How to Stain Wood

How to stain wood

When I first started learning how to build furniture, I really didn’t know how to properly finish a piece and how to stain wood. I remember my very first build, a 4ft. chalkboard, I was so excited about it that I didn’t even sand the wood before I stained it! Fortunately, with stain, it hides a lot of imperfections!

As I continued with my DIY furniture building, I learned a lot through trial and error as well as some research on the best way to stain wood. Today I am sharing my process on how I stain wood and what I have found works best. I hope it helps if you are wanting to easily learn how to stain wood!

Note, this post contains some affiliate links. For more info see my disclosures here.

How to Stain Wood:

Supplies Needed:

1. Sand the wood

The key to a beautiful finish is all in preparation of the wood, mainly the sanding! Now I will admit, I really don’t like sanding! Getting covered in saw dust is no fun, but it is one of the most important preparation steps to creating a beautiful finish, so I deal with it! For a detailed step by step to sanding, check out my how to sand wood beginner’s guide.

Always wear goggles because sawdust in the eyes is annoying as I have experienced first hand. You can also wear a face mask/sanding respirator too if you desire. For most projects, I recommend an orbital palm sander. For really light projects, a sanding block will work and when extreme amounts of sanding are needed, a belt sander will be most helpful to start with on the project.

Sand wood wood first to prepare wood for stain

Note, this post contains some affiliate links for your convenience.

It’s best to start with 80 grit sand paper to sand your whole project and this usually takes the longest amount of time as it really gets all the rough stuff off of the wood. As you move up in the grit number of sand paper, the smoother the finish will be on your project piece, and the less material is removed.

I usually start with 80 grit, then use 120 or 150 grit, and finish sanding with 220 grit for a very smooth finish on the wood. I really like these hook and loop sanding discs for my orbital sander, they stick right on the sander and remove very easily. Just make sure to line up the holes correctly to avoid extra scratches!

In the photo below, you can see the difference sanding makes in the finish of the wood!

Sanded wood versus non sanded wood

Again if you need more details on the sanding process, sanding tools, tips, or are wondering why you need to sand the wood before staining be sure to check out my beginner’s guide to how to sand wood!

2. Prepare the Wood for Staining

The final preparation step is to remove the saw dust from your wood. There are many ways to do this like using a shop vac, a damp cloth, etc. My favorite way is to use a soft bristled brush or broom and sweep off the saw dust, then to remove the rest of it I always wipe down my wood with tack cloth. It’s sticky so I like to wear latex or rubber gloves when cutting/handling it, but it works wonderfully for removing the saw dust and you don’t need to use a lot of it, so it lasts awhile!

After all the saw dust is removed, the next key step is using a pre-stain wood conditioner (when you are going to be using an oil based stain). This can easily be applied to the wood with a lint free rag. Follow the directions on the can, but basically you apply this to your clean wood surface and let it sit 5 – 10 minutes before applying your stain.

How to stain wood

add pre conditioner wood stain to wood before adding wood stain

This wood conditioner makes a HUGE difference in the final look of my furniture finishes! It prevents blotching and streaking on the wood surface. Here is a photo showing the difference after just one coat of stain has been applied. The wood piece with no wood conditioner is much more blotchy.

How to stain wood

3. Pick a wood stain

There are two, main types of stain, oil-based stain and water-based stain. Oil based stains are very common, affordable and popularly used. They create beautiful, enhanced wood grain colors. They do take longer to dry, but it makes it easier to apply. However, oil based stains are smelly, so make sure to apply in a well-ventilated area. Check out 10 favorite wood stain colors and 5 grey wood stain options for help picking out a stain color!

Water based stains are typically more expensive, but dry faster and are a lot less smelly! Since they dry faster, it can be more difficult to apply the stain evenly. They can be cleaned up with just water and soap (instead of mineral spirits like oil-based stain). However, they don’t quite provide the rich, wood color that oil based can provide. And water-based stains often have to be tinted with the color when purchased at the home improvement store instead of just buying it ready to go off the shelf.

In my example for this tutorial, I am using oil-based stain since it’s very commonly used for staining wood.

4. Apply your stain!

Time for the stain! It’s important to note that all wood takes stain differently, therefore it’s best to test some different stains on a scrap piece of wood (that is the same kind of wood as your project) in order to make the best decision about what stain color you want to use!

How to stain wood

Wood Stains used in photo: Minwax English Chestnut, Provincial, Dark Walnut, Special Walnut, Mix of Weathered Oak & Provincial

When staining wood with oil-based stain, the most common type, always apply it outside or in a well ventilated area because it is smelly and make sure to put some plastic or cardboard down to protect your work surface! Wear gloves (chemical resistant or rubber) and make sure to stir the stain in the can before using (don’t shake it).

