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How to Stain Wood Like a Pro: The Ultimate Staining Guide

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Staining wood really takes your project to the next level. It completely transforms your piece and can give it an entirely new look and feel. As the last step of most projects, it’s also a bit nerve-racking… what if I ruin my entire project so close to the finish line?

Even though we can’t predict exactly how something is going to stain, we can do everything in our power to get the most professional-looking result. Let’s discuss how to stain wood like a pro.

how to stain wood like a pro using clean white rag

We’ll cover:

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What type of stain should I use?

Before we dive into discussing how to stain wood, we need to decide which type of stain to use. There are two main types of stains: oil-based and water-based. There is no right or wrong choice, it’s really a matter of personal preference. Here are a few pros and cons of each type.

Water-based stains are available in both solid and semi-transparent finishes, meaning you can decide how much you want the wood grain to pop. Both stains will maintain the texture of the wood, but solid-stains will give you solid, even coverage. Semi-transparent finishes give you a more traditional finish where you can see more variation in the wood.

semi-transparent vs. solid stain color

Not only do water-based stains come in two finishes, they also come in a variety of colors from traditional wood stain colors to pinks and greens and everything in between. And I mean everything…

Minwax Solid Color stains can actually be color-matched to absolutely anything at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores. Read that carefully, Minwax solid stains can be color-matched exclusively at Lowe’s.

Don’t try to get it color-matched at another store or ask them to color-match a semi-transparent stain. This awesome option is only available for solid stains. But don’t worry, the semi-transparent stains still comes in 200+ colors.

Water-Based Stains Pros and Cons
  • Raises the grain, requiring additional sanding
  • Low odor
  • Easy soap and water clean-up
  • Dries quickly (both a pro and a con. Fast drying means you can finish your whole project in a day, but it also means you have to work quickly or risk an uneven finish)
  • Need a brush and staining pad to apply

Oil-based stains are what most people think of when they think of wood stain. It’s the traditional wood stain that’s been around for over 100 years. It’s tried and true.

Oil-Based Stains Pros and Cons
  • Penetrates deeper into the wood
  • Extremely durable
  • Slower dries times mean you have longer to ensure an even finish
  • Do not raise the grain, so no additional sanding required
  • Strong smell

Personally, I opt to use oil-based stains on my projects unless I want to use a color that’s not available in an oil-based finish, but there is no right or wrong option. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons to determine what wood stain is right for you.

How to Prep Wood for Stain

Don’t skip this section! This section is what’s going to make or break your staining success. These steps apply to any type of wood, pine included, and will help you get the most even finish possible.

A lot of times when people have issues with their wood stain, it’s because they skipped these key steps.

STEP 1: FILL HOLES OR CRACKS

Grab a stainable wood filler and fill in any small cracks, seams, or holes that might be in your wood. Make sure you grab a stainable wood filler and not just a paintable wood filler. This is my personal favorite.

Let your wood filler dry and then move onto step 2.

STEP 2: SAND

Start with a lower grit (80 or 120) and evenly sand your wood. Focus on removing dents, scratches, excess wood glue, and any wood filler that’s not actually filling a hole or crack. Then sand your wood again using 180 grit sandpaper and again using 220 grit sandpaper.

You want to sand with 220 grit sandpaper or higher before applying wood stain.

While you can technically sand wood without sanding, your results are going to vary. Without sanding, your stain will be more blotchy, it’ll darken any scratches or dings in the wood, and any glue or leftover sticker residue will be emphasized since the stain won’t take in these areas.

side by side of wood stain on pine that was been sanded vs not sanded

That being said, sometimes you might want more variation and a more rustic look. In the photo below, we didn’t sand our wood before apply the stain. We used 4 different colors, but it looks like we used even more than that because there was so much variation in each piece.

STEP 3: WIPE YOUR WOOD SURFACE

After sanding, it’s important to remove any dust that might still be on the surface of the wood. Wipe your wood using tack cloth. Tack cloth is very sticky, so it will pick up dust that you can’t see.

STEP 4: APPLY PRE-STAIN

Pre-stain wood conditioner helps prevent blotchiness and allows the stain to absorb more evenly. It’s especially important when staining softwoods like pine that are known to absorb stain inconsistently.

side by side of pine with and without pre-stain wood conditioner
Same piece of wood, same stain color. The only difference is pre-stain vs no pre-stain

You’ll want to select the pre-stain that matches your stain. Oil-based stains require an oil-based wood conditioner and a water-based stain requires a water-based wood conditioner.

Water-based pre-stain also raises the grain which means it will minimize the grain from being raised when the stain is applied, allowing you to have the smoothest surface possible for your finished product.

