Staining Birch Plywood in 5 Easy Steps

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Has staining birch plywood left you frustrated and dissatisfied, with hours of effort resulting in a blotchy and uneven finish? You’re not alone. Perfecting this process has been a challenge for many, but it doesn’t have to be for you.

In this guide, I have refined the process down to just 5 straightforward steps. By following these steps, you can achieve a professional and impressive finish. Let’s start!

About Birch Wood

It’s likely that you have encountered plywood in one form or another at some point in your life, and one form you probably saw is Birchwood. 

Birchwood is a widely used type of plywood known for its stylish yet sturdy finish. Moreover, this wood is commonly found in furniture production. 

baltic birch plywood

As a solid block of natural wood, Birchwood is not as readily available at lumber yards as it once was, unlike engineered woods with a solid Birchwood veneer that are more common.

Characteristics of Birch Wood

Birchwood has a color range that goes from cream to golden brown, making it ideal for use in tables, counters, flooring, and other similar items. It is considered a medium-weight hardwood that is softer and less dense than other woods like Pine and Redwood. 

This wood is easy to work with due to its malleability, which makes it a popular choice among professional crafters. In addition, Birchwood is available in various forms like veneer, sawn timber, peeled wood, and turned furnishings. 

While it may not be the strongest wood, it is able to handle normal stress when reinforced and treated properly, but it is not suitable for heavy load-bearing tasks over a long period of time without splitting.

Where Does it Originate?

Contrary to common belief, Birchwood actually originates from Western Europe, Japan, and Asia, and not in the United States. Despite this, it is grown in America, which is why it is widely available at affordable prices in their local hardware stores. 

Betula Lenta (Sweet, Black, Cherry Birch)

Moreover, Yellow Birch, a type of Birchwood, is specifically grown in controlled quantities in states on the Eastern end of North America, including Iowa, Georgia, and Minnesota.

How Many Species of Birch Wood Are There?

Birchwood is sought after in both solid wood and plywood forms and is versatile and easy to work with. The birch tree comes in 40 different species, each with its own unique characteristics. This means that the different types of Birchwood will have varying properties.

Is Birch Plywood Hard to Stain?

Does birch wood stain well? Is it difficult to finish it? Birchwood has a relatively open grain structure which makes it a highly absorbent type of wood. This characteristic makes staining birch ply challenging as the stain quickly soaks into the wood surface without enough time to spread evenly. 

To make the process easier, it is important to prepare both the birchwood and the stain before use. This helps to ensure that the stain is applied efficiently and is not wasted with wood fibers saturated to an excessive extent.

Is Birch Plywood Difficult to Stain Compared to Other Wood Types?

The softness of Birchwood fibers results in high absorbency. Based on my research, this property is beneficial for birch trees as it allows them to retain water and bend under strong winds and other external forces. 

Baltic birch plywood thickness and layersB

However, when you stain plywood, this absorbency can pose a challenge. 

When applying a surface coating or stain to Birchwood, its high water absorption characteristic can really make the process difficult. If not properly prepared, the stain can quickly be absorbed into the wood fibers, leading to a less desirable outcome and potentially wasted wood stain.

In my experience, the key to a successful outcome lies in thoroughly preparing the Birchwood before the staining process.

It’s important to note also that all types of wood have a limit to how much they can absorb, including solid and various engineered woods. Therefore, the difference with Birchwood is that it has a much higher absorption rate, making it difficult to stain. 

Also Read: Can Ash Wood Absorbs Stain Well?

cabinet made out of baltic birch plywood

So, when coating or treating the wood, it’s crucial to understand the characteristics of the specific type of wood you are working with, especially if you are under a time constraint for your project.

For you to better understand the wood types that are best for staining, here’s a quick table overview below:

Wood TypeDoes it Accept Wood Stain Well?
Maple Wood
Chestnut Wood✔
Cedar Wood✔
Oak Wood✔

Stains That are Best to Apply on Birch Plywood

To ease the difficulties of staining Birchwood, there are now specific stains available on the market designed specifically for this type of wood, as well as other woods with similar characteristics. 

For optimal outcomes with birch plywood, I personally recommend using a stain made especially for this task. To guide you further, I’ve compiled a list of some of the top stains for Birchwood, all formulated for a seamless application process.