I prefer applying my stain with a lint free rag or cloth because I find that it’s easiest to control how much is applied and it can be thrown away after use. You can also use a foam brush, but it goes on heavier, however they do work well for getting in tiny crevices. Check out the best way to apply stain for more details!

Another option is to use a natural bristle brush, but the brush can’t just be cleaned with soap and water, it has to be cleaned with mineral spirits, which then have to be properly disposed, and this adds lots of extra time and effort. That’s why I stick with the rag/cloth!

How to stain wood

Apply one coat of stain with the grain of the wood and use the lint free rag to wipe any excess stain off. If you want a darker color, let the stain sit a minute or two on the wood before wiping off the excess.

If you want a richer or deeper color, apply a second coat after the first coat has dried (usually around 3-4 hours).

How to stain wood

Here are a few other tips for how to stain wood:

  • Avoid staining in hot temperatures and direct sunlight, a shaded area is best when it’s hot out
  • Stain takes longer to dry and doesn’t dry as well in more humid conditions, as well as very cold temperatures, so try to stain when it’s less humid out and temperatures are moderate
  • Make sure to always wipe excess stain off of wood, don’t let any excess dry on the wood
  • Let stain dry for at least 12 hours before adding a top coat (24 hours is even better)
  • Don’t use a roller for applying stain, see the best way to apply wood stain for more details

5. All Finished Staining! Decide on a top coat

Yay! That’s it for staining! You can either leave your project as is or add a top coat or sealant for the best durability finish and enhancing of the wood finish. There are many types of top coats/sealants you can use including polyurethane (water or oil based), furniture wax, oils, lacquers, shellac, etc. There are pros and cons of each, but what I’ve used most often is a fast drying oil-based polyurethane in a satin finish because it provides strong durability and really brings out the beauty and grain of the wood.

For application, I use a foam brush (for easy disposal) and apply it very lightly in long strokes to avoid foam brush strokes. I know it looks like I used a lot in this photo below but it’s just the glare! These foam brushes work great and hold up well with the poly in my experience.

After your first poly coat is applied and has dried, the wood grain may rise some, simply use a 220 grit sand block and lightly hand sand over the piece. Then, use tack cloth to wipe away the saw dust. Apply a second coat with a new foam brush and let dry. You can apply a 3rd coat if necessary.

How to stain wood

Once your top coat has been applied, let your newly finished piece sit for at least a day with no use (preferably 3 days) which allows the top coat to cure to a hard, durable finish. Then, you can enjoy! I hope this how to stain guide has been helpful!

Now that you know how to stain wood, you can also learn how to easily apply a weathered wood finish to your wood or make new wood look old! If you want to learn how to easily create different weathered wood finishes or learn more about surface preparation and protection (including more info on different top coats), check out Weathered Wood Recipes here! Weathered Wood Recipes includes easy and budget friendly tutorials on how to create weathered wood finishes like this:

Farm Table Makeover with DIY weathered wood gray finish

And this!

Easy DIY Blanket Ladder

Easy DIY Blanket Ladder

Click here to learn more about Weathered Wood Recipes!

Thanks again for following along! Be sure to follow along on Instagram and Pinterest for my latest projects, fun updates, and sneak peeks!

How to stain wood

How to Stain Wood

Yield: A stained wood project

How to stain wood easily to acheive a beautiful wood finish!



  • Orbital Palm Sander or other sanding tool


  1. Sand the wood. It's easiest to use an orbital palm sander. Sand the wood with 80 grit sandpaper followed by 120 grit and then 220 grit sandpaper to ensure a smooth wood surface.
  2. Prepare the wood for staining by removing the saw dust with tack cloth.
  3. To prevent blotching, apply a pre-stain wood conditioner to the wood with a lint free rag. Allow it to dry for 5-10 minutes before applying the wood stain.
  4. Pick a wood stain color to use.
  5. Apply the first coat of wood stain with a lint free rag in a well ventilated area wearing gloves (rubber or chemical resistant). Use a foam brush for crevices or hard to reach areas if desired. Wipe excess stain off with the rag.
  6. Allow stain to dry for 3-4 hours.
  7. Apply a second coat of stain if desired for a darker, richer color.
  8. Apply a top coat after 12 hours, such as polyurethane, if desired, for wood surface protection.









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26 thoughts on “How to Stain Wood

  1. Hey, thanks for a great article. I am wondering how do you go with applying lettering onto the wood after using poly top coat? Would it affect the ink/paint writing if you were making a sign?

