I’ve been promising this post for some time now, and I’m so excited to finally hit publish on this giant, all-encompassing post about how to stain wood! This post is sponsored by Rust-Oleum.
This year, I committed to bringing you more simple, thorough, super basic posts about how to tackle DIY projects around your house. This post has been a long time in the making, and I think you’ll find it incredibly helpful if you’ve ever had any sort of question about staining wood!
I wanted to be sure to get the best, most accurate information possible and thankfully a couple of incredible representatives from Rust-Oleum were willing to chat with me for this post. You probably already know this, but Rust-Oleum is one of my favorite brands in the world who happens to create my favorite stain products in the world under the brands Varathane and Watco!
My friends at Rust-Oleum were gracious enough to answer aaaaaall of our burning questions and give me a detailed look at some of the products they offer, including which ones are best for beginning DIYers and which ones should be saved for when you have some more experience.
So, grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and get ready to learn everything you ever wanted to know about staining wood!
The complete guide to how to stain wood
where to begin: choosing a stain
Before we dive in to the details of how to stain and answer all of the most frequently asked questions, I want to take a moment to chat a little about the different types of stain that Varathane offers so you know where to begin.
There are three different lines of stain and they’re all awesome for their own reasons – but the awesome brand manager I spoke with really helped it make sense to me when she explained how they relate to your comfort level with DIY! I loved this example because I feel like this information could help even the most nervous, novice DIYer feel comfortable diving in.
For the Nervous Newbie: Varathane Wood Accelerators
If you’ve never stained anything before and are feeling really unsure about if you’re ready, Varathane’s Wood Accelerator line may be the perfect fit for you!
Of course, it’s also great for those of us who are old pros at the whole staining thing because I can see myself using them aaaaall the time!
Varathane’s Wood Accelerators are water-based and incredibly easy to use. They react with the tannins in the wood to achieve different effects, and they’re so gorgeous. All you have to do is apply the wood accelerator to your piece of bare wood and let it do the work for you. No need to wipe it off!
Because it’s so incredibly simple to apply, this is such a great way to get some confidence with your first staining project and see how satisfying it can be. Currently, Varathane’s Wood Accelerators come in three colors (Weathered Wood, Charred, and Aged Wood), with more hopefully coming soon (I heard a rumor about a light colored one that I can’t wait to try!).
For the impatient amateur: Varathane Premium fast-dry stain
Please know I am raising my hand for this category!
Varathane’s Premium Fast-Dry stains are by far my very favorite line of stain to use. It’s a regular oil-based stain, but the beauty of it is that it is formulated in a way that doesn’t require wood conditioner! It’s perfect for those of us who consider ourselves casual DIYers because it only requires one coat to achieve the color on the label, it dries in one hour, and did I mention you don’t need to use wood conditioner?!
This stain is applied just like any other stain (we’ll get to those details in just a moment, promise!), and doesn’t require any special knowledge or skills. You should be able to achieve exactly the color shown on the label with just one coat, which is so (so!) nice.
for the seasoned pro: Varathane Classic wood stain
And finally, Varathane’s Classic Wood stain is what you probably think of when you think of a traditional stain. It’s a buildable coverage (which means it typically requires 2-3 coats to see the color on the label), takes a little longer to dry, and gives you a little more control over the end result.
This stuff is great if you want a really specific color and want to be able to control how light or dark it ends up, or if you’re mixing and layering stain colors to achieve something specific. It’s not any harder to use than the Fast-Dry wood stain in practical terms, but it does require a little more finesse and knowledge in order to get to the exact color you want!
Don’t feel like you need to stay away from this line if you aren’t comfortable with staining – I use it all the time and love the control it gives me! But, if you’re nervous about trying it out for the first time, I recommend getting your feet wet with the Fast-Dry line and once you’re comfortable with how staining works and are ready to play around with customizing your colors to get something specific, you can try this line out!
how to stain wood
Now, let’s jump into the actual specifics of how to stain.
