Staining Oak Wood — How-to Guide + Coats Needed

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Like most woodworkers, I’ve always been drawn to the look of stained oak wood in home furniture pieces. However, staining oak usually takes more than a couple of coats. If you skip a layer, you’ll likely see streaks or uneven coloring.

But with the right tools, you can learn how to stain oak like a pro. Let me walk you through the process to achieve that perfect finish!

Is it Recommended to Stain Oak Wood? Is Staining Easy?

One of the simpler woods to dye is oak. It tends to evenly and lightly absorb stain, just enough to bring out the lovely natural grain. This is due to oak wood’s wide pores, allowing absorbing the stain, which is precisely the correct quantity of moisture.

Oak wood

Oak wood is also commonly used for furniture making, as it can be easily shaped into curved designs. Oak tends to be more complicated than other woods, and its grain pattern is less susceptible to splitting during shaping processes. 

What Kind of Stain Should You Use on Oak?

You can use any stain on oak, including homemade natural wood stains, gel stains, and water- and oil-based stains. But remember, you’ll need to reapply them occasionally if they need to be waterproofed with wax or another protective coating.

Also, I suggest using a stain designed explicitly for oak timber. There are many stains, but one crucial thing to remember is that oak wood absorbs more stains than others.  

Does Gel Stain Work Well on Oak?

You can use gel stains on oak wood, which are thicker than liquid stains. They offer immediate satisfaction if you decide to wipe on the unfinished color oak. Also, they are less messy because they don’t leak like liquid stains and provide an equal color as they don’t run.

How to Prepare Oak Before Staining

To stain oak wood, sand it with a sanding block or orbital sander. I recommend using low-grit sandpaper to make the wood rougher, allowing more stain to be absorbed and giving the wood a darker hue. For refinished items, begin by using 120-grit sandpaper.

sanding block

Do I Need to Treat Oak Before Staining?

When dealing with an unfinished oak item that requires staining, pre-treating the wood isn’t necessary.

However, when using a gel stain or a natural dye, it’s a different story. These finishes necessitate conditioning the wood first to ensure the finish adheres correctly.

Do I Need to Condition Oak Wood First?

Conditioning oak wood is not necessary. But, adding a pre-stain wood conditioner produces a smoother finish, mainly when using dark wood stain colors on light, brown softwoods. The pre-stain conditioner will allow you to prevent unnecessary botches.

How to Apply Stain on Oak Wood

Supplies You'll Need

Step #1: Ready Your Workspace

tools for painting

To achieve the optimal results for your stained wood, you need to prepare your workspace first. You will need a clean, flat surface, such as a table or the floor. 

If you are using a table or other flat surface, cover it with a drop cloth or paper towel so that you don’t get any stains. But for the best option, try to use a high-quality rag for staining

Step #2: Sanding and Cleaning the Wood

Sand the wood lightly with fine-grit sandpaper to remove any dirt and loose surface material. If there are bare spots, fill them with stainable wood filler or stainable wood putty. 

Let the wood dry completely before moving on to the next step, wood stain. For a more detailed guide, here’s how you can clean wood before staining

Step #3: Apply the Wood Stain and Leave it to Dry

After cleaning, you can apply the wood stain with a paintbrush or roller. Using a wood stain ensures that the surface of your deck or fence is clean and dry. 

This excess stain will ensure that the stain penetrates the wood and gives the finish a high-quality look. 

Step #4: Apply the Second layer, then Dry it Again

Once the wood stain has dried up completely, you can apply another coat. Make sure to know the drying time of wood stain to get better results. 

drying stain

This time around, make sure that you do not put too much pressure while brushing so as not to cause any damage to the surface of the oak wood stains or ruin its texture by leaving brush marks behind.

How Many Stain Coats are Necessary?

For most wood projects, I usually recommend applying two coats of stain. However, it’s essential to use only as much stain as the wood can absorb. Particularly dense hardwoods might be receptive to just one stain application.

