Best Wood for Staining and Woods to Avoid

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Are you tired of spending money on expensive wood only to find out it doesn’t take stain evenly? Selecting the ideal wood is the bedrock of a masterful finish, something I’ve learned through the years in the craft.

To help you choose a suitable option for your project, I’ll be exploring the best woods for staining and the types you should steer clear of. This way, you can avoid the frustration and disappointment of a subpar finish!

What is a Stain?

Wood stain treats wood by permeating its porous surface to alter its color and create a uniform tone throughout the wood’s surface. Depending on how much stain is applied, you can get a lighter or darker wood color. 

staining wooden shelf

Stains can be wiped off immediately after application or left on the wood for an extended period. There are various stains available, each with unique characteristics such as oil-based stains and fast-drying options.

Types of Wood Stain

Water-Based Stains

Water and soap are enough to clean these stains. Moreover, drying their color takes several days or even weeks, and it may darken somewhat if pine oil is included in the formula to expedite drying.

Oil-Based Stains

This type of wood treatment has been in use for the longest time and is known for its ability to penetrate deeply into the grain of the wood. It can also be applied to softwood and hardwood floors, but it is crucial to seal the wood first. 

It should be noted that an oil-based stain tends to give a yellowish hue to the wood, so it is essential to consider whether this effect is desirable.

Lacquer Stains

Lacquer wood staining is the most widely practiced type of project for several reasons. Primarily, these stains are incredibly robust and can be obtained in virtually any shade imaginable.

lacquer stain

Moreover, lacquer stains are known for producing a remarkably sleek and polished finish to your project and imparting excellent invisibility with each successive coat applied.

Gel Stains

When staining wood such as maple, oak, or cherry, gel stain is recommended option because it is known to penetrate more deeply. Additionally, it provides a more uniform color than water-based stains.

Water-Soluble Dye Stains

For those seeking to add diversity and color to their projects, a water-soluble dye stain is a great option. Such stains comprise a high concentration of dyes, enabling them to infiltrate the surface of your woodworking project seamlessly without leaving any streaks or blemishes. 

Metalized Dye Stains

Metalized dye stains are a type of wood stain that include non-grain, metallic stains, raising stains, and acid staining. 

The medium stain colors they produce result from a chemical reaction between acidic dyes embedded in the wood surface and metallic salts found in water-based finish coatings or lacquer thinner. 

metalized dye stain

It’s essential to note that these stains are not the same as oil-based aniline dye stains.

Varnish Wood Stain

When safeguarding a newly completed woodworking project, a varnish wood stain is an excellent choice. This type of stain is straightforward to apply and dries quickly.

Additionally, varnish wooden stain is offered in three finishes: semi-gloss, gloss, and satin. The level of sheen obtained depends on the extent of sanding performed between each coat applied.

Wood Grain and Fibers, Explained

Wood grains and fibers are key components that contribute to the natural beauty and strength of wood. 

The grain of the wood refers to the texture or pattern visible on the wood’s surface, resulting from the arrangement of the tree’s growth rings. 

The fibers are the individual strands of wood that make up the material, running parallel to the length of the board. 

Oak grain pattern

When it comes to staining wood, the grain pattern can affect how evenly the stain is absorbed into the wood, and it can create areas of light and dark coloring if not taken into account.

The orientation and quality of the fibers can also influence the absorption and evenness of the stain. Careful sanding and preparation of the wood surface can help ensure an even finish. 

Overall, a thorough understanding of the wood’s grain and fibers is critical to get the best wood for staining.

Recommended Woods for Staining


This particular variety of wood is frequently used for hardwood floors and is well-known for its light brown hue with a subtle red wood tone. 

It is a popular choice for staining and is often used for desktops due to its attractive appearance and grain design.

Oak office table

Oak wood can be stained, as its noticeable grain pattern and large pores are conducive to accepting stains. 

But a word of caution: using stains with a red tint can evoke an older style—think 1980s kitchen cabinets. For a more modern touch, I personally suggest opting for a cool-toned hue when staining oak.

