How Long Does It Take For Wood Stain to Dry? (Water & Oil-Based)

staining wood

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So you’ve finally got the time to apply that sweet wood stain. How much longer would you wait for it to dry? If you mess up a small part, you might end up reapplying the stain in a noxious room. 

This article will explain how long it takes for a wood stain to dry, brought to you by our expert woodworkers. Read on and find out!

How Long Should You Wait For Wood Stain to Dry?

Wood stain is a type of paint used to enhance the natural color of the woodwork. Wood stain’s key difference from the more traditional paint is the less amount of binding agent it contains. 

Wood stains’ pigments remain mostly on the surface of the wood and are mostly ‘transparent’; that is, they still show the natural wood grain. 

staining poplar wood

The drying time for staining wood ranges anywhere from 1-24 hours. The stain type greatly affects the wood stain drying time, as well as other factors such as temperature and humidity. Additionally, mixing water and oil products can also affect the stain’s drying time.

Remember to clean and prepare your wood surface before staining. Test the stain first in a hidden area of your project, or better yet, test it on the trimmings or surplus wood to gauge the finish, the drying, and curing time. 

Factors That Affect Drying Time

Wood Type

Pressure-Treated Wood

This is treated with preservatives against wood-damaging organisms like mold, mildew, and termites. This treatment also includes fire-retardants. Stains dry within 4-8 hours with this wood.

Hardwood

Hardwood is a dense, durable type of wood. Like pressure-treated wood, it takes about 4-8 hours for a stain to dry.

Softwood

Softwood is more porous compared to the last two types; this means it takes longer to dry. It also has the possibility to dry unevenly, resulting in blotches.

Pressure-treated wood

Stain Type

The length of your stain’s drying process depends highly on its type. Those with alcohol (like lacquer) diffuse easily, followed by water-based, then oil-based, and gel stains. 

Temperature

60-70 degrees Fahrenheit is the sweet spot for drying wood stains. It will still dry if not within range, albeit in a shorter or longer time. 

Stains at a lower temperature will take longer to dry completely, so you might think, “should I crank up the heat?”. Don’t. The outer layer will dry so fast that cracks will most likely appear, resulting in full stain reapplication.

Humidity

Humidity is an underrated but important factor that dictates how long it takes for a wood stain to dry. The best humidity level for drying stains will be 55% or below. 

man applying paint on wooden board

At above 65%, which is high humidity, stains are wetter due to attracting the extra moisture in the air and will dry longer. It is usually before sunrise and just after sunset. Check your weather app in preparation. 

For high humidity, consider using a dehumidifier to keep the stain dry.

Airflow

Poor airflow can slow the stain drying process since the diffused particles from the stain just hang around in the air and get reabsorbed in the woodwork. Potential exposure to poisonous fumes can also occur. 

Open a fan or a window to ensure good airflow, but do watch out for dust that might stick on the woodwork. 

How Long Does It Take For Different Wood Stains to Dry?

Water-based Wood Stain

Minwax

Minwax water-based stains dry between 1-2 hours. Depending on the humidity, temperature, and airflow, it might take up to 3 hours.  

Minwax wood finish

General Finishes

This water-based stain can be touched or checked after 30 minutes if it was painted over raw wood, but may take over 1 hour if painted over an existing paint/stain job. Let the stain sit for 2 hours to apply a second coat safely. 

Oil-based Wood Stain

Behr

Behr oil-based wood stain takes 12-24 hours to completely dry. 

Cabot

Cabot oil-based stains such as the Cabot Australian Timber oil take 24-48 hours to dry. They recommend applying only one coat of stain.

Minwax

Minwax’s oil-based stains need at least 2 hours to dry and around 8-12 hours to completely cure.

Minwax oil based wood stain

Olympic

Olympic Smartguard is the oil stain for you if you need to waterproof your woodworking project. It takes 1 hour to dry. It dries clear and can be used for a variety of surfaces other than wood, like brick and concrete.

Olympic Maximum is also a waterproofing oil stain, but with a variety of transparency levels ranging from transparent to solid. It also has a variety of tones and colors you can pick from. It provides mildew and mold resistance for the wood. It takes at least 8 hours to dry, with other variants requiring up to 24 hours of dry time.

