-based polyurethane topcoat should only be used over a water-based stain.
An oil-based topcoat should only need 2-3 coats while the water-based topcoat may require 4 or more thin coats. Apply topcoats in “reflected light” to more easily spot flaws and unflattering brush strokes.
Choosing the right applicator is important. Don’t run out and buy the cheap bristle brushes as they are famous for shedding their bristles.
Foam brushes are inexpensive and lay down even strokes. And they’re disposable. If you use a quality bristle brush make sure it’s new or very clean used one. Apply the oil-based polyurethane with even, long, strokes with the grain. Find a balance between thin and thick.
Spread a generous coat while watching for drips and runs. Each coat will have to dry overnight, unlike the water-based topcoats which need only a few hours to dry. But the end result will be worth the exercise in patience.
Once dry, lightly sand that coat with 320 grit sandpaper, vacuum or wipe the dust, and apply the next coat letting it once again dry overnight.
Two coats should be okay unless the wood is expected to get heavy traffic or weather abuse, in which case one or more additional coats would be needed. Repeat the light sanding between coats and then apply the final coat.
Again, apply the final coat in reflected light looking for flaws, drips, runs, etc. Study your brush strokes and try to make them match-up and less obvious by “feathering” the polyurethane and smoothing out any bubbles.
Vertical surfaces like legs should receive several thinner coats to prevent running. I know what it’s like to get impatient as you near the end of the process. As you begin to see the final result, you can unconsciously begin to speed up. But you need to resist that urge.
If you used a water-based stain, take some 220 grit sandpaper and gently rough up the surface a bit, being careful not to gouge your surface. Remove the sanding dust and seal the piece.
Applying water-based polyurethane is about the same as applying the oil-based. The big difference is that you may not have to sand between coats.
Remember-don’t put water-based polyurethane on top of an oil-based stain. Oil and water don’t play well together and the water-based poly will tend to bead-up on the oil-stained surface, unable to coat the surface.
Avoid using too much on one coat or you may raise the grain on the wood. You’ll get better results laying down 3 to 5 thin coats. Since it dries within a couple of hours the time invested will still be let then with the oil-based poly.
Final Notes On Finishing
Personally, I prefer to seal my wood projects with wood an alkyd varnish, on top of a good sanding sealer. It’s pretty easy to apply. Just don’t confuse it with a polyurethane varnish.
Polyurethanes are a great choice for heavy traffic areas or furnishings that are subject to harsh environmental conditions, providing a tough protective surface.
Polyurethane is a one-chance application. If you get it wrong the first time you’re either stuck with the results or you’ll have to take other drastic and costly measures to get it right.
Alkyd varnish is much more forgiving. An alkyd finish allows you to easily sand runs and drips and then add a second coat. The most common 2 choices you’ll see at the local hardware store is Gloss and Satin. Gloss is shiny and Satin is flat. If you want to have a sheen that is not as shiny as Gloss you can mix equal parts of Gloss and Satin to produce a Semi-Gloss finish/seal.
Your best bet for the last undercoat is a sanding sealer, at least when it comes to getting a perfect base for a wood varnish finishing topcoat. Since it is made with more solids than regular clear coats it is much easier to sand to a smooth surface.
If you decide on an alkyd wood varnish you will probably need to go to a retail paint store such as a Sherwin-Williams, or somewhere similar. Very few hardware stores carry it these days.
Try to pick your staining and finishing materials from the same manufacturer, if possible. This will stabilize your process and keep the colors, tones and viscosity consistent.
Wrapping It All Up
I hope you have enjoyed this article and I especially hope you learned something new that will help you with your next project.
In summary, the primary points you should take with you are the following:
Further Reading: How to Lighten Stained Wood
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have to apply a top coat on stained wood?
A topcoat protects the wood surface. The question is how many coats and what to use for a topcoat. Please review the section above titled, “Finishing”.
How long should I wait before wiping the stain off?
After applying the coat of stain, wipe immediately if you want a light tone or wait 5-15 minutes if you want a darker tone.
Does stain get darker as it dries?
Keep in mind that when PAINT dries it appears darker than when it was wet. Stain tends to dry lighter.
What happens if you don’t wipe off stain?
Wood stain is designed to penetrate into the grain of the wood, not to remain on the surface. If you spread it too thickly or forget to wipe off the excess, the material that remains will become sticky and will ruin the job.
Can you stain over varnish?
Staining over a varnish is possible, but set your expectations right. Staining results are always better when working with fresh, untreated wood. For the best outcome, remove any grime, dust, or debris by roughing up and cleaning the old coat of varnish first. This way, you will create more surface texture for the stain to adhere to.
How many coats of stain should you apply to a deck?
For deck staining, add as many coats of stain that the wood can absorb. Two to three coats are usually ok for woods that aren’t very dense. Very dense hardwood may only absorb just one layer of stain.
Should I sand between coats of stain?
Sanding between coats is not necessary but it will provide a better finish. After a coat has dried, use 220 or 240 grit sandpaper or extra-fine steel wool to lightly sand the surface. Clean the surface with a damp cloth. Sanding produces a white film over the finish but will disappear as you apply the next coat. Do not sand the final coat.