How to Stain Oak

While there are similarities between red oak and white oak, the former possesses certain unique characteristics. Notably, it has more prominent open pores, which result in a quicker absorption rate of stains compared to the latter.

quarter sawn Red Oak

For optimal results, it is best stained using medium-wood-toned shades like rosewood, as these shades accentuate the natural grain pattern. Additionally, working with this wood is uncomplicated, and it is reasonably priced.

White Oak

This wood has a denser pore structure, making it more resistant to staining. To obtain a superior quality, it is essential to purchase quarter-sawn white oak wood.  

However, multiple coats of stain will produce a stunning golden hue that is well worth the extra effort.


Chestnut timber has a uniform hue, which makes it an excellent candidate for staining. It possesses a lustrous, medium-brown shade that intensifies as it’s exposed to UV light and atmospheric humidity over the years.

chestnut table

This type of wood is attractive when left unfinished, but it also looks great when stained in shades of brown or grey. To summarize, it is particularly well-suited for achieving a grey stain.


Hickory lumber is a popular choice for woodworkers due to its robustness and resilience, making it a preferred material. Since the early 1800s, it has been widely utilized for constructing wooden furniture and wood flooring.

Once you become accustomed to it, working with hickory is uncomplicated. Hickory takes stain well, although it’s important to sand it meticulously before doing so.


Ash timber is a highly sought-after material for staining due to its appealing natural wood grain and its stain well with any stain color. Nonetheless, certain considerations should be considered when selecting ash wood furniture or flooring.

sanding dried KwikWood Wood Repair Epoxy Putty

Difficult Woods to Stain


Staining pine can be a challenging task because these types of wood have porous and open grains that enable the stain to penetrate deeply, resulting in an uneven finish that may seem like it has sand particles in it. 

This also causes blotchiness, making it more difficult to achieve a uniform appearance.


Cherry wood’s grain has a pore structure that is open, enabling stains to penetrate deeply into the surface of the wood without being touched. As a result, this characteristic leads to blotchiness and uneven coloration.


Staining maple can be challenging due to its dense and hard nature. The pigments in stains have a tough time penetrating the surface of the wood, resulting in difficulty in achieving the desired stain color.

Can You Stain Maple Well?

Maple is a hard, dense wood that can be difficult to stain because it doesn’t absorb stain evenly. However, with proper preparation, usage of the best light wood stain, and application techniques, it is possible to achieve a good result.

staining maple


Staining this type of wood can be a challenging task, as it is one of the most porous hardwoods that readily absorb the tannins present in the stains. 

So, does poplar stain well? It stains well if applied properly. However, it’s porous nature makes it tough to apply the stain evenly. Also, it’s difficult for some stains to adhere to the surface. 

Interesting Read: Let’s Compare Poplar vs Pine 


Does birch stain well? Unfortunately, these types of wood do not take stains very well. 

Birchwood can be a bit tricky when it comes to staining. It tends to take in pigment inconsistently, often resulting in a splotchy appearance, especially with darker stains. Plus, no matter which stain you choose, birchwood usually results in a light golden-brown hue post-application.

How to Choose the Right Wood Stain


When choosing the best wood for staining, safety should also be a primary concern since certain stains contain hazardous chemicals and fumes that can lead to adverse effects, such as skin irritation, breathing problems, and rashes.  

protective gears

In severe cases and prolonged exposure, they may even cause respiratory failure.


Neutral Tones

Neutral tones refer to wood species or finishes that are not strongly colored or have a muted, subdued appearance. These wood tones are often used to create a clean, minimalist, or understated look in interior design. Some colors under these are:

Cool Tones

Cool tones of wood refer to the same wood species or finishes with a bluish or grayish cast, similar to cool colors on the color wheel. These wood tones can create a calming and serene atmosphere in interior design. Some colors under these are:

Ash desk

Warm Tones

Warm tones of wood refer to raw wood species or finishes with a reddish, orange, or yellowish hue, similar to warm colors on the color wheel. These wood tones can create a cozy and inviting atmosphere in interior design.