When applying a water-based pre-stain, you’ll need to brush on a generous amount, let it soak in for 1-5 minutes and then wipe off any excess.

Then, let it sit for 15-30 minutes, and then sand everything down with 220-grit sandpaper. Once you’ve sanded, wipe your surface with tack cloth and then you’re ready to start staining!

Applying pre-stain to wood dowels using a rag

When applying an oil-based pre-stain, you’ll brush it on, wait 5-15 minutes, and then wipe off any excess using a clean rag.

Apply your stain immediately or within 2 hours of wiping off the excess pre-stain.

You can apply pre-stain with either a brush or a rag.

STEP 5: TEST YOUR STAIN

Every single piece of wood takes stain differently, so you want to test your color on a scrap piece of wood that came from the project you’re about to stain.

Minwax Rustic Beige stain on red oak and pine
Same stain, different wood. Top is oak, bottom is pine.

If your project is using plywood and solid boards, you’ll want to test the stain color on each wood type. Plywood tends to absorb the stain more quickly, so you might need to let it penetrate longer on the solid boards or apply a second coat to get it to match just right.

How to stain wood

When staining wood, always follow the instructions on the can. Every brand and even color can have different requirements, so it’s best practice to read the can first.

I’ll share how to stain wood using both Minwax Penetrating Wood Finish and Minwax Water-Based Finish since Minwax is my preferred stain brand and what I use on every project.

STEP 1: STIR THE STAIN

It’s incredibly important to stir the stain before getting started. Oftentimes the pigments in the stain will sink to the bottom of the can. If you don’t mix it well every time, the color will not be consistent each time you break open the can.

STEP 2: APPLY THE STAIN

Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based stains can be applied with a paint brush or a rag. I personally use a rag on most of my staining projects. If using a rag, you want your rag to have a generous amount of stain on it, but it shouldn’t be dripping.

If you’re staining a wood with a deep wood grain like oak, work in a circular motion to ensure the stain gets fully into the grain. If you’re staining another type of wood, you can just wipe the stain on in the direction of the grain. Check out this post for more information on how to best apply stains to different types of wood.

The key is less about how you wipe it on and more about how much you wipe on. If you can see that your color is starting to get lighter, it’s time to re-dip your brush or rag. You want a nice even layer and color when you wipe the stain on.

Applying Minwax Wood Finish in Rustic Beige to red oak wood
Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains can be applied with a foam brush or synthetic bristle brush. I’ve tried both and I’d recommend a synthetic bristle brush like this one for the best results. I’ve found that it gives great coverage and minimizes streaks.

Water-based stains are much thicker than traditional wood stains and apply almost like paint. Simply brush your stain on in the direction of the wood grain. You don’t want to brush on too heavy of a coat, but make sure that everything is fully covered.

Applying Minwax Solid Color Wood Stain in Vintage Blue using Purdy brush

STEP 3: WIPE OFF THE EXCESS

Oil-Based Stains

Allow oil-based stains to penetrate for 5-15 minutes before wiping off the excess with a clean white cloth. Wipe it off in the direction of the wood grain.

How long you let the stain sit before wiping off the excess is up to you as long as you keep it within this timeframe. The longer it sits, the darker and richer the color will be. I typically allow my stain to sit for 15 minutes before wiping it off because I like a deep color.

It’s important to set timers and to be consistent with how long you wait before wiping off each section.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains dry extremely fast, so you need to wipe off any excess stain within 2 minutes of first applying it.

To remove the excess stain, you’ll use a synthetic pad and wipe the stain in the direction of the wood grain.

Removing excess solid wood stain with a synthetic pad

Regardless of whether you are using an oil or water-based stain, it’s incredibly important to make sure you wipe off any excess. If you don’t, the surface will become very sticky and the excess stain will rub off onto your fingers. Even worse, if you have excess stain sitting on your wood surface and you try to seal it, the color will brush right off!

I know it can be tempting to leave a little excess on when we want a darker color, but don’t try it. I’ll show you how to intensify the color in the next step.

If you didn’t wipe off all the excess wood stain and your surface is feeling sticky, brush on more stain over the surface and wipe it off immediately. When you wipe it off, that should loosen the stain that has been sitting and it should come off with the new layer of stain.

How long does it take stain to dry?

Several factors, like humidity and temperature, will play into how quickly your stain dries, but here are the general dry times:

Water-based stains dry in 1 hour and can be recoated 1-2 hours after applying the first coat.

