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How to Stain Wood – Step-by-Step Tutorial

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Here’s a simple and easy tutorial for how to stain wood. You can use it for many projects and it’s super simple to do once you learn how!


There’s one DIY technique that we use more than any other around here, and that’s staining wood. From our DIY Blanket Ladder to our Balustrade Coffee Table and all the little projects in between, learning how to stain wood has been one of the most useful skills we learned to DIY!

how to stain wood in a few simple steps

Should You Use Water or Oil-Based Stain for Your Project?

It can be tough to decide which type of stain to use, oil or water based. Below are the advantages to using each one and what I prefer. 

The advantages to using water-based stain:

  • they are much less smelly and are therefore safer to use in smaller spaces or indoors if necessary 
  • they’re non-flammable
  • they dry much quicker than oil-based stains
  • the rags and brushes you use with water-based stain aren’t likely to spontaneously combust, even if you don’t lay the rags flat to dry

The advantages to using oil-based stain:

  • the coverage is much nicer
  • dry time is longer, so you don’t have to work quite as fast and the finish is more even
  • less long term maintenance

I prefer to use oil-based stains for my projects because I find water-based stains tend to look like watered down paint because their color is so pigmented, which is generally not the look I’m going for!

What Should You Use to Apply the Stain?

There are a few different options for what you can use to apply your stain. 

If you’re using a water based stain, you can use a bristle brush that’s meant for acrylic or latex paint. You can also use a clean, lint free rag, a foam brush or a specialty stain “spreader”.

You can use all of the same things for applying oil-based stain, with the exception that if you choose to use a brush, you need to use one meant for oil-based finishes. 

If the wood you’re using for your project has a large grain, or very open “pores”, you will want to use an applicator that can take the abuse of pressing hard to get the stain into the grain. 

How to Stain Wood Step-by-Step Tutorial with Photos

In order to show you how to stain wood, I’ve take two offcut pieces of pine 2x4s. I’m going to prep and stain both of them as I would any other wood project, with one exception: I’m going to use pre-stain wood conditioner on one piece, but not the other. This will allow you to see the difference the extra small step makes to your finished project. Let’s get started, shall we?

Materials

Instructions

1. The first thing you want to do is prep your wood project for staining. Starting with a low number/coarse grit sandpaper, sand your wood back and forth, with the direction of the grain to avoid adding scratches. Then use a finer higher number/finer grit sandpaper and sand it again in the same manner.

If you have any confusion about which sandpaper to use, learn more here: Sandpaper Grits and Their Uses – What Do Those Sandpaper Numbers Mean?

prepare your wood by sanding coarse grit

2. When your wood is nice and smooth, wipe it down with a tack cloth. This will help remove all the debris leftover from sanding, and prevent your stain from getting gooped up. 

wipe with tack cloth

3. Open your pre-stain wood conditioner and give it a good stir with a stir stick. Using a foam brush, apply pre-stain wood conditioner, in the direction of the wood grain. It will look like watered down glue, but it will dry transparent. Let sit for one to five minutes. 

stir pre stain wood conditioner

apply pre stain wood conditioner

4. Wipe off any excess pre-stain wood conditioner with a clean, lint-free towel or rag. 

wipe off excess pre stain wood conditioner

Pre-stain wood conditioner is an optional step when you’re staining a project. But I highly recommend it because it helps to create a lovely smooth finish. Without it, your stain may appear blotchy or uneven when your project is finished. 

5. Now open your wood stain of choice and give it a good stir with a stir stick.

stir stain with stir stick do not shake can

You don’t want to shake the can to mix it up as bubbles will form that will transfer to your wood project. And once they pop they will leave weird markings in your stain. 