Olympic Elite is a waterproofing oil-based stain with advanced mildew, mold, and algae resistance. Compared to the previous Olympic stains, its variety consists purely of opaque stains. It requires 24-48 hours of drying time.

Osmo

Osmo oil-based stain features a microporous [1] finish, providing a breathable finish that won’t crack or peel. It requires 4-6 hours of drying time. 

Varathane Stain

Varathane Stain dries in 1 hour and just needs 1 coat.

Varathane wood stain

Varnish

Varnish is not for staining wood per se but rather a protective coating made primarily of resin with drying oil and solvents. Most varnishes take 15-20 minutes to dry. 

Gel-based Wood Stain

Gel stain is a relatively new stain type that is somewhat in between wood stains and traditional paint; it’s thicker and easier to apply compared to stains, and it does not require too much surface preparation. Because of this, it takes 8-24 hours for a gel stain to dry.

Dye Stain

Water-soluble Aniline Dye Stain

Most wood stains are liquid. In contrast, aniline dye stains are pigment-rich powders used to stain wood. They are dissolved in water and thus require 24 hours to dry properly. 

Metalized Dye Stain

Metalized dye stains are a more light-resistant version of dye wood colorants. It can be dissolved in water, alcohol, or lacquer thinner. This makes its drying time variable depending on the solvent used, ranging from 15 minutes to 3 hours. 

Dye stain

Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer stains are made with natural or synthetic liquid resin in fast drying solvents such as alcohol and therefore take only 15 minutes to stain wood. 

Drying Times for Interior and Exterior Stains

Since exterior wood stains usually incorporate a sealant with the formula, this increases the drying time for the exterior stain, ranging from 24-48 hours. It’s longer compared to interior stains, which can dry within hours. 

How to Make Wood Stain Dry Faster: Tips and Tricks

Tip #1: Spread Thin Coats and Rub Excess Stain

Apply only thin coats of the stain at a time. You can reapply anyway until you reach your desired shade. Wipe off excess stains to prevent splotches and uneven finish. Rub off excess stain along the grain of the wood.

Tip #2: Keep the Area Well-Ventilated

Prepare your work area ahead of time to make sure it has appropriate airflow. Good airflow will make the stain dry faster. Good airflow also prevents the accumulation of potentially harmful fumes.

well ventilated room

Tip #3: Avoid Staining Immediately After Pressure Washing

Pressure washing pushes water further into the wood, making it wet for a long time. Allow at least a day for all the accumulated water to dry. Otherwise, your stain won’t be properly absorbed. 

Tip #4: Allow for it to Dry in a Warm and Less Humid Space

Prepare a workplace that is less humid to ensure a quick and even stain finish. Consider using a room dehumidifier. For exterior woodworks, it is especially important to check your weather app to choose a work day with as low humidity as possible. 

Stain Drying Time Between Coats

Drying time in between coats varies between stain types and products, so always consult your chosen product’s instructions. For oil-based stains, you typically need 2-4 hours, and for water-based stains, 4-8 hours.

How to Slow Down Stain Drying Time

This typically applies to oil-based stains. If your wood stain dries too fast, it might cause blemishes or splotches on the wood. Add a little paint thinner or mineral spirits to your oil wood stain to thin it out. 

air drying wood stain

Start by pouring out a cup (don’t thin out the whole bucket!) of the stain and adding a tablespoon to it, gradually, until you’ve achieved your desired consistency.

How to Tell if Wood Stain is Dry

Generally, if you touch a dry stain, it will feel smooth but not sticky. Oil-based stain’s smell would have greatly diminished after it dries. Dry water-based stains and gel stains won’t feel cold to the touch. Make sure the stain cures first before touching. 

Why is the Stain Not Drying?

Aside from not meeting the temperature, airflow, and humidity conditions discussed before, unconditioned wood can greatly affect how long it takes for a wood stain to dry. According to our experience, the wood should be thoroughly dry, inside and out. 

For example, don’t apply stains right after pressure washing. Applying a subsequent coat immediately while the previous coat is not yet dry is another possibility. 