The rule of thumb is to apply as little pressure as the wood can comfortably absorb.

Step #5: Seal it

It is essential to seal it because you need something to protect it from moisture and sunlight. If not sealed properly, the excess stain color will quickly wash off or fade away with time. 

applying wood sealer

Sealing your oak wood with polyurethane or varnish will protect it from this kind of damage and also make it easier to clean if necessary because these products are water resistant.

Ways to Darken Oak Naturally

You can get a darker color naturally by using tea and coffee, which contain tannins that give them darker colors. The time needed for this method varies depending on how much tea or coffee you use and how strong it is. For a detailed guide, check this post about how to stain wood darker successfully. 

Ways to Stain Oak Lighter

If the dark stain wood has become too dark and you want a light stain, rub it firmly and uniformly along the beautiful natural grain using a clean cloth dipped in mineral spirits or turpentine. This will make the excess stain color appear lighter but not go away.

Ways to Stain Oak with a Consistent Color

Red oak can be given a gorgeous gloss and a consistent color by applying layers of dye, a gel stain, and a top coat. Each layer needs to be sanded and shellac-coated to improve the excess stain [1]. 

spreading oil on red oak cutting board

You can give your redwood the perfect finish if you take your time. You can use Minwax pickled oak stain or Minwax Golden Oak to get a consistent color.

Ways to Make Oak Look Modern

Paint is one of the easiest ways to update your oak furniture. You can spray paint it to match your color scheme or give it a new look with a custom-made shade.

Check these articles also

My Best White Oak Stain Picks

1. Zar 13712 Oil-Based Interior Wood Stain

One of my top choices for white oak is the ZAR 13712 Oil-Based Interior Wood Stain. Applying it feels a lot like using furniture polish; it stains and seals the wood in one fluid motion.

Its “controlled penetration” ensures an even color. You can use it to make beautiful wood grain on surfaces that have already been painted or varnished.

2. Minwax 618064444 Water-Based Wood Stain, White Oak Tint-Based

Another white oak stain I highly recommend is the Minwax 618064444 Water-Based Wood Stain. It has consistently delivered an elegant and professional finish on oak surfaces.

Moreover, what I really appreciate about it is the rich color it imparts to interior wood surfaces. Plus, it dries rapidly.

My Best Stain Picks for Red Oak

1. Minwax 710830000 Finish Penetrating Interior Wood Stain

With Minwax 710830000 Finish Penetrating Interior Wood Stain, you can easily and quickly give your wood projects a gorgeous, rich color. This oil-based wood stain resists lapping for precise color and highlights the natural wood grain in only one application. 

2. Rust-Oleum Brands Varathane 211723H Red Oak

Another stain option that I swear by is the 1 qt Rust-Oleum Brands Varathane 211723H Red Oak Wood Stain. It gives furniture, doors, cabinets, trim, and paneling a richer, more natural color. It works on any plain or stripped surface and is great for interior wood furniture projects. 


Does oak soak stain better than pine?

Pine stains less well than oak. Oak has a large pores structure that allows them to absorb stain evenly and uniformly all over the surface. However, the wood grains in pine wood are smaller than those in oak wood.

Can you stain white oak well?

You can stain white oak well. White oak has huge open pores that readily absorb the stain. Because this species is so simple to stain, there are countless stain and complete options to choose from.

Can you stain oak to look similar to walnut?

Absolutely. If you’re aiming to get that walnut look on oak, the Minwax Dark Walnut stain is your best bet. With this product, you can achieve a coloration that closely resembles walnut, all while preserving the distinct grain of the oak.


Oak is a very durable type of wood, which makes it an excellent choice for many projects. When stained correctly, you can use it on hardwood floors and furniture. 

Lucky for you, staining oak can be done in different ways. You can use an oil-based or water-based stain, depending on the type of finish you want. Now you know how to stain oak wood, it’s time to apply it for yourself!

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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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