The Three Basic Steps to Stain Wood

Staining wood may sound intimidating, but you don't need to be a woodworker or a skilled crafts-person to create fun projects and make incredible improvements in your home with newly stained wood. All you need is to learn the basic steps: how to prepare the wood, apply the different types of stain, and protect your project so it can remain beautiful for a long time. I will also tell you the differences among the main types of stains and give you some tips to avoid frustration, save time, and accomplish great-looking results.

How to Stain Wood (Shutterstock)

For most projects, you need to follow only three basic steps to stain wood with successful results:


  1. Prepare the Wood
  2. Apply the Stain
  3. Protect your Stained Project




STEP 1 - PREPARE THE WOOD


Preparation is a crucial stage of your project if you want to achieve beautiful-looking pieces.

This process can be as straightforward as lightly sanding and cleaning the wood, or messy and time-consuming as stripping and sanding a piece down to bare wood. How much work the preparation will take depends greatly on the condition of the wood you wish to stain. Here are the most typical examples.


Preparing Unfinished Wood

Staining unfinished wood is the perfect project for beginners. It is easy, quick and, unless you are on a very unlucky day, it will look gorgeous the first time around!


To prepare your unfinished wood, sand it lightly with fine grit sandpaper (220-250 grit). If the wood surface feels rough, start with coarse sandpaper such as 80 grit, then smooth it out with a fine one. Always work in a continuous movement across the wood, going with the grain to avoid creating visible scratches.


Next, make sure you remove all sawdust. Sweep the excess off with an old brush, then wipe the surface with a slightly damp, lint-free rag or piece of t-shirt. Once your wood is smooth and clean, you can move on to step 2, "Apply the Stain."


Want to try a cool project with unfinished wood? Check out this awesome rolling cart made with wood crates by a Hometalker.

How to Stain Unfinished Wood (Lori Greco)

See Post: Lori Greco | Wood Crate Rolling Cart


Preparing Previously Stained Wood in Good Condition

If your goal is to revive or change the stain color of a previously stained piece of furniture, door, picture frame, etc. and the wood is already in decent shape, your preparation will depend on what stain color you want to use. If you're going to apply the same or darker stain color, you can do it the easy way by using gel stain instead of a liquid stain. The preparation is essentially the same as I explained earlier for unfinished wood. Just light sand and clean the wood surface thoroughly, and it will be ready to receive the gel stain.


Tip: When you sand a previously stained piece, be as gentle as possible. Do not use power sanders or coarse sandpapers (below 220grit), and sand only in the same direction of the grain, or you will create undesired scratches that will be visible through the stain.


In this post on Hometalk, I show you an excellent example of this.

Staining With No Stripping (Pat Rios)

See Post: Pat Rios|The Wood Spa | Staining with No Stripping


If you want to change the current finished piece to a lighter stain color, you will have to follow the instructions below, which consists of removing the previous finish completely.


Preparing Previously Painted Wood or Stained Wood in Poor Condition

If the surface you want to stain is painted or just stained, but in very bad shape (water or heat marks, deep scratches), you will need to remove the previous finish entirely until you get your surface to bare wood, free of visible damages. You can do that by stripping the finish with a chemical stripper or sanding it down. In many cases, you will need to do both processes.

If you are working on a flat surface such as a table top, a power sander can do the trick. Begin with a coarse grit over the entire surface, then change your sandpaper to a finer grit. In the end, your surface should feel smooth to the touch. A good rule of thumb is to start with 80-100 grit, move to 180-220 grit then finish it up with 300-400 grit.


Tip: Hold your power sander gently and let the tool do the work. Resist the temptation to press down hard on the wood to speed up the process. Doing that will only create unwanted scratches that the new stain will not cover.


If your surface is curved, has carvings, trim, or any raised details, you will need to use a paint & varnish stripper to remove the previous finish from those areas without damaging all the shapes and designs. Chemical strippers will soften and dissolve the paint and varnishes so you can scrape it all off with a putty knife, wire brush, or abrasive sponges. Here is an excellent example of a project by a Hometalker.

How to Stain Wood Spindles (Brandi)

See Post: Brandi|Stairs Spindles and Gallery Wall


Remove as much of the old finish as you can with the stripper, clean and dry the surface well then use sandpapers to remove any residual stain manually.


There are some environmentally friendly strippers such as Citristrip, but the most effective ones contain harsh components that will burn your skin if you are not careful. Always work in a well-ventilated area and wear thick gloves and goggles when stripping paint and varnish from wood.


After you remove the previous finish, make sure have your wood surface clean, dry, and smooth to the touch before applying the stain.


