10 Tips & Tricks for Staining Wood

I got the chance to sit in on a Staining 101 session at the Haven Conference back in June, and I thought I would share some of the things I learned, plus some old tips & tricks I’ve learned along the way!

Yeah, even though I’m often thinking about jazzing up my new furniture finds with a fresh coat of paint, lately I’ve been drawn to rich woods that just need a little love. Sometimes a little bit of stain can go a long way! So here’s some great tips and tricks for staining your furniture into perfection…

1. Stain comes in oil or water-based products. Oil stains have longer drying times, which will come in handy if you’re working on larger projects like floors, paneling and doors. Water based stains are low odor and fast drying which will allow you to stain and finish within 24 hours.

2. Oak is the easiest wood to stain. Pine make look great, but can often stain unevenly (especially due to the knots).

3. Use a pre-stain conditioner that’s water-based. It’s gonna be like your $5 insurance policy. Use a foam brush to apply a thin coat and let it dry about 3-4 minutes before applying your stain. Give it a light sanding before staining, too.

4. Apply a liberal amount of stain in sections and wipe with a rag. Remember the longer you leave on stain, the darker it will get.

5. Always stir your stain before staining since some of the color pigments can settle at the bottom of the can. And never shake your stain!

6. Sand before you stain and always sand in the direction of the grain with a light 180 grit sandpaper. Oh, and never sand after you stain either!

7. Apply a top coat after you stain your wood. A water-based polycrylic is best! And yes, you can use a water-based top coat even if you’re using an oil-based stain.

8. Don’t apply stain too thickly. Leaving extra stain on top of your project will just peel off later. Instead use multiple coats to achieve a darker look.

9. You can use a foam brush to apply your stain before you wipe off, but do not use a foam brush for your finishing coat!

10. Looking for a stain and finish in one step? Try the new Minwax Express Colors! It’s like a cream that you can wipe off quickly with a rag and you’re good to go. It comes in 4 colors and 4 wood tones. Love the finished look! Or you can use Minwax Polyshades which is the stain and polyurethane in one step in liquid form.

Now of course there are a bunch of other stains and polyurethanes on the market, but Minwax just happens to be my favorite! Plenty of color options and it’s just a name I trust!



  1. says

    Great post! Jon really enjoyed this class and although he had been staining for quite some time he had no idea about the pre-stain wood conditioner!

  2. Erin says

    Polyshades is a terrible product. I just returned a can if it and got a normal stain and polyurethane top coat. The extra effort is worth it. The polyshades is very thick and hard to get an even coat without drip lines or puddles. But thank you for the other tips.

  3. angela.hurd@verizon.net says

    Polyshades can be useful over previously finished products but I agree with the earlier comment. Results with a regular stain are consistently better and easier. I’ve seen polyshades sprayed on a project and it worked well

  4. April says

    I work in very well known home improvement store in the paint department. Not too long ago we had the Minwax rep come out and he had us physically do a stain sample with the Polyshades product. I thought it came out very nice. I actually recommend it. Your finished product depends upon a few things. How you prepare your wood, how you apply and what you apply it with. Here’s a helpful video if you are interested…http://www.minwax.com/how-to-finish-wood/

  5. says

    Hi! Just happened upon your site! This is super helpful! I was wondering what the benefit of a pre stain was? Might be a silly question but I had never considered doing it before! Also, what have you found to be the most effective way to wash brushes/rags that have been used for staining? My brushes get kind of crunchy and then we just chuck ‘um! Soap and water has been our best bet but is there an even more effective way? LOVE your tips keep the posts comin’ :)

    • says

      The pre-stain prevents blotchiness and helps prepare the wood for the best possible outcome when staining. To clean out my brushes I often use dish soap or mineral spirits (I still have a bunch from my oil painting days). Hope that helps ;)

      • seven says

        Yes you can use pre conditioner but when using colour express you are best to just go for it then let it dry overnight. Sand the first coat lightly with 1200 then apply your second coat.

  6. lisa says

    Im wanting to stain butcherblock countertops. Which would wood species would be best for staining dark, Maple or Cherry?

  7. Shannon says

    And DO NOT leave your stain rags bunched up! Lay them out flat or put them in a big bucket of water!

  8. antdada says

    Thanks for your post. It’s very helpful. I did use the polyshades and LOVE IT! It’s so easy! I wiped on the first coat and then used a foam brush for the other 2 coats ( it’s going in my kitchen, wanted the extra coats just for protection from spills and such).I didn’t have one problem with it.Thanks a bunch.

  9. James says

    I agree too, it covered more like paint than stain, came out way too glossy, and hid the wood grain. It also remained a also a sticky mess the next day in my futile efforts to repair.

    I had to strip the wood project and started all over again.

    I found that an based stain with a few coats of Verathane was the only way, and well worth the extra time time to do it right the first time. Live and learn.

  10. Christine says

    Found you via Pinterest! :)
    I wanted to add a trick to your arsenal.
    In my search for a perfectly matte, invisible finish, I’ve learned to use paint BASE.
    Pick up some of the exterior, latex base used for dark/black paints. Sometimes it’s labeled a 4 or 5.
    The base has the preservative/protective/UV components in it, just no pigment.

    It paints on horrifyingly white, but dries, really, invisible. Even raw wood looks … raw. Unlike the darkening other clear coats cause, or the yellowing of oil, this stuff causes your piece to look like it’s never been sealed at all.

    I’ve also learned it seals chippy items without the glued down look other top coats leave. But try picking the chips off!
    Anyway, the clear paint base is an incredible, durable finish that even works on outside projects.
    I know you’ll find some things to experiment with and probably take this idea and run with it.

  11. Terrie says

    just found you via Pinterest and I’m so glad I did! We’re fixing to start a total home remodel and we’re putting in wood panels and new cabinets… (by WE I mean my hubby) but I have to do the staining and this info will be super useful! (I’ve never stained before only painted) THANK YOU for your post!

  12. wayne morris says

    I have an outdoor swing that is made of Mahogany. The original finish has worn off, and I had it refinished by a furniture refinisher. The finish wore off in six months. Cam I do something myself to make it shine again. My late father-in-law built this swing for my wife, and it really is beautiful.
    Wayne Morris

  13. David says

    I tried the polycrylic years ago and hated it. The finish was soft, it dinged and scratched as easily as a cheap layer of latex paint. I use a lacquer based varnish (Watco Lacquer Finish) and love it. It dries fast, usually dry to the touch in 1-2 hours and can be sanded and refinished multiple times in a day. The resulting finish is very hard and durable. You do need lacquer thinner (not paint thinner) for clean-up.

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