Oil-Based Stains

Applying oil-based stains to Birchwood can be challenging due to the thicker consistency of the stain, which can make it difficult to spread the stain evenly before it is absorbed into the internal fibers of the wood. 

General Finishes Oil-Based Gel Stain

Using oil-based stains on Birchwood, however, can lead to vibrant coloration and provide not only wood surface protection but also protection for the wood fibers.

So if you are ready to invest time and have patience, you can obtain an attractive final product that distinguishes itself from other pieces by using oil-based stains on Birchwood.

Water-Based Stains

Based on my experience and research, the best option for staining Birchwood is a water-based stain. This type of stain on birch has the right composition and viscosity to effectively penetrate the fibers of Birchwood without over- or under-saturating them. 

Therefore, using water-based stain on Birchwood is more convenient for woodworkers as it eliminates the need for extensive surface preparation, and ultimately it is more budget-friendly.

Gel-Based Stains

Gel-based stains is the most user-friendly option due to their consistent texture. Although gel stains are a recent addition to the wood staining world, they have quickly become a favorite among many for their effectiveness. 

Old Master’s Gel Stain

However, Birchwood does not take well to a gel stain and presents similar challenges as oil-based stains. Also, before applying the gel-based for staining birch, it is necessary to prime the surface of the wood to ensure proper adhesion.

Although it may take some extra effort and patience, using gel-based stain on Birch is not impossible. So, if you need to complete a project quickly and don’t have access to other types of stains, using gel-based stain can still yield a beautiful result with the right amount of effort.

There are other types of wood stains available that are based on or include elements of the stains previously mentioned. 

If you are interested in using these types of stains on your Birchwood project, the table below can provide information on their compatibility with Birchwood veneer and Birchwood.

Type Of Wood StainDoes It Work Well on Birchwood?
Wood Varnish
Water Soluble Dye Stain
Water-Based Stain
Gel-Based Stain
Oil-Based Stain
Oak Wood

Top Stain Colors for Birch Plywood

When it comes to applying stain on birch plywood, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the different options available. Although any type of stain can be used, a water-based stain is often considered the top option for stain color.

You can apply a water-based stain to birch plywood using either a paintbrush or a rag. To achieve an even application with a paintbrush, make smooth strokes in the direction of the wood grain, and use a clean, lint-free cloth to remove any excess stain. 

wood stain

If there are any uneven spots, blend them to achieve even color distribution. When using a rag, dip it into the stain and apply it to the wood quickly to avoid a blotchy finish.

For darker shades, gel stain is another option for birch plywood. However, without a pre-stain conditioner, some of these dark stains may cause blotchiness. I highly recommend testing the stain on a scrap piece of wood before using it on the entire project.

How to Stain Birch Plywood: 5 Steps

Regardless of the type of stain you use on Birchwood (oil-based, gel-based, or water-based), it is important to prepare the surface before application to ensure proper adhesion. This holds true when staining Birch plywood boards or Birchwood veneer. 

tools for painting

The preparation of the surface of the wood will have a significant impact on the quality of the final result. So, here are the detailed 5 steps on how to stain birch plywood:

Necessary Tools

Step #1: Prep Your Work Area and the Birch Wood

Applying stain wood can be a messy task. Properly preparing your workspace beforehand can save you time for cleaning up later and prevent the wood stain from getting on surfaces you want to keep clean. 

preparing work area for painting

Furthermore, ensure that your workspace has adequate ventilation, as the fumes from the wood stain can be toxic and can lead you to faint.

Another one to note is to carefully assess the piece to be stained to identify which sides to stain and the desired staining method. This is the opportunity to choose between a light or dark stain. Once this choice has been made, proceed with sanding.

Finally, make sure you have the proper personal protective gear, such as gloves, face mask, and clothes that can be stained, before you begin. 

Step #2: Sand the Wood Piece

Before starting the staining process, it is important to assess the piece of birch plywood and decide on the desired stain color and technique. Sanding is a crucial step in the preparation process and should not be rushed. 

I recommend dampening the surface of the birch plywood with a damp cloth prior to sanding. Then, remember to let the wood dry thoroughly, which typically takes about an hour, before proceeding with the sanding.

belt sander

I recommend using sandpaper with a 180-grit. Or if you prefer, you can opt for either a random orbital sander for larger projects or a sponge for sanding for smaller ones. Sand gently to avoid damaging the wood.