Oil-based stains dry in 2-4 hours depending on the color and can be recoated 2-4 hours after applying the first coat. You’ll want to check on the back of the can to see which timing your particular color requires.

OPTIONAL STEP 4: APPLY MULTIPLE COATS

Most wood stains don’t require two coats, but you can apply multiple coats if you want to alter the color.

If you want to darker or intensify the current color, you can apply the same color on top of your first coat. If you want to alter the color, you can actually apply a different stain color on top of the first coat to create a unique finish.

STEP 5: DISPOSE OF RAGS AND CLEAN UP

If you used a water-based stain, cleanup is very simple. Just use soap and water to wash out your brushes and synthetic pads.

If you used oil-based stain, you’ll wash out your brushes with mineral spirits. Rags with pre-stain or stain on them can spontaneously combust, so it’s important to dispose of them properly.

To properly dispose of your rags, soak them in water and then allow them to dry flat outdoors. Once they are dry, they can be thrown into the trash.

Do I need to seal wood after staining?

It’s always recommended that you seal your project after staining to protect your project and prolong the stain color. Sealers help prevent both fading and scratches.

There are countless finishing options out there, but the two main types are Polyurethane and Polycrylic.

Polyurethane is an oil-based finish. It’ll add an amber hue to your project and give it solid protection.

Polycrylic is my personal go-to for sealing wood. It’s water-based, but can be applied over oil or water-based stains. It dries crystal clear, so it’s a great option if you don’t want to alter the color of your wood.

Minwax Water Based Polycrylic can and a Purdy XL brush

How long you need to let you stain dry before polyurethane will vary based on what kind of stain you use. We wait 2-3 hours after applying water-based stains before applying Polycrylic. When using Minwax oil-based stains, let the stain dry 4-6 hours before applying polyurethane, polycrylic, or any other top coat. Before applying any sealer, always double-check the recommendations and instructions on the back of the can!

Staining Pine

Whenever we talk about staining, we get asked specifically about pine, which is no surprise. Pine is notorious for not taking stain well. It’s prone to blotches and the area around the knots tends to absorb excess stain.

The thing about pine is that it’s never going to stain like oak. It’s not hard to stain pine, but you need to follow the exact steps we laid out in this article to ensure the best results.

For the best results when staining pine:

  • make sure your boards are adequately sanded with at least 220 grit sandpaper
  • apply a pre-stain wood conditioner to help it absorb as evenly as possible

Pine is unpredictable and you’ll never know if it’s going to have blotches until you actually stain it. If you want a more consistent, more even finish, I’d recommend trying PolyShades, Gel Stain, or Solid Stain. You’ll see a little less of the grain, but you should see less splotches as well.

There you have it! Now you know how to prep wood for stain and how to stain wood for the best results. Do you have any staining questions or additional tips and tricks? Let me know in the comments below!

If you stained or sealed your wood and decided if wasn’t quite the look you wanted, read about how to remove polyurethane without chemicals.

Projects Using Sold Stain: Mid-Century Bookshelf | DIY Desk | Shingle Accent Wall <– this one is SUPER cool

Projects Using Oil-Based Stain: Wood Wall Art | Anthropologie Knock-Off Media Cabinet | Restoration Hardware Inspired Shutter Sideboard

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  1. Michael Templeton says:

    Thanks for the article stain like a pro. Its truly a blessing having someone like you to help us beginners out. It sure took a load off my chest and thanks again and keep the good articles coming.
    Best Reguards,
    Michael

    • Travis says:

      I made some floating live edge shelves, I did the prestain and then applied a stain+poly combo. Now the boards are very sticky after 2 days. I think my downfall was purchasing the 2 in 1 combo. Do you think I should have patience or strip?

  2. Bond Corp says:

    Thank you for sharing this informative article! All the information provided by you is really very helpful for all. I agreed that tack cloth is the best cleaning tool. It is helpful for removing tiny dust particles from the surface and gives you better paint finishing. Keep posting! Keep sharing!

  3. Lindsay says:

    Hi there! We built a redwood fence in Joshua Tree, CA about 9 months ago. We didn’t do anything to it at the time. This year we decided to protect it with linseed oil. So far we’ve only done one coat and I didn’t sand or condition it first. I’m now considering a semi-transparent stain to give it a richer color. Is that a bad idea given I just oiled it first? Should I sand and add oil based wood conditioner before applying stain? Or just continue on with the linseed oil for now.

  4. Catherine says:

    Hi there!
    I built red oak floating shelves and we have decided to leave the wood raw (no stain). Just wondering if I need to use a pre-stain before I put a polycrylic finish on it? Or can it go right on the raw wood?

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