This is one of those processes that I think intimidates a lot of people – but it doesn’t need to! I promise that staining wood is incredibly simple, and I would honestly even argue that it’s easier than painting.
Step one: prep your surface
The MOST IMPORTANT thing you need to know about achieving a good finish when staining wood is that you have to sand your wood. A lot.
In fact, I laughed out loud when I read one of the questions y’all submitted on Instagram – it said, “do you really need to sand and sand and sand and sand to get the best results?”
And the answer is, YES. I’m sorry. But yes.
Sanding is absolutely vital to achieving good results with staining wood, and you should never start staining until you’ve thoroughly sanded your piece first.
I’ll talk more about sanding in another post (maybe that needs to be next month’s complete guide?!), but here are the basics:
- You can always sand by hand, but things will move much faster with a random orbital sander. For smaller projects, a cat sander is fine too.
- You should always start with your lowest-grit sandpaper and work your way up to a high grit.
- If you’re using a hard wood, start at 80-grit. If you’re using a soft wood, start with 120-grit.
- After your first round, move up to 220-grit (you could do 180 in-between the two if you really want to go for it).
After 220, you should be ready to stain, though feel free to keep going up to higher grits for an even smoother finish! After sanding and before staining, make sure you give the wood a thorough wiping with a lint free cloth to remove any sanding dust.
Step two: Stain your wood
I recommend using a lint-free rag or a high-quality paper towel for staining wood. I love to keep something like these on hand at all times for staining projects! I like having extra control over the stain and where it goes, and I feel like using a rag gives you that extra level of control. But, if I’m running low on rags or am just feeling lazy, I’ll grab one of these paper towels and it works really well too!
You can also use a high-quality brush – but just know that if you cheap out, you may find lots of little brush bristles left behind in your stain! If you’re working with one of the wood accelerators, the brand manager I spoke with at Varathane recommended a foam paintbrush – since they’re so thin, it does the best job of soaking up the accelerator and applying it to the wood without making a mess.
Here are my best tips for staining wood:
- Before getting started, read through your stain application instructions. Some stain can only be gently stirred, but Varathane Premium Fast Dry and Classic Wood Stain stain can be stirred or shaken. Mix your material thoroughly at the start and stir occasionally during use.
- Dip your rag (or paper towel!) into the stain so that it’s saturated but not dripping.
- Rub the stain into the wood, following the grain as you go. You want to do nice, long strokes so that you don’t end up with a blotchy finish.
- After the wood is covered with the stain, allow it to sit for 2-3 minutes (check the back of your can for timing if you’re using anything other than the Varathane Fast-Dry stain – other stains may require a longer time). The longer you let it sit, the darker your color will get. But, for this particular stain I never recommend letting it sit for longer than 5 minutes, or it will be hard to remove the excess.
- After the stain has sat for a couple of minutes, you’re ready to remove the excess. Grab a clean rag and gently rub the excess stain off, moving in long strokes with the direction of the grain.
- That’s it! Add another coat to darken the color if you’d like, and once you’re satisfied with your color and it has dried (according to the time listed on the back of the can), you’re ready to seal it!
Step Three: Seal the Wood
When I asked for your burning stain questions on Instagram, the number one topic was sealing. How do I choose a sealer? Do I really need to seal it?
I can answer that second question for you immediately: If you want your project to last long term and stay looking great, yes you do need to seal it! You put all this work into getting the project done, don’t stop now. You should always take the time to go ahead and seal after staining so you can ensure your results stay gorgeous.
Here’s a basic breakdown of your options when it comes to sealers:
- Polyurethane: I recommend Varathane’s Ultimate Water-Based Polyurethane for most projects. It won’t affect the color of your finish (more on that in a second!), it’s easy to use, and has a buildable coverage. If you want to try something a little faster, Varathane’s Triple Thick Poly is fantastic and only requires one coat, but if it’s your first time it’s easy to accidentally put it on too heavy – I recommend getting comfortable with staining and sealing before trying this! Another option is an aerosol polyurethane, which is great for projects that have tricky angles, but also requires a certain finesse and you can end up with drips if you aren’t careful!