6. Using a new foam brush, apply a liberal amount of wood stain to your project. If your project is made from wood with a pronounced grain, you may need to dab some stain into the deeper grain, grooves and knotholes, or even apply it against the grain to ensure good coverage. 

apply stain with a foam brush

7. Then let your stain sit for one to three minutes. The longer you leave it on the darker it will be. 

If you leave the stain sit for too long, it will become tacky and hard to wipe off. Don’t leave it any longer than the longest recommended time on the stain packaging. If you want a darker look, try a second coat after the recommended drying time, or a darker stain. 

8. Wipe off the excess stain with a clean lint free cloth, going with the grain to avoid swirl or cloth marks in your finish. Let dry for one hour before applying a second coat or a finishing top coat like polycrylic or wax. 

how to stain wood

And that’s how you stain wood in just a few simple steps!

Make sure you lay your rags and brushes out flat to dry, especially if you used oil-based stain!

How to Stain Wood Step-by-Step Video Tutorial

If you’re a visual learner, I’ve got great news for you! I’ve put together a how to video for staining wood. It’s pretty short and sweet – and is perfect if you’re a visual or auditory learner. 

 

Be sure to subscribe to our Youtube channel so you don’t miss any of our videos!

Printable How to Stain Wood Tutorial

If you’d like to be able to take this tutorial with you out to the garage or your workshop, here’s a printable version. Just print and go!

how to stain wood

How to Stain Wood - Step-by-Step Tutorial

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Active Time: 30 minutes
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Cost: Cost Depends on Project
Here’s a simple and easy tutorial for how to stain wood. You can use it for many projects and it’s super simple to do once you learn how!

Materials

  • 80 grit sandpaper
  • 120 grit sandpaper
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner – local hardware store
  • Stain – local hardware store

Tools

  • Tack cloth
  • Stir sticks
  • 2 Foam brushes
  • Lint free rags

Instructions

  1. The first thing you want to do is prep your wood project for staining. Starting with a low number/coarse grit sandpaper, sand your wood back and forth, with the direction of the grain. Then use a finer higher number/finer grit sandpaper and sand it again in the same manner.
  2. When your wood is nice and smooth, wipe it down with a tack cloth. This will help remove all the debris leftover from sanding, and prevent your stain from getting gooped up. 
  3. Open your pre-stain wood conditioner and give it a good stir with a stir stick. Using a foam brush, apply pre-stain wood conditioner, in the direction of the wood grain. It will look like watered down glue, but it will dry transparent. Let sit for one to five minutes. 
  4. Wipe off any excess pre-stain wood conditioner with a clean, lint-free towel or rag. 
  5. Now open your wood stain of choice and give it a good stir with a stir stick.
  6. Using a new foam brush, apply the wood stain to your project going with the grain. If your project is made from wood with a pronounced grain, you may need to dab some stain into the deeper grain, grooves and knotholes, or even apply it against the grain to ensure good coverage. 
  7. Then let your stain sit for one to three minutes. The longer you leave it on the darker it will be.
  8. Wipe off the excess stain with a clean lint free cloth. Let dry for one hour before applying a second coat or a finishing top coat like polycrylic or wax.

Notes

  • If you have any confusion about which sandpaper to use, learn more in my blog post titled Sandpaper Grits and Their Uses – What Do Those Sandpaper Numbers Mean?
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner is an optional step when you’re staining a project. But I highly recommend it because it helps to create a lovely smooth finish. Without it, your stain may appear blotchy or uneven when your project is finished. 
    You don’t want to shake the can to mix it up as bubbles will form that will transfer to your wood project. And once they pop they will leave weird markings in your stain. 
  • If you leave the stain sit for too long, it will become tacky and hard to wipe off. Don’t leave it any longer than the longest recommended time on the stain packaging. If you want a darker look, try a second coat after the recommended drying time, or a darker stain.

Wood Stain Projects to Get You Started

Now that you know how to stain wood, you can use this technique on SO many projects. Signs, frames, tables, ladders and more. Here’s a list of some of our projects to get you started:

how to stain wood with video

Have you learned how to stain wood for your own home DIY projects?

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I'd love to chat with you in the comments!

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