How to Stain Wood

Everyone appreciates the natural beauty of wood, especially woods with a pronounced grain pattern. But even the best of woods can be enhanced, bringing out more of their natural beauty. That’s where stains come in. Staining wood can both change its color and accentuate the grain, making it more appealing than ever.

Wood staining can also be a part of the process of protecting the wood, preventing it from becoming discolored and deteriorating from water damage. Stains are normally oil- so they repel water, acting as a shield for the wood they are applied to.

But stains can be tricky to work with. Unlike paint, the results are not so easy to predict. When you paint a surface, the paint covers it, so all you see is the paint. Properly applied, it doesn’t matter what the substrate looks like, the finished surface will look like the paint that has been applied. Stains, on the other hand, are absorbed into the wood, combining their coloration with the natural coloration of the wood. This means that the appearance of the finished piece of stained wood can vary in as many ways as wood can vary.

This makes staining wood a bit tricky, as you won’t know the results you’re going to get, until you do it. Better than that, you won’t know what the results are going to be like until you run a test, something you should always do. Never expect the stain to come out looking just like it does in the sample, especially if you are applying that stain to a different type of wood than they did.

Stains will also provide a different appearance if they are wiped, after application, or they are left to fully soak into the wood. Allowing a stain to fully soak into the wood provides a darker, richer finish; but the grain will be less visible. Wiping off the excess stain, after applying it, allows the stain to only soak into the more porous parts of the grain, helping to create more contrast and enhance the grain pattern.

These stains fall into three basic categories. We’re going to look at how to apply all three types of wood stains.

Exterior Wood Stains

Exterior wood stains are normally applied to an entire home, coloring and protecting natural wood siding. However, they can also be applied to exterior furniture, decks, fences and railings. Of all the types of stains, these are the easiest to apply, as they are never wiped after applying. Rather, they are left to soak into the wood, helping to make the wood impervious to water.

How to Stain Wood with Exterior Wood Stains

Exterior wood staining can be applied with any of the same means that are used for applying paint. However, spray is most often used, as it provides for the quickest application. Spray is also easier to apply evenly, whereas rolling or brushing stains evenly is difficult.

These stains are not intended to be wiped, after applying. Normally, the wood they are applied to is rough-cut, not sanded. This causes the stain to soak in quickly. It also makes it virtually impossible to wipe the stain, after applying.

Using exterior stains with an airless paint sprayer is somewhat different than using latex paint. First, the stain is thinner than paint, requiring a smaller nozzle size to properly control the application. Secondly, the stain is oil-based, so you need to clean up the sprayer with mineral spirits, rather than water. Be sure to have plenty of mineral spirits available, as much as the water you would use to clean the sprayer if you were using latex paint.

When using exterior stain to stain decks and fences, be sure to use fabric or paper dropcloths behind or beneath what is being stained. Stain going through cracks in fences and decking can kill the grass, if it is not soaked up and allowed to stay on the grass.

Interior Wood Stains

Interior wood stains are used for staining architectural wood trim and newly fabricated furniture. They are considerably different from exterior stains, in that they are intended to provide natural wood colors, not to tint wood in unnatural colors.

Interior wood stains exist for a number of common wood tones, such as oak, walnut and mahogany. But there are also some sorts of wood, like cherry, which are normally stained to a color different from the wood. Natural cherry wood is almost the color of pine or pecan, while stained cherry has a distinct red tone to it. There are also interior wood stains in colors like “espresso” mimicking coffee, rather than a natural wood.

Because of the variety of woods and how the stains interact with the wood grain, it is essential to do a test piece with interior stains, before applying the stain to the entire project. This test must include the same method of application, as well as the same amount of time before wiping off the excess stain.

How to Apply Wood Stain

These stains are applied differently than exterior wood stains, almost always being applied by natural bristle brush. Application should always be in the direction of the grain. While it is possible to apply these stains with an airless paint sprayer, it is not normally done due to variances that would cause in the coloration of the finished project.

Interior stains are normally applied, then wiped off with a rag, limiting the amount of pigmentation that can soak into the wood. Wiping is also done in the direction of the grain. Timing between application and wiping is important, as the longer the stain is left on the wood, the more it can soak in. Even so, that is not the normal way to darken a stained finish. Rather, the wood is allowed to dry, after the first application of stain and then another application of stain is added over the first.

Humidity is a factor in this sort of staining, as the higher the moisture content of the wood, the less stain it can absorb. Typically, staining during times of high humidity, such as during a rainstorm, is avoided.

Finishing Interior Wood Stains

Stained interior woodwork and furniture is normally varnished, after the application of the stain has had time to dry. The more coats of varnish that are applied, the more buildup of varnish, creating a finer finish.

Varnish should be applied with soft, natural bristle brush. Always use long strokes and keep the brushstrokes in the direction of the grain. Keep the bristles wetted, so that you are applying an even coat. A dry brush will only lay a thin layer of varnish, which will end up splotchy looking. Before applying any varnish, wipe the surface down with a tacky cloth to remove dust.

Each layer of varnish should be allowed to dry thoroughly, before applying another coat. Lightly sand all surfaces, with a very fine sandpaper (240 or higher grit) to remove any lumps caused by dust particles being trapped in the varnish. This will help ensure a smooth final coat. The final coat should not be sanded.

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Staining wood, Scott Lewis

Wood Stain & Varnish Mixtures

In recent years, interior stain and varnish makers have developed stain and varnish mixtures, allowing for a “one coat” finish of interior woodwork. These tinted varnishes (which is what they really are) are easy to apply, providing a good looking finish, with much less work.

The trick to applying these finishes is that they must be applied evenly, otherwise you get a splotchy finish, with some parts darker than others. That’s because the stain isn’t actually soaking into the wood grain, but is suspended in the varnish.

How to Properly Stain with Tinted Varnish

When using tinted varnish to create a stained and varnished look, you want to plan out your work carefully, working from the top of the piece downwards. That way, if your brush drips or creates a run, you can rectify it. Drips and runs that are not removed become obvious, because the finish is thicker there.

Finish one surface at a time, starting by applying finish to the edges with a soft, natural bristle brush. Then fill in the rest of the surface, capturing the edges while they are still wet. You don’t want any places where the finish starts to dry before you finish the adjoining surface. That will also cause a darkened area which is obvious.

Always allow the finish to dry fully, before applying any additional coats. As with applying normal varnish, it is useful to sand lightly between coats, with an extra-fine sandpaper, so as to eliminate any lumps caused by dust particles trapped in the finish.

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