Wood Stain General Guide: Types, Techniques, and Common Mistakes

Applying wood stain is like giving the wood a tint. In comparison, wood paint completely coats the wood. With wood stain, you can still see the wood grain and imperfections, like knots.

In this article, I will go over the different types of wood stain, how to apply wood stain, common mistakes, tips and tricks, and more!


Types of wood stain

There are several common types of wood stain that include oil-based, water-based, lacquer, varnish, and gel-based stain.

ProsEase of use, durabilityEase to clean, low VOCProtective coat, natural colorThick color
ConsTop-coat neededDifficult to useNot ideal over colored stains, higher VOC countDifficult to use and clean
Dry to touch2 hours1 hour1-2 hours
6-8 hours
6 hours
24 hours
RemovalMineral spiritsSoap and waterMineral spiritsMineral Spirits
Brush or ragEitherEitherBrushBrush
Top-coat neededYesYesNoYes


Oil-based stains are the most common stain in woodworking. Most stains are oil-based, but “Oil-based stains” are different from varnish and gel-based stains.

Oil-based stains can provide rich color and be applied easily.

Oil-based stains do require a top-coat, are difficult to clean in comparison to water-based stains and require more coats to reach a darker color in comparison to gel-based stains.


Water based stains are not as prone to fading as oil-based stains. However, water-based stains are not as durable as oil-based stains.

Water based stains dry quicker than oil-based stains and some varnishes.

Water-based stains are much more difficult to apply but is easier to clean up.

Water-based stains do not spread or adhere to the wood as well as the other wood stains.

However, water-based stains are the least toxic stain in comparison to oil-based, varnish, and gel-based stains.


Most wood varnishes are oil based. However, varnishes are different from oil-based stain because it acts as a sealant.

Wood varnish brings out the color in wood, but it does not penetrate the wood like stain does. It instead coats the wood and provides a protective layer.

There seems to be a large variation in dry times for varnishes.

Minwax and Tried and True varnish both dry to the touch in 1-2 hours. However, Man-O-War and General Finishes varnish dry to the touch in 6 to 8 hours.


Gel-based wood stain is thicker than the other stain types and gives a richer color with fewer coats. Moreover, it does not penetrate the wood as deeply wood stain and is not recommend being spread with a rag or towel because the stain will not distribute as well.

Brush vs rag spread method

Brush methodRag method
PenetrationLess penetrationMore penetration

Brush method

The brush method is quicker to apply than the rag method. However, you have to let the stain soak into the wood by itself.

The brush method can be used with any wood stain.

Rag method

The rag method to spread wood stain is only ideal for water-based or oil-based wood stains. Using the rag method for varnishes or gel-based stains will be difficult to spread and counterproductive.

The rag method is a longer process, in comparison to the brush method. However, you can really push the stain into the wood to allow for maximum absorption and a natural-looking finish.

Lastly, depending on the quality of the rag, you may be wasting stain by using the rag method. The rag absorbs some of the stain and it will not be used on the work piece.

How to apply wood stain

Step 1: Pre-stain or wood conditioner

If desired, use pre-stain or wood conditioner to prep the wood to prevent blotching and uneven finishes.

Step 2: Brush or use rag to apply stain

Brush or wipe stain in both directions with the wood grain so the stain will fully and evenly penetrate the wood.

Use long strokes and try to resist the urge to rub wood stain in circular motions.

Step 3: Wipe of excess and recoat as needed

If recommended, wipe of the excess stain with a clean rag.

Varnishes and some gel-based stain do not need to be wiped in-between coats.

Recoat as needed.

Step 4: Apply topcoat

If recommended, apply a topcoat to protect the wood.

Oil, water, and gel-based stains are not waterproof or resistant, as a result, they require a topcoat to adequately protect the wood.

Varnish is like a sealant and does not require a top-coat.

How to choose the right wood stain color

Wood stain will look different depending on the type of wood that you have. Staining maple will look different pine wood for the same color.

The color differences are more pronounced in lighter stain colors. The is because you can slightly see the original wood color through the stain.

Additionally, hardwood and softwoods absorb the stain differently. The more stain the wood absorbs, the darker the color will be.

Some stain brands have books that show the different stain colors based on wood type.

While this option is limited, the best way to choose the right color honestly is by testing it out on an unseen section or scrap piece of wood.

Common wood stain mistakes

Not wiping off wood stain

Oil-based and water-based wood stain need to be wiped after 2-3 minutes. To a lot of people, this may seem like a waste. But wiping the wood stain is essential to keep the original wood texture.

Not wiping off excess wood stain will cause the wood grain to swell and for the finish to look blotchy.

Not considering wood type when staining

The type of wood that you have will affect the color and result of using wood stain. Darker wood colors will look different that lighter wood colors when stained.

Additionally, hardwoods and tight-grained wood will not absorb the stain as much as softwoods. Since softwoods absorb more stain, the color will look darker than hardwoods.

Overstaining tight-grained wood

Hardwoods and tight-grained woods will not absorb as much wood stain. Trying to apply more stain than the wood can absorb will just be a waste.

Staining wet wood

Staining wet wood with oil-based will not lead to a good result. The stain will not distribute evenly and cure efficiently.

Applying water-based stain to slightly wet wood is fine. It is sometimes beneficial slightly wet the wood and sand it to prevent the wood grain from rising when applying water-based stain.

Not applying a top-coat

Oil, water, and gel-based stain all need a topcoat to protect the finish and wood. Not applying a topcoat and can alter the finish through normal use. Additionally, the wood will not be water resistant.


In this article, we went over the different types of wood stain and application methods. We discussed the pros and cons for each and go over how to apply stain and common stain mistakes.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article and I wish you luck on your woodworking journeys!


My name is Rachel Blanding and I am a woodworker. I started woodworking at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I mainly create and refurbish furniture and create art. In this site I will share with you the knowledge I have gained over the years, and what worked for me and what didn't.

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