Staining and finishing wood are key steps that will transform your DIY project into a finished piece that will be a beautiful addition to your home. Tackling any new experience can be intimidating, and while the directions on the can are vital for success, there’s nothing quite like getting to learn from the experience of a real person. Today I’m going to walk you through the basics of prepping your workspace and staining, and will share some advice from my personal experience along the way. 

Staining can be one of those funny things that feels intimidating before you try, but in reality, it's a lot simpler than you might think. That said, I wouldn’t encourage you to try it out on your favorite project! Do a test run on a piece of scrap or a project you didn’t particularly like the outcome of—give yourself time to get the hang of it, and you’re sure to find success. Today we’re focusing on interior staining, though a lot of the general best practices apply to both interior and exterior.

Staining is a simple way to upgrade your project. It can allow you to match a piece to other items in your home for visual cohesion and adds dimension and interest to your DIY project. In general, it’s a lot of fun and simple to do!

Step 1: Choose the right stain

The first step is to pick your stain color. If you visit Dunn Lumber, you can view stain colors on samples of different species of wood or you can pick up a couple of ketchup packet sized stain samples and try them out first (they cost less than a dollar each). If you decide to purchase a stain based on the picture on the can, or even if you look at the samples in the store, it’s always best to test a sample yourself on the same species of wood you’ll be staining—this will give you the most accurate expectations. 

If anything I say is contradicted by what the label on your stain says, always trust the label over me!

Step 2: Set up your work station 

Before staining it’s important to prepare. Start by picking a location. Choose a spot that’s relatively dust-free and out of the way of children, pets, and weather. Read the label of the products you’ll be using and stay within the recommended temperature range to ensure everything dries correctly, or at all. And because most stains and finishes have some odor, you’ll want to pick a spot with good ventilation. If you haven't already, consider conditioning your wood before staining.

Next, lay a drop cloth to protect your work surface. I prefer a plastic-backed canvas cloth because the fabric absorbs finish, but the plastic underneath provides a firm boundary between your work surface and your work. 

Lastly, it’s important to remove dust from the wood’s surface. There’s always dust in the air, and if you’ve just sanded there will be very fine sawdust on your project. You can remove dust with a tack cloth (which is a cloth coated in wax), a vacuum, or a rag dampened with water or mineral spirits. Whichever method you prefer, check your directions to make sure it’s compatible with the product you’re using. For example, tack cloths shouldn’t be used before applying a water-based finish because residue left by the tack cloth can get in the way of the finish going on evenly.

Step 3: Prep your material

Make sure that your wood is fully dried before you get started. If it’s been out in the rain (either in your backyard or at the lumber yard), leave it in a warm, dry area for a week or two. If the wood feels wet, or if water is exuding from it when cut, let it dry longer before you begin.

Before you start staining, make sure that you’re at the best point in the assembly process. This is something important I’ve learned over the years. Depending on the project, sometimes it’s best to stain before assembly, and sometimes it’s best to wait until after. This is something I’ll call out in my DIY projects, but if you’re doing your own project, take the time to think through the steps and decide on the best time to begin the staining or finishing process. For example, if you’re using putty or wood filler make sure that you’ve followed the directions and have applied before or after staining as called for. And always make sure you’ve sanded everything to your liking before you stain or condition anything. 

Next, lay a drop cloth to protect your work surface. I prefer a plastic-backed canvas cloth because the fabric absorbs stain, but the plastic underneath provides a firm boundary between your work surface and your work. 

Lastly, it’s important to remove dust from the wood’s surface. There’s always dust in the air, and if you’ve just sanded there will be very fine sawdust on your project. You can remove dust with a tack cloth (which is a cloth coated in wax), a vacuum, or a rag dampened with water or mineral spirits. Whichever method you prefer, check your directions to make sure it’s compatible with the product you’re using. For example, tack cloths shouldn’t be used before applying a water-based finish because residue left by the tack cloth can get in the way of the finish going on evenly.

Step 4: Apply stain

Before staining, always stir the can thoroughly making sure to incorporate any solids from the bottom of the can. The pigment can hide at the bottom of the container, and not stirring enough will give you a watered-down version of the stain. Remember: The darker the stain, the more pigment there is. That means it’s really important to stir dark colors thoroughly. 

Choose an applicator from the options provided in the directions. Generally, good applicators include a foam brush or a lint-free rag. If you prefer to use a brush, make sure you use one with natural bristles for oil-based stains and one with synthetic bristles for water-based. 

Because I generally purchase half-pint stain containers, I like to use a 2” foam brush because it’s easy to clean up and it perfectly fits inside of the small stain cans. And rather than opting for a regular paint stir stick, I like to use a wide popsicle stick. 

Apply the stain liberally in the direction of the grain, unless otherwise directed (Varathane directs you to apply across the grain).

Step 5: Penetrate and reapply stain

Allow the stain to penetrate the wood grain for the designated amount of time, reapplying to dry areas if directed. Most stains will give you a range of time to allow the stain to sit, and the time that you choose will affect the darkness or intensity of the stain. Longer will make the stain more intense, and shorter will make it more subtle. If you’re unsure, you can always test a section by wiping off the excess and then reapplying the stain if you want to let it sit longer. Once you’re ready or the time is up, wipe off the stain with a rag (always moving with the direction of the grain). 

If you wait for the stain to penetrate for too long, it will eventually stop absorbing and start drying on the surface of the wood and become tacky. This is always a bummer, but not the end of the world (or of your DIY career). Stickiness from oil-based stains can be removed with a rag and some mineral spirits without damaging the final look. For water-based stains, try a using a rag dampened with water.

A second coat of stain is always an option to intensify or darken the wood, but it’s important to recognize that wood can only absorb so much moisture and at some point, the wood just won’t get any darker. I’ve found that a second coat only makes the wood marginally darker, rather than doubling the darkness. In general, I would rely on the stain color to give you the exact shade that you want, rather than depend on applying multiple coats. 

Fun fact: Stains can be mixed together to create new, unique colors. As a general rule when doing this, stick to stains of the same brand and always make sure that they have the same base (water or oil).

Depending on the level of protection you’re looking for, stain can be left as-is, or you can choose to top it off with a clear finish. Whichever direction you decide to go, be sure to allow the stain to fully dry before using your project or moving onto the finish. Follow the directions on the can, taking into consideration temperature, humidity, thickness, and quantity of coats that may slow down dry time.

As you prepare to stain, be sure to check out our post on how to condition before staining! When you’re all done, see our post on how to safely dispose of oil-soaked rags.