Wood-staining is a practice that goes back centuries. If you want to walk in the footsteps of the earliest woodworkers, you can make a basic wood stain by:
- soaking iron nails in vinegar (ebony or dark gray).
- soaking tobacco in water and ammonia (tan wood stain).
If you don’t have that kind of time (or a vat big enough to brew up sufficient product to stain your whole deck), affordable commercially-sold wood stains build on a century’s worth of mass-production technology. A walk down your hardware store’s wood-stain aisle reveals a vast array of options—transparent vs. opaque; mineral, plant, or synthetic-based; a rainbow of colors from rich natural wood colors to off-the-wall blues, greens, and purples.
More so than color, wood stains are categorized based on the vehicle.
Table of Contents
What is Wood Stain?
Wood stains consist of pigments or dyes dissolved in a solvent, also known as the vehicle. Common vehicles include water, distilled petroleum, alcohol, or a finishing agent like lacquer, polyurethane, shellac, or varnish. Some vehicles are not true solvents, so the stain comes suspended in the vehicle and must be mixed before applications. Smaller molecules like dyes tend to dissolve into the vehicle, while larger pigment molecules are more likely to suspend in the vehicle.
Dyes tend to absorb into the wood, while pigments typically sit on top of the wood like paint. Many commercial stains contain both dyes and pigments, as well as binding agents like linseed oil to help the larger pigment molecules adhere to the wood. Dyes do well with fine-grained woods, while pigments work better on porous woods. Dyes tend to make transparent stains, pigments more opaque or “solid” stains.
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Stain usually does not penetrate as deep into the surface of the wood as paint, meaning it tends to fade over time to the wood’s natural color as the wood wears out.
Qualities of Wood Stain
Different wood stains have a range of overlapping properties, including …
- Transparent. Woodworkers love using transparent stains on wood with a beautiful natural grain. The stain dyes the wood but allows the grain to shine through in all its glory.
- Semi-Solid. These stains dry semi-opaque, preserving some of the appearances of wood grain but foregrounding the coloration.
- Solid. These opaque stains are essentially a lighter or specialized form of paint, drying opaque and completely obscuring the wood grain.
- Natural Dye or Pigment. Naturally occurring metals and organic compounds produce a wide variety of stain colors.
- Synthetic Dye or Pigment. Experiments with synthetic pigments or dyes have resulted in more uniform, easy-to-apply stains compared to natural compounds.
- Petroleum-Based Solvents. These solvents help mix the stain evenly, but they evaporate into toxic gas and must be handled with care.
- Non-Toxic Solvents. These solvents are better for the environment but result in a stain that is harder to apply.
Different types of wood stain may overlap in characteristics, depending on the brand and formulation. For example, lacquer stains may contain natural pigments, and water-based stains may contain petroleum solvents.
The 7 Types of Wood Stains
1. Oil Stain
When most people think of “wood stain,” they are thinking of oil stain. It’s the most common commercially available wood stain. The addition of all-natural, non-toxic linseed oil gives you some breathing room to clean up spills or spread out inconsistencies, resulting in a more even stain. This makes it perfect for large projects because you don’t have to micromanage every brushstroke to avoid splotching.
Oil stains can be thinned or cleaned up with aliphatic hydrocarbon, aka mineral spirits, aka paint thinner. Oil stains may contain dyes, pigments, or both. Any kind of finish can be applied over an oil stain except water-based finishes.
A coat of oil stain takes 1-2 hours to dry. Wait two hours to apply the second coat, and at least eight hours to apply the finish.
NOTE: Some oil stains contain synthetic pigments and possibly a little varnish. If you are looking for an all-natural product, make sure to double-check.
Varnish stain contains a binder of varnish, often polyurethane varnish, in the place of oil. Varnish dries hard, meaning you don’t have to wipe excess stain off the surface to achieve an even coat. The varnish content also eliminates the need for a finishing coat—the stain is the finishing coat. If you can’t tell if a container of stain is oil-based or varnish-based, pour a little onto a piece of scrap wood and see if it dries hard or evaporates.