How to Apply Wood Stain: 7 Steps

Step #1: Start by Sanding the Surface

Sand the surface of the wood until it is even and smooth. It is recommended to use 120 grit for removing an existing finish or 80 grit for bare wood. 

sanding wooden board with orbital sander

Step #2: Clean the Surface

Wipe the dust off the wood’s surface with a lint-free cloth. Make sure to clean the workplace dust, too, to prevent it from sticking to the wet stains.

Step #3: Spread the Wood Conditioner

Use a wood conditioner for softwoods like cedar and pine. Apply the conditioner evenly using a clean, dry cloth.

Step #4: Prepare the Stain Formula

Stir the stain formula thoroughly while you wait for the wood conditioner to dry. 

Step #5: Apply the Stain

Slightly wet the cloth with the wood stain, then apply thin, even coats. Wipe off the excess stain by wiping it along the wood grain.

staining wood

Step #6: Let it Dry, Then Spread the Second Coat

Let the first coat dry before applying another. This will ensure the stain dries properly and prevent blotching. Go back to step 1 if you want a darker hue.

Step #7: Seal With the Polyurethane Finish

As a top coat or a finishing coat, apply polyurethane finish to protect your stained wood. You can usually apply the finish with a brush.

How Long Should You Wait Before Applying Polyurethane?

Oil-based wood stains

The final coat should be fully dry before applying the polyurethane finish, so for oil-based stains, this would be 24-48 hours.

Water-based wood stains

It takes around 4-8 hours to make a water-based stain dry before polyurethane application.

How to Apply Polyurethane

Just follow the steps below:

applying polyurethane varnish to wood
  1. Wipe the stained surface with a clean, dry cloth to remove dirt and dust.
  2. Stir the polyurethane to achieve an even consistency. Stir gently to prevent air bubbles from forming with the polyurethane. Air bubbles will be visible and unsightly when the finish is applied to the stain.
  3. Use a synthetic high-quality brush, as using a natural bristle brush might absorb too much of the finish. Gently wet the brush with the polyurethane, preventing air bubbles. 
  4. Apply the polyurethane using long, slow strokes along the wood grain. Do repeated passes, and maintain a consistent stroke length of about 1-2 feet to even out the application.
  5. After finishing a long section and while the polyurethane is still wet, finish the application by running the brush gently along the length of the wood to even out the finish. 
  6. Depending on the brand, you might need to reapply the finish more than once. Make sure the polyurethane dries completely as well.

Can I Still Apply Polyurethane Over Tacky Stain?

This is strongly not recommended as the stain must complete the drying process for the polyurethane varnish to be properly applied. 

spraying polyurethane to cabinet doors

What To Do About Tacky Stains

You can try applying more stains over the tacky stain to slowly dissolve it. This will cause the tacky stain to eventually dry after the next coat. 

You can also try and use a little mineral spirit on a cloth, then try rubbing the tacky part out gently so only the stain gets absorbed by the wood.

Fixing Mistakes When Staining

You can try to fix staining mistakes with another coat of stain. If that does not work, wait for the coat to dry totally, then redo the wood preparation again, starting with the sanding, cleaning, and reapplication of the wood conditioner. 

Best Fast-Drying Stain

The best fast drying stain is Rust-Oleum® Varathane® Fast Dry Wood Stain. It dries in just 1 hour, and you only need to apply 1 coat; great for quick and easy wood staining.

FAQ

Is it recommended to apply a second coat one week later?

No. You can usually wait for just 1-2 days for a second coat. In about a week, dirt and other particles might have bound with the stain, possibly requiring resanding.

What type of rag or cloth is best for staining?

Clean, cotton cheesecloth is considered the best. You can gauge if you need to dip again, and you can apply the stain evenly with it.

Can I sleep in the house right after staining the floors?

Don’t, poisonous fumes might still be dissipating from the project.

How long will it take for the stain smell to go away? Is it dangerous?

As long as the stain is fully dried, it is safe to be with. Improve the area’s airflow if the smell bothers you. 

Conclusion

Drying wood stains might take a long time, but with this guide, you’ll know the factors to watch out for, and you now have an idea how long stain takes to dry. Follow the steps, and you’ll be a pro at staining wood in no time!

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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