Many different wood stains are available on the market, each with unique characteristics and benefits. From classic oil-based stains to modern water-based options, there is a wood stain that will suit your needs and preferences.
Here, our woodworking pros will explore the nine different types of wood stain for furniture, and how to use them to achieve the perfect finish.
What is a Wood Stain?
Wood stains are a group of liquid or gel designed to add color and protect the wood they are applied to. They come in a wide variety of forms. Each contains a coloring ingredient and a “carrier” substance. Its carrier could be oil, ethanol, water, or polyurethane.
In the market today, you can find various options, such as oil or water, or gel-based as well as varnished and metalized types. Despite all of them being stains, they serve different purposes, depending on the finish you desire or your wood type or surface.
Wood Stain's Qualities
These wood stains are formulated with safe and eco-friendly solvents that do not release harmful chemicals into the environment. They are typically water-based and provide a clear finish with a subtle hue that allows the wood grain to show through.
These are made with solvents derived from petroleum and are known for their durability and resistance to wear and tear. They are available in various colors and provide a rich, deep finish that can enhance the wood’s natural beauty.
Synthetic dye/pigment contains artificial dyes and pigments designed to create a consistent color and finish. They are available in various colors and can be mixed to achieve custom hues.
Natural dye or pigment uses plant extracts and organic compounds to appear soft. They are typically less vibrant than synthetic stains but provide subtle, earthy tones and volatile organic chemicals that complement many decor styles.
Solid wood stains are opaque and completely cover the wood’s natural grain. They are ideal for covering up imperfections in the wood or creating a consistent color across multiple pieces of furniture.
Semi-solid wood stains are slightly translucent, allowing some of the wood’s natural grain to show through. They provide a more natural look than solid stains and can enhance the wood’s texture and character.
Transparent wood stains are the most natural-looking option, allowing the wood’s natural grain and texture to shine through. They provide a subtle color and can enhance the wood’s natural beauty without altering its appearance too much.
9 Different Wood Stain Types and How to Apply
1. Water-Based Wood Stains
Water-based stains are popular for those who value environmentally friendly products and easy cleanup. Also, water-based stains dry quickly and have little to no odor, making them a convenient option for DIY projects.
Aside from being a safe option, water-based stain options in the market are also less likely to turn yellow over time. So, if you want to maintain your wood’s original color, you can count on this type.
However, when compared to oil-based stains, water-based stains may not penetrate as deeply into the surface.
How to Apply Water-Based Stains
- Use a suitable applicator such as a large staining pad, pad applicator, or roller for large areas. Water-based stains are least likely to be absorbed in a brush, so we highly recommend using a rag or a roller.
- Remove dust and dirt from the surface.
- Use a scrap piece of wood to test the stain. Proceed to apply on your project, dabbing the cloth onto the wood.
2. Oil-Based Wood Stains
Oil-based wood stains are formulated with a solvent base that usually contains mineral spirits  or other oil-based solvents, such as linseed oil or turpentine. These solvents help to thin the stain and make it easier to apply to the wood surface.
Oil-based wood stains penetrate deeply into the wood, providing excellent protection against UV rays and water damage.
This kind of oil stain also offers a wide range of color options, and the final color tends to be more consistent and richer than water-based stains.
However, oil-based stains do have a more pungent odor than water-based stains and may not be ideal for indoor use. And if not applied properly, they can flake and crack over time.
How to Apply Oil-Based Stains
- For a flawless finish, sand the wood with fine-grit sandpaper before adding the oil stains then, dust off with a dry towel.
- Swirl the can since most oil-based stains settle at the bottom. Use a paint stirrer or stirring stick to blend oil stains thoroughly.
- Stain the wood grain with a natural-bristle brush. Work in small parts and remove extra spots with a clean cloth.
- Apply a second coat once the first layer of oil-based stain has dried.
- Afterward, apply a topcoat after the second coat has dried. We recommend a polyurethane topcoat to protect and polish the wood.
3. Varnish Wood Stains
Varnish wood stains combine pigment and varnish, providing both color and protection to the wood. However, they can be more challenging to apply than other stains and require multiple coats to achieve the desired finish.
Varnish wood stains provide a hard, protective layer over the wood, making them highly resistant to scratches and abrasions. They have a high gloss finish that can enhance the natural beauty of the wood, giving it a polished and refined look.