Wood Type

Different wood types require different staining methods, as their porosity, density, and wood grain [1] patterns can vary significantly, and some stains work better than others.

stained wooden boards

Stain Coverage

Before purchasing a wood stain, it’s essential to calculate the amount of stain you’ll need to avoid wasting both your time and money. 

Wood Grain

Each type of wood has a unique strong grain pattern, and the right stain can enhance its natural beauty. So, it’s crucial to choose a stain that complements the wood’s grain.

Type of Finish

It’s worth noting that not all stains can be coated with polyurethane varnish, so it’s important to choose a stain that is compatible if you plan to use this type of finish for its durability and attractiveness.


Before proceeding with staining the entire wood surface, it is essential to test a small area first. This will help you ensure that the stain is compatible with the wood and that the color matches correctly.

How To Stain Wood

Pick the Right Stain

When selecting a stain color, consider how it will look after drying and finishing. The color may appear slightly darker after applying a finish or sealant. 

Varathane Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain

Clean and Sand the Wood

To ensure that the wood properly absorbs the stain, it is important to clean and sand the surface texture prior to application. When sanding, I highly recommend moving with the grain to avoid any unintended scratches.

Once you’re done sanding, do a quick wipe-down with a damp cloth to remove any residue. It is also important to wait a day after cleaning and sanding to allow the wood to dry fully before applying the stain.

Use Protective Gear (Gloves, Masks, etc)

It’s important to take precautions before staining wood by wearing gloves and clothing that can get stained, as the stain can easily adhere to hair, skin, and clothes.

Utilize Foam Brushes

When working with stains, I personally lean towards using a foam brush over a bristled paintbrush. Stains can be stubborn to get out of those bristles. And to minimize the clean-up process, use a paper towel to remove any extra stains.

Ensure to Stain Along the Grain

To ensure that the color seeps well into the wood and to give a natural wood grain appearance to the final finish, it’s important to apply the stain in the direction of the wood grain.

staining MDF board

Apply at A Minimum of Two Coats

To ensure an even color, it is necessary to apply two or more coats of wood stain. It’s also important to let each coat dry completely before adding another.

Seal the Wood

It’s essential to apply a sealant separately to achieve a shiny appearance. Adding extra sealant is advisable if the wood that you are staining will be placed outside, as this will help to safeguard it from the harsh weather.

How to Stain Wood Species That Don’t Absorb Stains Well

Materials You’ll Need

Step 1: Do the Preparation

tools for painting

To stain the wood properly, it’s important to prepare it properly. Ensure that you’re working in a well-ventilated area and wearing safety gear. 

Lightly sand the wood with 80-grit sandpaper, and then use 180 to 220-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface.

Pre-Staining and Wood Conditioning

These steps ensure that the final result is even and smooth. It can help prevent blotching, which can occur when the wood absorbs the stain unevenly due to variations in the grain. 

Pre-stain conditioner and wood conditioner help absorb the stain, resulting in a more consistent appearance. Moreover, a light stain can only be used in conditioning.

Wipe-On Oil Finish

To apply a wipe-on oil finish, first sand the wood to create a smooth surface. Then, apply the oil finish with a soft cloth or sponge, working in the direction of the grain. 

applying General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Oil-Based Finish

It is a popular finish for woodworking projects because it is easy to apply and creates a smooth, durable surface that enhances the natural beauty of the wood.

Step 2: Varnish the Wood

To protect the wood from damage caused by water and uneven staining, we recommend opting for a clear gel varnish. Apply the varnish onto the wood using a rag and allow it to soak into the wood for 10 to 15 minutes.

Let the wood dry for a full night, and then wash it using water and liquid dish soap. Finally, apply another coat of varnish to darker areas.

Step 3: Dry the Wood

Mix water and wood dye in a jar, and apply the dye to the wood using a rag. Rinse out any excess stain after 10 minutes. After drying, apply clear gel varnish to the remaining dark areas.