While excess doesn’t need to be wiped away, an unevenly-applied coat of varnish stain may still look splotchy, requiring more coats.
Varnish stains are perfect for small projects, surfaces that are already stained, or surfaces that are worn or scuffed.
3. Water-Based Stain
Water-based stains are the most natural, easiest to clean up, and the least likely to irritate your skin, eyes, or windpipe when you spend time around it. It can be cleaned up with water, and are the best choice if you intend to cover the project with a water-based (waterborne) finish. Don’t apply water-based polyurethane or resinous finishes over oil or varnish stains, unless you have a week or more to allow it to dry.
The downside is that water-based stain can be difficult to apply. Water raises the grain of the wood, affecting the texture. You can avoid this effect by wetting the wood ahead of time and sanding off the raised grain, but this is time-consuming.
Water also dries quickly. If you don’t wipe away the excess stain immediately, the resulting coat could be splotchy. You can add propylene glycol or lacquer retarder to slow the drying process, but this mutes the color of the stain. Otherwise, break the project up into small portions, wiping away the excess as you go.
4. Gel Stain
Gel stains are usually oil-based, but they have a thick consistency like that of mayonnaise. Applying gel stain can be messy, but gel stain is second to none in creating a splotch-free coat. Don’t underestimate the importance of this quality. Splotchy stain can’t be fixed by adding another coat. You usually have to sand off the whole coat. This is obviously a time-consuming fix.
If you need to stain pine, seriously consider gel stain. Pine is notoriously hard to stain without blotching and splotching. Consider applying a washcoat or wood conditioner before staining for the best results.
5. Lacquer Finish
Lacquer stains don’t actually contain any lacquer. The vehicle for these stains is some form of fast-drying varnish, usually containing xylene and ketones. These stains get their names because they can be mixed with lacquer to create a pigmented lacquer.
These stains dry extremely fast—as little as 15 minutes—which makes them a popular choice for professional woodworkers. A professional hand is needed because the fast drying time makes mistakes likely. For large projects, consider applying this stain in a team of two, with one person to apply the stain and another to remove the excess.
The solvents in lacquer stain vaporize easily, causing a pungent smell. Make sure to apply in a well-ventilated area. You might also want to wear a safety mask.
6. Water-Soluble Dye Stain
This variety of stain is sold as a powder. Like Kool-Aid, just add water. Also called “aneline dyes,” they were developed to dye fabric but repurposed as wood stains. Boutique woodworkers love them for their wide variety of rich colors and for how easy they are to work with.
The typical powder-to-water ratio is one ounce per quart, but there are no rules. Through trial and error, you can learn to add more or less water to customize the look of your dye. The dye dissolves better in hot water. Note that tap water may contain minerals like calcium, sodium, and magnesium, which can taint the color of your dye. Distilled water makes distorts the coloring the least.
Water-soluble dye stain excels in preserving the wood grain, even in the darkest tones. No matter how much pigment you add or how many coats you apply, it will never become opaque.
A big downside of this stain, however, is that it fades under UV light, making it a bad choice for outdoor projects or UV-intensive environments.
A few powdered dye stains are soluble in alcohol or oil. Alcohol-soluble dye stain is often mixed with shellac to create a quick-drying stain. Oil-soluble powder can be added to oil stains to customize the color.
7. Metalized (Metal-Complex) Dye Stain
Created in the 1950s, “metal-complex” or metalized dye stains were designed to resist fading. Metalized dye stain still fades, but far more slowly than water-soluble dye stain. The addition of metals like chromium, cobalt, copper, and nickel result in a sturdy dye. It usually comes pre-thinned in acetone and ready to apply. Some metalized dye stains need to be thinned with acetone, alcohol, or water.
Since they contain no water, they will not raise the grains of the wood—hence the common label “NGR” for “non-grain raising.”
Metal-complex dye stains make great spray-on stains. Since they dry quickly, spray-on metalized dye stains are some of the easiest stains to apply. They result in a deeper, more even coat.
Metalized dye stains can also be mixed with lacquer, used as a toner, or mixed with water for a slower-drying stain (watch out for grain-raising, though).