However, varnish can be challenging to use as it requires multiple thin coats and careful attention to detail to avoid bubbles, drips, or uneven application.
They do not penetrate deeply into the wood, which can lead to peeling or cracking over time if the wood expands or contracts.
How to Apply Wood Varnish Stains
- Start by sanding the unfinished wooden surfaces using a sanding sponge or paper with a grit of 100 to produce a smooth finish.
- After sanding the wooden surfaces, keep the workspace clean. Do a thorough vacuuming of your wood floors and any nearby work surfaces.
- Mix the stain thoroughly. With the stir stick, scrape the bottom of the container to loosen any solids that have settled there.
- Apply the sanding sealer using a brush and working in the same direction as the grain until the entire surface is covered.
- The next step is to apply additional finish wherever it is required.
- Sand the sealer down, then you can start applying the varnish.
4. Gel-Based Wood Stain
A gel stain is thick and provides a consistent and even finish that does not drip or run. However, gel stains are more expensive than traditional liquid stains and can be more challenging to apply.
A gel stain is thicker and denser than traditional liquid ones, making it easier to apply evenly without dripping or splattering. However, they provide more consistent coverage and a more even finish compared to liquid stains, which can enhance the natural beauty of the wood.
A drawback of gel-based stain options is the limited color selection compared to liquid stains, which may be better if you are looking for a specific color or shade. If you like a minimalist shade, you can check out this list of the best black stains for wood!
Moreover, gel-based stains can take longer to dry than liquid stains, which can be inconvenient if you use the wood immediately.
Applying Gel-Based Wood Stains: Here's How!
- Use fine-grit sandpaper and a tack cloth or vacuum to clean the wood.
- Test the stain on scrap wood or an inconspicuous part of the project before staining.
- Apply the stain toward the direction of the wood grain using a brush or clean, lint-free cloth. Work in small sections and stain evenly. We recommend long brush strokes to prevent brush marks.
- After applying, let it dry. The drying process of gel is slower than liquid stains, so don’t rush or use a UV light.
- Apply a second coat of stain after the first has cured for a richer color or more uniform finish. Let the second coat dry before continuing.
5. Lacquer-Based Wood Stains
Lacquer-based stains use a solvent base of lacquer thinner to dissolve the pigment and create a transparent or semi-transparent finish. However, lacquer-based stains tend to be more expensive than other stains.
They require proper ventilation during application due to their strong fumes. They are also flammable and require additional safety precautions during storage and application.
Lacquer-based stains provide a durable, long-lasting finish that resists scratches, dents, and other types of wear and tear. They dry quickly, which can be convenient if you need to use the wood right away or if you are staining a large surface area.
However, lacquer-based stains can be challenging to work with, as they require careful application and can dry very quickly, making it hard to correct mistakes.
They contain also volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can harm the environment and human health if not used in a well-ventilated area or with proper protective gear.
Steps to Apply Lacquer-Based Stains
- Sand the surface using sandpaper (120 grit). Sanding will not only assist the primer in adhering to the surface of your wood, but it will also produce a smooth surface for you to work with.
- To apply liquid lacquer, use a large natural bristle brush. To spread it evenly, you can use a lacquer retarder.
- Use the best sandpaper for wood with a finer grit and a tack cloth to wipe the surface. Choose from your preferred lacquer stains and apply a second coat.
- Let it cure. Again, sand the surface and then wipe it down. After allowing it to cure for forty-eight hours, apply a third layer of lacquer stain.
6. Water-Soluble Wood Dye Stains
Another type of wood stain is a water-soluble dye stain made with water as the primary solvent and available in various colors. Water-based stain is known for its versatility and ability to create vibrant and long-lasting colors.
However, water-soluble dye stains are more expensive than traditional stains and require additional preparation work, such as sanding and conditioning.
Water-soluble wood dye stains offer a wide range of vibrant colors and can be mixed to create custom hues, giving you plenty of options for creating a unique finish.
They are easy to apply and penetrate deeply into the wood fibers, providing a long-lasting finish that resists fading and discoloration over time.
To achieve the desired finish, water-soluble dye stains may require additional preparation work, such as sanding or pre-staining. They can be challenging to work with, as they require careful application and can dry quickly, making it hard to correct mistakes.