Step 4: Apply Gel Stain

After applying the stain, use a rag to wipe off any excess stain and let the wood dry for a day. If necessary, apply another layer of gel stain. 

applying gel stain

To modify the stain, mix it with shellac or another type.  Allow 30 minutes to harden the finish, and apply a second coat if needed.

Best Ways to Apply Wood Stains

Using a Lint-Free Rag

This technique enables the liquid to be transferred from one section of the cloth to another without getting absorbed by the fabric between sections. Start to apply wood stain to a small area and wipe it off with a cloth to evaluate the result. 

If you are satisfied, proceed to the entire surface. If the outcome is lighter than your desired shade, you’ll need to apply more layers of stain to attain a darker look. This way, more of the original wood grain will show through.

Using a foam brush (For Hard-to-Reach Areas)

When staining hard-to-reach spots such as nooks, corners, and crevices, a foam brush is a great tool to use. 

The smaller ones stain well because they can easily fit into tight spaces, and they provide better control over the amount of stain applied compared to larger brushes.

foam brush and Waterlox TB5284 Stain

Foam brushes are also useful for large projects since they hold more stain than a rag, allowing you to cover a bigger surface area. 

However, it’s important not to reuse the rag after using a foam brush, as this can result in over-applying the stain.

Using a Stain Marker (For Small Touch Ups)

Use a stain marker to fix spots or small scratches on your wood projects. These markers are designed to hold enough stain without oversaturating the wood. 

Why Sanding Wood is Important

Sanding wood is a crucial step in the process of preparing wood for further use. It creates a smooth and even surface, removes imperfections, and helps to create a surface that is more receptive to finishing products. 

When applying stain to wood, sanding becomes even more important. The end grain of any type of wood is typically more porous woods and absorbs more stain, so to get a consistent color all over, it is crucial to sand the end grain with finer sandpaper. 

sanding wood layer

If the end grain is not sanded properly, it will absorb more stain than the rest of the wood, resulting in an uneven and blotchy appearance.

Is a Variation in Color Normal?

It’s important to remember that some natural color variation is expected and normal when working with wood stain, as wood is naturally living and, therefore, not uniform in color. This natural variation is part of what makes wood beautiful and unique. 


What is the cheapest wood to stain?

The cheapest wood to stain would typically be a softwood such as pine, spruce, or fir. These types of wood are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and absorb stain well, which can result in a nice finish.

What is the best wood to stain dark?

The best wood to stain dark is Mahogany. Due to its oil content and excellent absorption qualities, mahogany is considered one of the best wood types for achieving dark stain colors.

Can you stain alder wood well?

Alder is not a suitable wood species for staining as it is highly porous, leading to uneven and blotchy coloring. Even if you aim for a distressed or rustic finish, a blotchy stain can detract from the overall aesthetic and look unattractive. 

Can you apply stain on top of polyurethane?

It is possible to apply a stain on top of a polyurethane coat, but only if you use a gel stain. Gel stains differ from regular stains in creating a film over the polyurethane finish rather than penetrating it into the wood pores. 

Will wood stains go bad over time?

Yes, wood stains can go bad over time. Like many other types of paint and coatings, stains contain various chemical compounds that can break down and degrade over time, especially if exposed to air, sunlight, and heat.

To ensure the best results, it is advisable to check the expiration date on the stain container and store it properly in a cool, dry place.

Is it okay to stain MDF boards?

Yes, it is possible to stain MDF (medium-density fiberboard) boards, but it requires some preparation and care to achieve a good result.

Can you apply stain on regular boards?

It is possible to apply stain to the regular board. However, it is important to note that these types of wood can be challenging to maintain their appearance after installation. 

The primary difficulty is that it has a cellular composition that allows it to absorb liquids and fluids very easily. 

Can you stain fresh wood?

It is generally not recommended to stain fresh wood because the wood is too “green” and contains too much moisture. Fresh wood may also have natural oils or resins that can interfere with the penetration and absorption of the stain.


Selecting the best wood for staining and following proper preparation and staining techniques are important factors in ensuring a high-quality, long-lasting finish. Following this guide, you can enhance the natural beauty of your project for years to come.  

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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