    1. I don’t usually use a poly top coat on my signs, but if I were to use it I’d apply it as the last step (after the lettering) and would use a matte sheen, water based poly so it would be less chance of yellowing. It shouldn’t affect the ink/paint writing, but to be sure, I would recommend testing out the poly over the paint your using on a scrap piece of wood first to make sure it looks good and didn’t cause any yellowing or other issues. Hope that helps!

  2. Thanks for the tips, wish I would have these earlier! Lol. I was staining a pine wood frame that I made and had left it outside to dry and then when I went to get it I noticed that it had sprinkled rain while I was inside. Now there are small water marks on it since it has dried. What would be the be the. Eat method to getting rid of the droplet marks? Resand and then stain again? I had planned on putting a couple of poly coats on it as well. Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. You’re welcome Denyse! If there are just a few water marks from the rain then you could try hand sanding just the water marks with some 120 or 220 grit sandpaper and then re-stain over those areas. But, if there are a lot of water marks all over the frame then I would just re-sand the whole frame with an orbital or electric sander and stain the frame again. It’s a pain but will be worth it for a pretty finish in the end!

        1. It depends how hot it is outside, it would probably be better to apply it in the morning or evening when it’s a little cooler if you can.

  3. Do you share how you created the white space in the “How to Stain Wood Image”? The one where you show the different stains. I am very interested in creating the white with the stain like you show in that image.

    1. I don’t have a tutorial on it, but I basically just put the wood piece on a white board as the background and took a photo of it. Hope that answers your question!

  4. I am restoring wood beams in my living room. The house was built in ‘47 with the beams, but the application of the present stain is unknown. It was looking weird and dark. Even after a sanding with a strong orbital sander using 40 grit, it is looking blotchy. So a couple questions do I go over it again with the same grit or a finer one to try and get the wood “cleaner” looking? Since the beams won’t be touched or used like furniture do I still sand with 220? And what, if any, kind of top coat should I use after I stain it? The ceiling aren’t vaulted so they can easily be seen.

    1. So is there old stain still showing that’s looking blotchy? If there is still old stain remaining and looking blotchy after using 40 grit and an orbital sander, it may need to be sanded with a more heavy duty sander such as a belt sander to really remove all the old stain that is still remaining in the wood. Belt sanders can usually be rented at a home improvement store. But, before you do that, in a small test area you can try sanding with finer grits first and then apply some pre-stain wood conditioner and then your new stain over the area and see how it looks. If you can’t really see the blotchy areas with the new stain then you don’t have to worry about doing heavy duty sanding, but if it does still show a lot, then using something like a belt sander may be a good idea. Hope that helps! Also, since the beams won’t be touched, you don’t have to use a top coat as far as protection goes. But, if you want the wood beams to have a sheen/shine to them then you could use a satin or semi-gloss polyurethane. And if you really want the wood grain of the beams to be enhanced an oil based poly would work well. But, I definitely recommend testing out any finishes you want to use in a small area on the beams first to see how it will look and how the wood takes the finish.

  5. So I’m going to build a couple of barn doors for our basement and want to stain them. We are using basic 2x4s. Will we need to sand these before staining? And would you still recommend the wood conditioner and a top coat?

    1. I’d definitely recommend sanding and using wood conditioner for the 2x4s since they are a more rough grade of wood. It will definitely help create a nicer finish! As far as a top coat goes, it’s personal preference. The top coat will provides more durability and can also enhance the grain of the wood more (with an oil based poly), but it’s not like a kitchen table that really needs the extra protection, so you could do without a top coat if you want too!

  6. Do you reuse the same cloths for different projects or use new ones every time? If you reuse, what’s the best way to clean them?

    1. I will reuse the same cloth during the same project. So, I will use it for both the first and 2nd coats of stain as long as the cloth isn’t too dried out. I always toss them though after each project since they get dried up. If I buy a pack of cloths that are each really large in size, I do try to cut them in half or thirds with fabric cutting scissors to make the pack last longer.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this, I am going to try it when I make a welcome wedding sign. May be a silly question but once you have stained the plywood, there is no issue in painting/drawing on the text onto the stained wood?

    1. Hi Lyn, you may need to put a clear poly sealant over the stain before drawing on the stained wood. I’d test it out first on some scrap plywood to be sure! I know with painted wood, there is no issue, but with just stain it depends, so testing it out first would be helpful to make sure the marker or paint pen (if that’s what you are using) doesn’t bleed. If it does, a clear poly may prevent that.

    1. I don’t think the planer would work as well as sanding does for preparing the surface for staining. The planer would definitely help get the surface to an even level that is smooth. But, the sanding at three different grit levels really helps to open the pores of the wood and give it a beautiful surface for staining with a high quality finish. You could certainly try just the planer if you want though!

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