Frequently-Asked Questions About Wood Stain
Is it better to apply stain with a sponge or a brush?
It’s entirely up to you—either one works fine. You can also dip small objects into the wood stain, or pour stain onto large project areas and mop it even. Pay attention to how fast your stain dries and how long you have to wipe away the excess before you dump a can of stain on your deck.
How many coats of stain should I apply?
There is no point in applying more stain than the wood can absorb. In most cases, this means no more than two coats. A dense hardwood may not accept more than one. Applying more coats of stain than the wood can absorb will not change the appearance of the wood.
Do I have to sand the surface of the wood between coats?
No, but light sanding may help you apply a more even second coat. After the first coat dries, sand the stained surface with fine-grained sandpaper—220 or 240 grit. Fine steel wool also works.
Does stain darken as it dries?
Yes and no. Drying does not darken the stain color—in fact, it may lighten. However, the stain does cure over time, causing it to darken. It may take a month or more for your stain to acquire its final appearance.
How long does it take for wood stain to dry?
It depends on the type of wood and the type of stain. Most stains take 24 to 48 hours to become safe for foot traffic or touch. A coat of Olympic Smartguard or another sealant may shorten the drying time. Even after the stain dries, however, it must cure before it reaches its final color. This can take up to 30 days. Metal-complex and lacquer stains dry far quicker than oil- or water-based stains.
Does stain protect my wood?
No, it just alters the appearance. If you want to protect your woodworking project from accidents or the elements, consider adding a protective coating after your stain is dry.
Do I have to seal my stain job?
No, but the stain will usually bleed less if you apply a sealant. A coat of thin shellac or sander sealer usually preserves the evenness of your stain. Remember to not use shellac with water-based or NGR stains. Make sure the sealer is compatible with polyurethane if you intend to apply a polyurethane finish.
How do I make my stain coat darker?
Leave the stain on longer before wiping away the excess. Consider applying the second coat sooner, before the first coat has had a chance to fully dry. This usually results in a deeper, richer coat of stain.
My deck is already stained. Can I still stain it?
A fresh coat of stain can dress up an already-stained deck. Wash the deck with a premium wood-cleaner. Pick a wood stain close in color to the existing stain. If you want a completely different stain color, you may have to strip the existing stain first. Use a deck stripper and follow it with a brightener wash to remove as much of the existing stain as possible.
How much drying time is needed between coats?
Again, it depends on the stain and on the wood. Highly-absorbant woods can withstand a second coat in as little as thirty minutes. Non-porous woods may need up to two hours between coats. Metalized and lacquer stains may need as little as 15 minutes of drying time between coats.
Can I stain redwood?
Redwood looks beautiful when stained. Consider a lighter tone and make sure the stain is not solid or opaque. You don’t want to disguise the natural beauty of the wood stain.
Can I mix wood stains?
At your own risk. It generally is not a good idea. You don’t want to mix stains of different vehicles, and even stains with similar vehicles may not mix well. Divergent chemicals and pigments can lead to unpredictable results. You can, however, add more water to a water-based stain to thin it out. Use distilled water to make sure that no hard-water minerals taint the color. Powdered dye stains can also be mixed into the appropriate vehicle of stain (water for water-soluble powers, oil for oil-soluble powders). Note that if you want a specific color, it may be best to have a professional mix your stain to avoid trial, error, and costly mistakes.
Is wood stain all-natural?
Some of them are, and some aren’t. Water-based and oil-based stains are more likely to be all-natural, but they may still contain synthetic pigments or binders. Metals like copper, cobalt, or nickel may be natural and non-toxic, but still harmful to ingest. Pungent stain releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the environment, adding pollution to the atmosphere and increasing the risk of health problems.
Is wood stain hazardous?
Some stains contain chemicals that are hazardous to ingest and inhale. Be particularly careful if the stain contains a volatile vehicle like alcohol or acetone. You can tell by the strong smell. The smell means that the stain is filling the vicinity with chemical particles. Never ingest wood stain, consider wearing a mask, and make sure your workspace is well-ventilated.
What are common wood projects that can be stained?