See Also: A Guide to Making Your Plywood Smooth and Shiny 

Step #3: Apply a Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

Once you’re done sanding, you can use painter’s tape to stain birch plywood evenly or to protect areas you don’t want to stain if there are any. If not, you can proceed directly to staining. 

Apply a coat of pre-stain conditioner evenly. I typically use a brush or a soft-bristled paintbrush to ensure full coverage on the wood’s surface. Then, wipe off any excess pre-stain conditioner using a lint-free staining rag to clear the surface effectively. 

The purpose of this product is to regulate how much the stain penetrates the wood. This is crucial, especially with staining birchwood, as it ensures even coloring and delivers a uniform stain finish. It typically dries in about 15 minutes.

Step #4: Stain the Wood Completely

Once the surface is conditioned and prepared, the stain can be applied using a foam brush, paintbrush, or lint-free cloth.

drying stain

Determine the Style of Staining

To achieve your desired appearance with wood stains, it’s important to choose the right staining style. This can be done by practicing on small offcuts several weeks before the actual project or by researching for you desired style or look. 

For a deeper hue, you can apply it with a darker stain and left to sit for 5 to 15 minutes on the workpiece before removing any excess. The longer the wood stain remains, the more intense the color it creates.

Once the first coat has dried completely, evaluate the shade. If a darker color is desired, another coat can be applied, but it is important to note that this may obscure the grain.

Test First

I always suggest testing the chosen stain on a small piece of scrap wood before diving into the main project. This step will give you an idea of the end result and ensure you achieve the look you’re aiming for.

apply stain

Make sure the scrap wood is of the same material as your project to get an accurate representation. For plywood, I recommend using a water-based stain, but if necessary, a gel stain or oil-based stain can be used. 

How to Test Your Stain

Save small pieces of wood scraps from your previous building or woodworking project for testing stains and finishes. Before applying the product to your final project, test the colors on a sample board to get an idea of their actual appearance. 

If you want multiple coats, test that as well. It may be necessary to apply four to five coats to achieve the desired level of darkness, in which case, it may be more efficient to purchase a darker can of stain.

Staining the Birch Wood

After deciding on the desired look, apply the stain using a foam brush or a paintbrush that is soft-bristled, or lint-free cloth [1], following the grain of the wood. Ensure to apply even strokes to every part of the wooden surface.

staining birch plywood

To avoid jeopardizing your project, promptly wipe away any surplus stain within minutes of its application. Use a cloth for this task. If you let it sit for too long, the stain can set, becoming sticky and much harder to manage and get rid of.

Step #5: Seal the Wood

Once you’ve stained plywood, it is crucial to finish staining plywood by applying a sealing coat to preserve the color and shield it from normal wear and tear and scratches.

Wait for the stain to fully dry. You should follow the drying time indicated on the stain product label, which is usually around 48 hours. 

When selecting a sealant, I highly recommend using water-based or oil-based polyurethane varnish, which is a popular choice for birch plywood, or other options like lacquer, varnish, or shellac.

applying wood sealer

These protective coatings offer added defense against wear and moisture, prolonging the appearance of the stained wood.

How to Make Birch Wood Look Expensive

Birch plywood is a popular choice for home improvement and building projects due to its affordability compared to more expensive hardwoods like cherry or mahogany. But with the right staining techniques, you can achieve the look of exotic hardwoods without breaking the bank.

First, determine what type of wood appearance you want to create. Woods with open pores like mahogany or walnut can be achieved with one coat of pre-stain conditioner followed by the stain. 

However, for woods with closed pores like cherry, applying two coats of pre-stain conditioner is necessary before applying the stain to prevent the pores from showing through the final color.

How to Fix Splotchy Areas

Even with meticulous adherence to all the right steps, applying stain on birch plywood can still result in an uneven and splotchy finish. Therefore, fixing this inconsistency is essential before you proceed to seal the wood.

staining wood with sponge brush

If this happens, here’s a simple solution: use a wood toner.

You can easily find wood toners in the stain aisle at your local hardware store. They will level out areas that have absorbed the stain unevenly, without too much impacting the color of the wood. You can apply the toner by brushing or spraying, whichever method you prefer.

Just make sure to take your time when applying the wood toner, as improper handling can result in excessive bubbling. In my experience, the wood toner will make slight color adjustments, so it will give your stain job your desired appearance.

