When designing a project to put in your home—or refinishing a piece of furniture—it can be incredibly difficult to visualize and pick out the perfect stain color. Similar to choosing paint colors, stain samples on a website can look different from pictures on the can, and both can look different from reality! And, to add in a whole other factor, stains change depending on the wood you’re staining.
At Dunn Lumber, for the Varathane stain products, you’ll notice that we have stain samples on a couple different wood species to help you get a more accurate visualization. But I know that for me, when the wood I’m using isn’t shown in the sample, I don’t really trust the samples anymore—which is why purchasing a ketchup-packet-sized stain sample to take home and try out on a scrap piece can be a great option. Still, I know that being able to visualize the stain in my space is the key for me. For example, a couple years ago, I was picking a paint color for my bedroom. I had such a challenge finding a color that worked with the trim, floor, and lighting in the room—until I saw a photo in a paint catalog of a room with a trim color and lighting similar to my bedroom. The color looked really nice, and I instantly knew it would work in my space, too, because it was similar enough. And sure enough, that’s the color on my bedroom walls today!
With that in mind, I decided that to help you all out, I would put together a collection of photos from the projects we’ve made over the years in different settings, with different stains, and using different wood species. That way you can see stain colors not just in sample form, but in a real environment, and it just might help you make the best choice!
You’ll notice that I definitely have my favorite go-to stains that I’ve come back to a lot over the years, so this is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the options out there—or all of the options at Dunn Lumber. If nothing else, looking through our list may help you identify what elements of a stain you like and don’t like.
This has been a go-to stain for me over the years because it’s a nice neutral brown. I think this comes out the most in the photos of the six-pack holder, which is constructed from hemlock and Doug fir. The other three projects (the display case shelf, desktop organizer, and airplane swing) that are stained in Provincial are white wood or SPF—a mixture of spruce, pine, and fir. You can see the stain has a slightly more orangey tone on the white wood than the hemlock and Doug fir.
Varathane Dark Walnut
You’ll notice with this stain that the effect on different wood species is less pronounced than the previous stain. This is simply because the stain is darker, so the pigment overrides the subtle difference in wood color. The blanket ladder is built with white wood (spruce, pine, or fir), and the bath/breakfast tray is made from hemlock. This dark brown color has a cool undertone to it (something I personally like).
Minwax Dark Walnut
This is a great example of the color difference between brands. You can see that the Minwax Dark Walnut color is more intense than the Varathane version. And though it might look even color toned, I would attribute that more to the editing of the photo. This coat hanger was made from an old pallet, so I’m unsure of the species, but it was definitely darker than the white wood I purchase from Dunn Lumber, which leads me to believe it’s Doug fir.
Daly’s Early American
Daly’s is a less well-known stain brand to me, partly due to a misconception that their stain was less pigmented. (This turned out to be because I was using an older can, where the pigment had really firmly settled at the bottom of the can—and I just didn’t stir it enough to get the results I was looking for. So always thoroughly stir your stain!)
The color “Early American” in general reminds me of the Provincial stain color, although with a little more warmth in it. In the gas pipe storage solution, the stain is applied to Doug fir. You can compare this with the Provincial stain on the six-pack holder and see a slight difference. In the following three projects (the closet office, the midcentury planter, and the firewood holder), the stain is applied to an assortment of white woods, and you can see that tendency for the stain to appear a little orangier. I think this is due to a yellow undertone in those wood species, because on the birch midcentury litter box, you can see a different result. Birch is similarly light in color, but with a cooler undertone.
Varathane Early American
Same “color,” different brand. You can see right off the bat that Varathane’s version of Early American is a little darker than Daly’s. The desktop succulent planter is made from Doug fir, while the pencil holder, dog bed, mini succulent planters, and end table are all made with various white woods (spruce, pine, or fir). The wooden advent calendar is a mix of white wood and hemlock.
Varathane Espresso is one of the darkest stain options and therefore shows up pretty similarly on various types of wood. The wood stake doormat is made from Doug fir, the chess set is made from cedar, and the tiki bar is made from a combination of cedar and white wood.
Varathane Summer Oak
Varathane Golden Oak
Varathane’s Golden Oak is a warmer version of Varthane’s Early American. Similar quality, but less prone to the orangey tones because it has more of a yellow undertone that works with the yellow undertones of white wood. This bed frame was built with a variety of white woods (spruce, pine, or fir).
To me, Gunstock is another good middle-of-the-road stain. It’s not too dark or too light, too warm or too cool. This means that it works with a lot and doesn’t stand out too much—which makes it a good choice for something like this mini garden trellis.
Varathane Light Walnut
Minwax Golden Pecan
This is a very interesting stain that has resulted in two vastly different end products. On the copper pipe boot tray, I used Doug fir and the stain resulted in almost a pinkish shade that plays off the copper color really nicely. When I planned to use this stain again, I was expecting a similar result, but applying it to a buffet table made from spruce and various other white woods resulted in a very intense, golden-orange color. One application I would call subtle—the other, not so much. Not one of my favorite stain colors, but a good reminder to test your stain on your specific wood species before applying it to your whole project.
Minwax - Half Early American, Half Classic Gray
The desire to make a custom stain came from trying to match the stain from a store-bought piece of furniture. I wanted a cool brown with gray undertones, but every stain with “gray” in the title was just straight-up gray. I wanted a grayish brown. So, mix gray and brown, and that’s exactly what you get! The bed frame and the nightstands are both Doug fir, and the lanterns are hemlock. Both of these woods take stain similarly, so there’s not a lot of contrast with this one.
Varathane’s Natural stain is the lightest in their selection. It does little more than speed up the natural yellowing process of lighter woods, with that coat of oil that always gives wood a more golden appearance. In the chess set you can see the natural stain on cedar, and with the napkin rings, you can see it on white wood.
Teak oil is generally an exterior wood finish that both oils the wood and creates a protective barrier at the same time. It got its name from being used on teak ship decks. But I brought it inside for a bathroom series, using it on a bath mat, shower caddy, storage tower, and bath tray. Teak oil is very similar to a “natural” oil stain because it colors the wood ever so slightly, brings out the golden tones, and doesn’t change the color much beyond that.
Not staining is also an option (one I opt for quite a bit). I personally like the look of really light-colored wood, so often, all I want is a coat of a clear finish. Of course, it’s easy to tell what not staining a piece is going to do just looking at the wood you’re using. But I wanted to include some inspiration for not staining in case you haven’t given that a thought. The shoe storage bench and the umbrella holder are both made with white woods, and the vertical shoe rack uses a combination of cedar and poplar.
We hope this guide helps you pick the right stain (or none at all) for your next project! For other wood projects, check out our bartop finish table, outdoor beverage cart, or DIY outdoor cook station.