Procedure to Apply Water-Soluble Dye Stains
- Sand the wood in the grain with 120–180 grit sandpaper.
- Try a small area with the stain and wipe it with a gentle, oil-free cloth. Adjust the color saturation, if needed.
- Stain each area separately to simplify the application.
7. Metalized Wood Dye Stains
Metalized dye stain contains metallic particles that create a metallic sheen on the wood’s surface.
However, metalized dye stains are more challenging to control during application and may require multiple coats to achieve the desired effect.
The metallic particles in the stain create a unique, eye-catching finish that can add visual interest to your wood project. Metalized wood dye stains can be durable and long-lasting, mainly if a topcoat is applied to protect the metallic finish.
However, metalized wood dye stains can be challenging to manage during application. The metallic particles can settle unevenly, creating an inconsistent finish if not applied carefully.
Metalized wood dye stains typically have a limited range of colors since metallic particles can interfere with the color.
How to Apply Metalized Dye Stains
- Clean the surface before applying the metalized color stain.
- Fill spray guns with metalized dye stains of your choice. Apply the dye thinly and evenly after shaking the can.
- Allow the stain to dry first.
- After the stain dries, buff it with a soft cloth or wheel. This enhances the metallic appearance and polishes the metal.
- Apply a clear sealant over the stain to protect the metal and prevent it from fading. Use a metal sealer.
8. Spirit-Based Wood Stains
Among the lesser known types of wood stain options today are spirit-based stains. They are made with solvents such as alcohol or acetone and fast-drying, making them ideal for hardwood use and other high-traffic areas.
One potential drawback of spirit-based stains is their pungent odor and flammability.
9. Non-Grain Raising Wood Stains
Another type of wood stain is non-grain-raising wood stains. They contain a special additive that helps prevent the wood fibers from swelling and rising when the stain is applied.
However, one potential drawback is that they can sometimes alter the natural appearance of the wood, making it look slightly different from its original color or grain pattern.
Today, most professionals recommend using NGR stains. They have been mainly prepared not to increase the grain of the porous woods so you can get a level, even finish. However, NGR stains can be costly.
What are the Popular Wood Stain Colors?
Here are the popular stain color options you can find in the market:
Should You Apply Wood Stain Using a Brush or Sponge?
Applying stain with a brush is the procedure that takes the most time. Hence, not only do you run the risk of getting blotching or lap marks, but you also waste time. It is easier to avoid color issues if a stain is wiped away rather than brushed, and wiping is more efficient than brushing .
Should You Sand Between Coats of Wood Stain?
Sanding between coats of paint is not required, but it will produce a superior finish. When each layer has had enough time to dry, carefully sand the surface using sandpaper with a grit of 220 or 240 or extra-fine steel wool.
This will guarantee that the subsequent coat adheres well to the surface.
What's the Drying Time Between Coats?
Depending on the thickness or how many coats you’ve applied, it takes anywhere from twenty-four to seventy-two hours for most stains to dry. However, a second layer can usually be applied after roughly four hours.
How Long Does it Take for Wood Stains to Fully Dry?
Most stains are dry and cured within 24 to 48 hours, although this time frame can vary depending on the type of stain used. After that amount of time has passed, you are free to apply any extra coats, polyurethane, or the sealer of your choosing.
Are wood stains permanent or will they wear off?
Wood stains are not necessarily permanent and may wear off over time, especially if the wood is exposed to sunlight, moisture, or heavy use.
Do you need to seal wood stains?
It is recommended to seal stains to protect the wood from moisture, dirt, and other elements that may cause damage. A sealer can also help enhance the stain’s color and finish.
How many coats of wood stain do you need?
The number of coats of wood stain required depends on the desired color and the type of wood being stained. One or two coats are typically sufficient, but some woods may require additional coats to achieve the desired shade.
Will stains darken as they dry? How do you make it darker?
Stains may appear darker when wet but will dry to their actual color. If you want to make a stain darker, you can apply additional coats or a darker shade.
Can you stain over a stained surface?
Staining over a stained surface is possible, but it is essential to ensure that the previous stain has been removed or adequately sanded to ensure proper adhesion of the new stain.
Various types of wood stains are available for furniture, each with unique properties and benefits. From oil- and water-based stains to gel stains and spray stains, choosing the right type of stain can significantly impact your furniture’s final look and durability.
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