My Handpicked Stain Recommendations for Birch Plywood

Birch plywood typically achieves the best appearance when stained with a water-based solution. However, with a properly sanded surface and the use of a suitable pre-stain wood conditioner, one can achieve a professional look with any type of wood stain.

staining wooden shelf

Generally, water-based stains are a great option to stain for birch because they are better at penetrating the wood, creating a more even distribution of color compared to other types of stains. 

They can be applied through the use of a high-quality foam brush, a soft-bristled paintbrush, or a lint-free cloth. It’s important to remember to remove any excess wood stain before it dries and becomes difficult to remove. 

These are the three of my top handpicked stain products to use on birch plywood finish:

1. Minwax 22761 Classic Gray

Although this wood finish is oil-based, it offers remarkable results on birch plywood stain. Unlike conventional oil-based formulas, this product is formulated for deep penetration and rapid drying.

Thanks to its effective formula, only one coat is needed for proper coloring, allowing you to complete your project in a single day.

The stain on the plywood dried rapidly in a span of two hours, which enables users to add a safeguarding topcoat on the same day and complete your task.

The stain will quickly penetrate the pores of the birch ply and evenly distribute the color in just 5 minutes. This speeds up the process of applying stain significantly.

2. Varathane 262030 Premium Fast-Dry Sunbleached

Varathane Sunbleached is another top-notch, fast-drying wood stain that performs well on birch plywood. It’s the best gray stain option for this type of wood. With its efficient single-coat coverage plus quick-drying formula, you can finish your project in just one day.

The birchwood finish imparts a sun-faded gray appearance to your plywood, highlighting the wood grain. The gray shade is warm and appealing, lending the wood a charming, rustic look that blends well with various home designs.

3. Varathane 262005 Premium Fast Dry Early American

Another top choice for birch plywood is the Varathane Premium Early American fast-drying wood stain. This oil-based formula is designed for quick projects.

Applying just a single coat can change your light-colored plywood into a stunning rich chocolate brown shade. The dark color instantly gives the plywood a premium and costly look.

This stain is suitable for all indoor wood projects, including paneling, furniture, doors, and cabinets. In my experience, it only takes an hour to dry after application.

Birch Plywood Benefits

Here are the several benefits that contribute to birch plywood being a popular choice among both professional woodworkers and  DIY enthusiasts.

furniture made out of Baltic Birch plywood

Drawbacks of Birch Wood

Despite its many advantages, birch plywood also has some drawbacks. Here are the main drawbacks of this woodworking and building material.

buying plywood


What is the best way to finish birch plywood?

The best way to finish birch plywood depends on the desired final look and intended use of the project. 

Generally, sanding the surface to a smooth finish and applying a sealant or protective topcoat can help enhance the natural beauty of the wood and protect it from scratches and wear and tear.

Is it recommended to stain plywood?

Staining plywood is a matter of personal preference, but it can help enhance the appearance of the material and protect it from moisture damage. It can also add depth and character to the plywood, giving it a more attractive and authentic look.

However, it’s important to note that some types of plywood, such as pressure-treated plywood, are not suitable for staining and will require a different type of protection

Can you stain birch wood with a dark color?

It is possible to darken Birch by staining it, provided the smooth surface is sanded correctly and a pre-stain conditioner is used to enhance the results. Pick a product from well-known wood stain brands such as Minwax and Varathane to darken birch plywood.

How can you stain birch wood to look similar to walnut?

Darkening Birch stain to a walnut color may require multiple coats of stain. Due to Birch’s tendency to resist staining, it is important to thoroughly apply pre-stain conditioner to achieve a walnut look before using wood stain.

Should I stain or paint birch?

Staining birch is a better choice for preserving the wood grain compared to painting. After using a pre-stain conditioner and lightly sanding, you can use a stain that is water-based. If you don’t mind obscuring the grain, then you can opt to paint the plywood.

Related Read: Staining Oak Wooden Pieces


Staining birch plywood is a great way to add a unique aesthetic touch to any project. With the right materials and a few basic steps, it’s easy to achieve a beautiful finish that will make your projects stand out in any room.

Simply follow these quintessential five steps to make the staining process for birch plywood an achievable feat. This guide will make the process accessible and ensure that your birch projects get that perfect, polished appearance.

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.
Robert Johnson

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