Staining Wood

If you’re not satisfied with a wood’s hue, you can either stain or bleach it. Stain colors wood; bleach lightens it. Except for certain varnish- or sealer-types, stains and bleaches do not protect the surface. For that, you need a coat of shellac, varnish, lacquer, or polyurethane. When you select a stain, make sure that it’s compatible with the finish you’ll be applying. Lacquer and some polyurethanes react adversely to the pigments in some stains.

Don’t let showroom samples determine your final color choice. They give only a general idea of the end result. Most dealers offer small samplers so you can make tests. Note, too, if the manufacturer recommends sealing the grain before or after you stain it. Most stains dry a shade or two darker than the color you see. You control the color by the length of time you let the stain penetrate the wood. If it gets too dark, moisten a cloth with the recommended thinner and wipe again to dilute and wash away some of the pigment.

A few stains contain white pigment for a blond or “pickled” look, but a better way to lighten wood is to bleach it. Wood that has been bleached will render the stain a more vivid color. Bleaching wood is typically a two-step process that involves an overnight wait for the chemicals to work their magic. Laundry bleach or oxalic acid also can be used, but must be neutralized after application with white vinegar or ammonia. Mix 1 part vinegar or ammonia with 10 parts water. Provide plenty of ventilation; bleach and ammonia give off toxic fumes that can irritate your sinuses and eyes (wear a mask and goggles).

Choosing a Stain - There are many stains from which to choose. Some are designed for ease of use; in turn, you give up control over the result. Others are for the perfectionist who doesn’t mind the numerous steps required to achieve the deepest, clearest finish. Consider the end result desired, then decide on the product for the job. Always follow the directions.



Best at



Oil-based stains

Traditional stains; concerns now about environmental effects of petroleum vapors

Touching up; restaining

Permanent; doesn’t fade; doesn’t raise grain; additional coats darken

Difficult to clean up; unpleasant odor; flammable

Water-based stains

Replacing oil-based stains because they are easy to use and safe for the environment

Floors and other

woodwork, children’s toys

Easy to clean up; safe to use; additional coats darken

Raises wood grain; doesn’t penetrate deeply; requires finish coat

Penetrating oil stains

Also called Danish oils and rubbing oils; these protect wood as well as stain it

High-traffic floors; woods with attractive grain

Doesn’t require finish coat; wipes on with a rag; doesn’t hide grain

Flammable, limited choice of colors

Gel stains

Simplest for the amateur to use; gel adheres to vertical surfaces and does not run

Complicated or vertical surfaces

Simple to apply; doesn’t raise grain; additional coats darken

Expensive; difficult to clean up; limited choice of colors

One-step stain and finish

Quickest way to finish wood if you are not too critical about exact color achieved.

Door and window casings

Uniform results; doesn’t raise grain; quick to use.

Cannot build up color; color is not deep or clear.


Seal porous areas. End grain absorbs stain too quickly. Seal end grain with a product made for the purpose, which will likely be called a sanding sealer. Sand the sealer lightly before staining.

Experiment with mixes. Mix stain and thinner in ratios of 1:0, 1:1, 1:2, 1:4, and 1:8 in a cupcake tin. Label each sample with the ratio.

Test the stains. To evaluate colors, test your mixes on an inconspicuous area of the piece to be stained. For an accurate idea of the final appearance, apply whichever clear sealer you will be using; clear sealer can significantly change the color of a stain.

Lather the stain on. Apply the stain by liberally brushing or wiping (as recommended) it on in the direction of the grain.

Wipe it off. Let the stain stand for a while, then wipe it off. The longer the stain remains on the wood, the darker the color. Wipe with long strokes, taking care to maintain even color coverage.

Applying gel stain - Gel stain is virtually mistake-proof, but it takes a bit more time to apply. Work the stain in with a cloth. Apply at least three coats, wiping each. Let the stain dry, buff with an abrasive pad, then add the clear finish of your choice.

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