- Lacquer: Lacquer is very similar to a polyurethane in what it achieves but has a slightly different chemistry. It’s generally considered easier to apply because it’s thinner, dries very quickly, and is a little easier to work with, but it’s not as durable as poly is. If you’re using the weathered wood accelerator, it’s recommended to use a lacquer aerosol to seal it – the poly can react with the accelerator and affect the color!
- Spar Urethane: Finally, if your project will live outdoors or anywhere that it might be exposed to the elements, you should use spar urethane. I like this Varathane Spar Urethane.
It’s also worth noting that a water-based poly is going to be a better option if you’re sensitive to fumes and the strong smells that sealers can have. Oil-based poly and lacquer will both have stronger fumes!
Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Sealers
One very important thing to know about water based versus oil based sealers is that oil based sealers will likely affect the finished color of your product. Oil-based sealers have an amber hue to them, and if you’ve ever experienced one of your projects yellowing a bit after sealing (especially over a lighter stain color), it’s likely because you used an oil-based sealer. Water-based sealers should not alter the color of your stain and will generally give you a crystal clear finish.
Here’s a peek at the difference between water based and oil based sealers. On the left side of this piece of pine, I used oil-based sealer. On the right, I used water-based.
The oil-based sealer is a satin finish, while the water-based is matte – so you can definitely see a difference in sheen, but you can also tell that the water-based sealer is basically completely clear, while the oil-based has added a more amber hue to the wood, which will continue to deepen over time.
Both of them are gorgeous, if you ask me, but it’s definitely important to keep in mind when choosing a sealer!
One thing I think that people (including myself!) often struggle to really understand is that stain is going to show up very differently on different types of wood.
So, I decided to do an actual experiment to show you how different types of wood react to different stain colors. For this particular experiment, I stuck to just wood that can easily be found at your local big box hardware store – no specialty wood here.
I feel like this could be an entire post all on its own (because it’s SO FASCINATING), but I’ll try to keep the commentary to a minimum so this doesn’t turn into a dang novel.
First up, here are the players:
What you see above are the different types of wood I used for my experiment, from left to right (also, cheapest to most expensive) you have:
- Whitewood (also known as “common pine”)
- Pine (also referred to as “select pine”)
- Red Oak
And now, here are the stain colors I am testing:
Obviously I can’t test every color out there (even though I so wanted to!), so I just stuck to four colors:
I also wanted to show off the wood accelerators, and those are:
Let’d dive in, shall we?
Fast-dry premium wood stain
Note: All of the photos below are straight out of my camera. I did not edit the lighting or colors in any way.
STAIN ONE: Summer Oak
STAIN TWO: Briarsmoke
STAIN THREE: Dark Walnut
STAIN FOUR: Ebony
Looking at the photos above, some pretty clear patterns emerge for me. First of all, it’s so fascinating to me how every single stain color will look pretty drastically different on different species of wood. However, it does seem that the difference in color is more noticeable with lighter stain – once you get into the darker colors, they seem much more similar.
You’ll also notice that whitewood (the one on the left and the cheapest wood) occasionally gets a somewhat splotchy finish. Part of that could be due to sanding (I might not have sanding some spots well enough), but part of it is just the nature of cheap wood – it’s not going to take stain nearly as well as a more high-quality wood!
I really liked the way pine took pretty much every single stain, and of these four I actually think it was the most consistent and true to the color I expected. Poplar and red oak both have strong undertones that can affect the coloring of the stain, so it’s something to keep in mind if you’re working with either of those!
Varathane wood accelerators
Next up, let’s take a look at the wood accelerators. As a reminder, these are just brushed on with a foam brush and then left alone. You don’t need to wipe off the excess, you don’t need to apply a second coat. Just let them sit for 30-60 minutes and you’ll achieve exactly the effect shown below!
Color One: Weathered Wood
Color Two: Aged Wood
Color Three: Charred Wood
I’m so so impressed with these wood accelerators. I have used the weathered wood one in the past (for this project), but I hadn’t tried either of the other two, and I’m just in love with them. They’re so, so cool and SO easy to use!
