There’s a lot to love about plywood. It’s typically less expensive than traditional wood. It’s user friendly, and comes in sheets large enough for many applications.
However, plywood does differ from traditional wood in a few ways, and these factors affect the staining process.
Related To: The History of Plywood
Can You Stain Plywood?
Types of Plywood
There are many different types of plywood, so we are going to take a quick overview of important considerations.
Plywood is graded A through D. A is the highest grade, and has a beautiful veneer. B has slight imperfections. C and D grade amer suitable for applications where they aren’t visible, or potentially for painting.
There are also hard and soft plywood. Oak is the most common hardwood, while birch and pine are common softwoods. Softwoods take stain differently than hardwoods, so you should know which one you are working with.
Types of Stain
There are also a few different types of stain. Water based stain gives a lighter color than other types. It’s user friendly, and doesn’t give off fumes. This means you can use it even if your work area isn’t well ventilated.
Next we have oil stains. These are probably what comes to mind when you hear the word stain. They are the original type of stain, and are still considered the best for most projects.
Water based stains can require several coats. Oil based stains typically only require one, possibly two coats. They do take longer to dry than water based stains, so they require more patience.
Lastly, we have gel-based stains. These are designed specifically for projects like softwood plywood. Softer woods take on the stain in uneven amounts, which creates a blotchy final finish. Gel stains are very thick, which allows the wood to take in a uniform amount of stain.
They can be more forgiving as well. Other types of stain must be wiped away quickly, while gel-based stains can be allowed to sit without harming your finish.
Staining Plywood Steps
Now you are ready to begin the process. Follow these steps for great results when staining plywood.
Step 1: Gathering the Materials
The first thing to do is to gather your materials. Of course, you’ll need your plywood and the stain you’ve chosen. Depending on the type of wood and stain you have, you may also need wood conditioner.
You’ll need a way to apply the stain. This is often done with a rag, particularly for oil based stains. If you are using a water based stain, a foam brush works best.
You’ll need a rag to wipe away excess stain, no matter which method you choose.
You’ll also need sandpaper. 180 grit sandpaper is recommended. Finer sandpaper will result in the wood absorbing less stain, because it clogs the pores of the wood.
Lastly, you may choose a sealer or top coat. These aren’t required, but they can protect the stain and give it a glossy finish, if desired. Polyurethane is the most commonly used top coat.
If your project will be exposed to moisture, or if it needs to be durable, a top coat is strongly recommended.
The final consideration when gathering materials is edge banding. If the edges of the plywood will show, edge banding is a great idea. If you stain the bare edges of the plywood, they will look completely different than the face.
Edge banding can be applied to the edges, and stained just like the plywood. It may look slightly different than the face, but it will be a better match than the bare edges.
Step 2: Sanding
With typical wood, you can sand until your heart’s content. There’s little danger of you causing any damage to the surface. Plywood is different, however.
The attractive surface of plywood is a thin sheet of veneer that is applied to the top, or face, of the board. This hides the look of the plywood itself, providing an attractive look.
Because this layer is so thin, it is possible to sand through it. Generally speaking, the more expensive the plywood, the thicker the veneer. Even if you have quality plywood, you should still take care when sanding.
You can use an orbital sander on the lowest speed, or sand the piece by hand. Use 180 grit sandpaper, and sand the piece lightly.
Step 3: Cleaning
Once you’ve finished sanding, you’ll need to remove any dust. You can do this with a damp rag. Be sure that all dust particles are removed before continuing. These particles will affect your finish if left behind.
If you happen to have an air compressor, this is also a good way to remove the dust. Just be sure to wear safety glasses, and avoid blowing the dust towards anyone.
Step 4: Apply Conditioner
If you are using a hardwood plywood or gel stain, you can skip this step. However, it won’t cause any harm regardless fo the wood or stain you use, so some people prefer to use it on all of their projects.
If you are using softwood with an oil or water based stain, this step is essential.
Brush the conditioner on going with the grain of the wood. Allow it to dry for 10-15 minutes, and then wipe it away with a clean rag.
Step 5: Staining
Stir the stain before you begin. If you are using a rag, dip the rag into the stain. Wipe it onto the wood, going with the grain. If you are using a foam brush, you’ll follow the same process.
Remember that a rag works well for both oil and gel based stains, but a foam brush is better for watered based stans.
Allow the stain to sit for 2-5 minutes, and then wipe away any excess. You may find this step unnecessary if you used a rag, particularly if you have a light hand.
If you used a foam brush, or notice excess stain on the wood, you must wipe it away. Be sure to wipe with the grain.
Step 6: Drying
Oil and gel based stains need to dry for 4-6 hours before applying a second coat. They need 24 hours after staining to dry completely, so that a topcoat can be applied.
Water based stains are faster, only needing 2 hours between coats, and 3 hours before applying the top coat.
Step 7: Applying Topcoat
There are two basic ways to apply a topcoat. You can choose a brush on polyurethane or the spray on variety. Which one you use really comes down to personal preference.
Essentially, brushing gives you a thicker coat. This creates a more durable finish. However, it’s easier to get a smooth even coat with spray. If your surface has edges or uneven surfaces, spray polyurethane is the better choice. Brushing is difficult to do on uneven surfaces.
Applying Edge Banding
If you choose to use edge banding, you’ll want to apply it before you begin staining. To do this, you’ll need the edge banding in the same type of wood as your plywood and an iron.
Step 1: Cut the Length
First, cut the banding so it’s 1-3 inches longer than the plywood. If you don’t want to cut it, you can bend it a few times to break it.
When applying, the edge banding should have the same amount of overlap on both sides. This doesn’t have to be exact, because you’ll cut off any excess.
Step 2: Apply the Banding
Now you are ready to apply. First, you’ll want to go over it once to get it in place. Once you have it where you want it, go over it again at a slower pace. You may need to perform this step a few times to get it secure.
This ensures that the adhesive on the banding heats well and bonds to the edge.
Step 3: Remove Excess Banding
Once it’s applied, allow it to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. If you attempt to move or cut it during this time, it will come away from the plywood. It hardens and bonds to the edge of the wood as it cools.
You can remove the excess by folding it at the edge of the wood until it breaks. You can also use scissors to cut the excess away.
Next, you’ll need to use an edge trimmer to remove any excess from the top and bottom edges.
Step 4: Sand
Sand the edges of the banding. This will ensure that all the edges are clean and smooth.
Step 5: Iron Again
This step ensures that the banding is well secured. The most common trouble spot is the ends, but it’s helpful to go over the entire piece one last time, paying special attention to the ends.
Once this is complete, you are ready to move on to staining.