Tip: You can also strip paint off furniture using a heat gun! Check out how this Hometalker does that.

Tips for Staining Wood (Martin Musings)

See Post: Martin Musings|Easy Tips for Stripping Paint off a Wood Surface


STEP 2 - APPLY THE STAIN

Done with the preparation? Congratulations! The hardest part is behind you.

To apply the stain, you can use a bristle brush, a foam brush, or a lint-free cloth.

Stir the can of stain thoroughly to redistribute the color pigments that will be settled in the bottom.

Stains are messy and very hard to clean, so wear gloves and protect your clothes and all areas around your project. Apply a liberal amount of stain on your surface and wait a few minutes for the wood to absorb it. The longer the stain remains on the wood, the deeper the color will be. Wipe off any excess of stain using a lint-free cloth, always moving with the grain. Never allow any unabsorbed stain to dry on the wood surface, or you will end up with blotchy, uneven coverage.

For a darker, more vibrant color, apply additional coats of stain repeating the same process. Make sure the previous coat is dry to the touch before adding a new coat. Drying times vary between 2 and 24 hours depending on the temperature and humidity levels in your workspace.


Tip: You can make your stain at home with natural ingredients! These cute shelves were finished with a homemade coffee stain.

Vintage Wood Stain (Amanda C)

See Post: Amanda C | Hometalk Team – Homemade Vintage Wood Stain


STEP 3 - PROTECT YOUR STAINED PROJECT


Once the stained surface is dry, it is time to protect your finished piece with a few coats of sealer so it can endure the regular use and handling and remain beautiful for years to come.

There are numerous products used for sealing finished wood pieces. I will list the most popular options and the best application for each one.


   Clear Wax

Ideal for small craft projects or decorative pieces that won't receive heavy traffic or constant handling, such as signs, picture frames, storage boxes, etc. Apply a thin coat of wax using a wax brush or a piece of cloth. Use some pressure to ensure the wax penetrates the finish. Remove the excess with a rag, then wait a few minutes, before buffing it with a clean, lint-free cloth.


    Water-Based Poly or Top Coats

This kind of sealer offers better protection than wax, and it gives a beautiful finish to your projects. You can find it in different sheens: flat, satin, semi-gloss and gloss. Water-based top coats dry fast, are easy to clean with soapy water and won't yellow over time. You can apply them with a foam brush or a paint sprayer. Because they dry fast, you should move your brush quickly, work one small section at a time, and avoid over brushing each section so that you can obtain a smooth, consistent coverage, free of brush marks.

On high-traffic pieces such as dining tables and desks, apply at least three or four coats for more durability. For a super smooth finish, sand between coats using ultra-fine sandpaper (300+ grit).


   Oil-based Topcoats/Polyurethane

These sealers offer the maximum protection for stained pieces. They are excellent for tabletops, desks, shelves, or any pieces that will be heavily handled.

You can apply oil-based poly using a foam brush, a natural bristle brush or a paint sprayer. Some brands also offer wipe-on poly and poly in spray cans, which are great for small projects.

Because they are oil-based products, drying times are longer (24 hours on average), and you need to clean your brushes or paint sprayer with mineral spirits before they dry.

Apply at least three coats of oil-based poly for proper protection, always waiting for each coat to dry before applying the next.


Tip: Oil-based topcoats will yellow over time, so if you want to seal a piece painted or stained in a light color, it is better to use a water-based topcoat.


What Type of Stain Should You Use?

Here is a simple Comparison Chart with the main types and their uses:

Types of stain wood

Helpful Tips for Beginners



  • Start with a small project to become familiar with the products and the process. Unfinished crates, frames, and boxes are great options. The practice will make you feel more confident before tackling larger pieces.
  • Before staining a large piece, test your stain in an inconspicuous area and see if you are happy with the result.
  • Different brands of stains, strippers, and sealers have different ways of application, drying times and cleaning. Take a few minutes to read the directions on the product’s label. It may save you hours of work just by avoiding common mistakes.
  • Always wear gloves when working with stain. In case you get some on your skin, rub a little bit of coconut oil to remove it. It works like a charm!
  • Consider applying a coat of wood conditioner before staining soft woods such as pine, birch, and maple. It will help you achieve a more uniform stain coat.
  •  If you are planning to stain your wood floors, do some extra research and talk to a professional before you jump into it. Staining floors is a more advanced job, and it requires a robust floor sander that you can rent from the major hardware stores.


Inspired and excited to try? If you follow these steps and tips, you are ready to complete your first project with stained wood.


And if you have more tips on how to stain wood, let us know in the comments below!


Written for the Hometalk community by: Pat Rios | The Wood Spa

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