The can shows how the accelerator will look on both pine and red oak, and I found that those two were the ones I tended to like them on the most! Whitewood sometimes got blotchy (again, that’s likely to do with the quality of the wood), and poplar looked great but it’s just not my favorite wood to work with so I tend to favor the others more.
These are such a fantastic option for anyone who is nervous about trying out stain and wants to get their feet wet. It’s also great for those of us who are comfortable with staining but just want a really easy finish! The aged wood one is my favorite and I can see myself using it often!
A note on sealing: Please be sure to remember that you should use a lacquer spray to seal the weathered wood (gray) accelerator to avoid messing with the color. The below image demonstrates what I mean. On the left, I used Watco’s Lacquer in Matte, and on the top right is the unfinished wood. On the bottom right, I used a water-based poly and you can see how it changed the color more than the lacquer (which just made the color richer). The poly also added some splotchiness to the finish. Bottom line – if you’re using the weathered wood (gray) accelerator, make sure to choose a lacquer spray over a poly.
Frequently asked questions
What about staining decks or fences?
The same basic process applies (though you can use large stain applicators if you’re doing a deck!), you’ll just want to make sure to use a spar urethane to seal it!
For outdoor furniture, front doors, and fences I’d recommend Varathane’s Spar Urethane (available in Oil-Based or Water-Based formulas), but if you are adding a protective top coat to a deck or something that will be walked on you can’t go wrong with Wolman by Rust-Oleum Raincoat Clear Oil-Based Water Repellent Sealer.
As far as fencing, stay tuned because I’ll be staining our fence next month!
is there a food-safe option?
Generally speaking, stain isn’t considered food safe. If you want to change the color of a wood cutting board, a wooden bowl, or butcher block counters you should use a butcher block oil (Danish oil is a great option too!)
How do I get a smooth finish? Mine is always bumpy!
If you find that you have a rough finish after sealing, it’s likely because you didn’t do a thorough job of sanding in-between sealing coats. You should always lightly sand (I like to use a 220 grit sanding block) in-between each coat of sealer, no matter what sealer you’re using.
Don’t forget to sand after your last coat too!
Can I stain over a previously stained and sealed surface?
The short answer? Not really.
Stain is meant to interact with the actual wood surface. You can add stain on top of stain to mix colors, but if the surface has been sealed, it can no longer be sanded without removing the top coat.
What does this mean? Sanding, sanding, and more sanding. You can also use a stripper to remove stubborn finishes. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it for a good finish!
However, if you really want to avoid stripping or sanding, hope is not lost. Varathane does offer a 2-in-1 Stain & Poly that can be applied over existing polyurethane finishes without stripping – you just need to lightly sand prior to application. However, this works best if you’re going from a lighter color to a darker color (some of the lighter colors of the 2-in-1 won’t cover over a dark stain as well), and it does require at least two coats, with light sanding in-between.
my stain looks patchy – what’s wrong?
If you finish your sanding job and find that the wood looks patchy, there could be a couple of things at play.
- To some extent, the wood you choose can affect this. If you’re using a whitewood with lots of knots in it, there will be areas that are darker than others because that’s just how knots accept stain.
- If you’re using a quality wood without a lot of knots and still having issues, it’s probably because you didn’t sand enough. Give it another go and sand really thoroughly, then try again!
- Finally, it’s possible that you could get a patchy finish if you don’t stir your stain enough before using it!
Can you stain wood veneer or laminate?
First of all, let’s chat about the difference between veneer and laminate.
- Veneer is made from actual wood. It is a thin layer of hardwood that has been applied over another surface (usually plywood). Because it is real wood, wood veneer can be stained.
- Laminate is a man-made material that is printed to look like wood. It’s actually made of plastic, so it will not accept typical stain. Varathane does offer a Gel Stain that can be used on wood, metal, fiberglass, and other non-conventional surfaces (including laminate!).
And that, my friends, is pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about stain (and then some!). If there’s anything I missed, leave your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to get to them!