Types of Wood Stain

Different Types of Wood Stain: Which One Perfect For Your Project?

Confused! which type of wood stain you should use in your project?

No worries! Our experts are there to give you a proper solution concerning this problem!

A wood stain is used to color wood, change its appearance, or to enhance its grain. Stains are similar to paints and contain three same main ingredients pigment, carrier or solvent, and a binder. 

They not only give a dramatic and attractive look to a wood appearance but also protect against heat, mold, and other chemical spills.

Several wood stains are available, wood stains consisting of pigments and wood stains that are dyes dissolved in a solvent. This solvent is often called as a vehicle. Popular solvent(vehicle) are polyurethane, lacquer, varnish, and shellac.

If you are a beginner at woodworking then you might be worrying about which stain type to use. There is every reason to doubt before selecting a wood stain as wood itself is a very beautiful material and have different types. Antiques, hardwoods, softwoods they all require a different type of wood stain.

Wood stains can do wonders by making new wood look like old wood and an old wood look like a very rare wood. To better understand the properties of wood stain, let us discuss of each type.

Different Types of Wood Stain and Their Uses

1. Oil-based Wood Stain

Oil-Based Wood Stain

The most popular wood stain is an oil-based stain. It is because of its deep penetration and durability. Many oil stains contain linseed oil with varnish.

Linseed oil is a natural and non- toxic oil and it is one of the best preservatives for any wood finish or wood paint. However, an oil-based stain can be easily identified because of its thinning by mineral spirits.

Mineral spirit used in the manufacturing of an oil stain is a solvent often listed as "petroleum distillates" in much popular wood stain description. Aliphatic hydrocarbon is another alternative name for mineral spirit used in oil stain.

Some oil stains also contain synthetic pigments often iron oxide pigments and dyes and can be referred to as "wiping stains". Some can also contain only dye. Commercial oil stains also contain a third ingredient "binder". Binder can be any sort of resin and it helps in binding the pigments to a wood surface.

Many oil stain manufacturers use linseed oil as a binder after treating it with many special acids to prevent it from penetrating deeply into the wood.

A thickening agent is also added to many oil-based stains. Manufacturers do not list this as it can be proprietary. The thickening agent also helps an oil stain to control its penetration.

While selecting all-natural oil-based it is important to check ingredients of that particular wood stain. You can select an oil stain under any kind of wood finish after knowing its compatibility with your wood but avoid using it before a water-based finish.

An oil stain takes almost 2 -3 hours to dry. It is suggested that wait 3 hours before applying another coat of stain and 9-10 hours before applying a wood finish. Always dry it under room temperature.

These are some of the pros and cons of using an oil-based stain.


  • An even finish
  • Deeper Penetration
  • High durability


  • Slow drying Process
  • Mold capable

2. Water-Based Stain

Water-Based Stain

Water-based stains are usually used under a water-based stain. As a thinner, it uses water instead of organic thinners. It also contains water-soluble aniline dyes to pass on color.

Water-soluble aniline dyes are chemically derived dyes. These dyes are fine powder derived from coal tar and offer a great deal for colorfastness when dissolved in water.

Water-based stains are very environmentally friendly and contain less polluted particles. Water-based stains do not produce any volatile organic compounds. These stains high-quality pigments that enhance the grain of the wood.

Water-based stains are often difficult to use because they dry very quickly. To apply it evenly on a big surface, woodworkers divide this application into short time segments.

To overcome its fast-drying nature, many woodworkers add a slow evaporating solvent such as propylene glycol or lacquer retarder into it but this reduces the stain color and is against the main purpose of using a water-based stain.

Wood surface preparation is very important before using a water-based stain. Clean up the surface before applying and make sure that there is no dust particle on it. Now wet the wood and leave it overnight. Now smooth the surface by sanding off any surface roughness. Apply the first coat of water-based stain.

Overall, applying water-based stain is very time consuming is very popular for enhancing the wood grain. They do not deeply penetrate the wood and thus not offer good protection for your wood.

The following are some of the benefits and cons of water-based stain.


  • Speedy drying
  • Capable of opposing mildew
  • An environmental-friendly stain


  • Time-consuming
  • Low penetration

3. Gel Stain

Gel Stain

Manufacturing of gel stains was started in the late 20th century. A gel stain is a high-viscosity liquid and is popular because of its thickened pigments. These pigments are present in the jelly type form.

This keeps a gel stain to remain even and to not flow or leak as other stains do. It is very useful while applying stain and provide control of its usage. Even when the wood is in vertical shape, this stain will not floor or drip as compared to many other wood stains.

However, gel stains often posses very limited penetrating capability because of thixotropic nature. Thixotropic can be referred to as a liquid that doesn't flow.

Their unique property to work evenly on both porous and nonporous wood make them very good stain while working with different types of wood. Mostly gel stains are either oil-based stains or they can be varnish based stains.

A powdery thickening agent is mixed with a liquid mixture of resins, mineral spirits, or pigments to make a gel stain. Application and usage of these stains are very easy and predictable. These stains are specifically popular when with a pine staining project.

Before applying any gel stain always test a sample of it on your wood to achieve the best results. Always stain in a properly ventilated area and use gloves. Apply a coat of gel stain by using a rag in a circular motion. After applying, wipe any excessive gel stain.


  • Good Hiding Quality
  • Easy application
  • No Dripping
  • No need for sanding


  • Slow drying stain
  • Cannot be sprayed

4. Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer stains are very popular among professional woodworkers it is because they can be applied very quickly. They consist of some fast-drying varnish mostly xylene and ketones. Xylene and ketones can be mixed with a lacquer to form a pigmented lacquer.

Mostly, lacquer wood stains do not contain any lacquer in it but just these fast-drying stains and are called as lacquer stains.

These fast-drying stains just need only 15 minutes to get dry. Various ketones and xylene have a very strong bitter odor and due to these, they can be easily identified. This odor is because of the very fast vaporization of these solvents.

Lacquer stains are it thinner making them easily penetrate woods and do not need more than two coatings. Sometimes while using a lacquer stain, bubbles can appear on your wood surface. It mostly happens because lacquer traps air bubbles while drying fast. To avoid it, try to control the room temperature or try to thin it with lacquer thinner.

Always wear a safety mask before applying lacquer stains. Choose a lacquer stain if you are a professional and have very little time for staining. 


  • Fast dry
  • Easy application


  • Bubbles
  • Discoloration over time

5. Water-Soluble Dye Stain

These stains always come in powder form so it is very easy to identify them. These stains were very popular before the invention of metal complex dyes. However, they are still widely used because of various colors choice and richness.

They are often called aniline dyes and were firstly used for textiles in the late nineteenth century. To make a liquid form of water-soluble dye stain, simply mix it with water. Add one ounce of powder in one quart of water solution. This is the standard ratio for it. To make a more intense color, add more powder in the mixture.

It is recommended to use distilled water for making this solution as there can be metal residue in water which can affect the color consistency of these stains.

This stain will not hide a wood completely no matter how many coats are applied. So, it will maintain the natural charm of the wood. These stains don't contain any binder and can be easily darkened or lightened after applying.

However, these dyes tend to fade under sun exposure because of UV-rays. The most commonly used types of these stains are alcohol soluble and oil-soluble dyes. An oil-soluble dye can be mixed with an oil stain.

Always choose a water-soluble dye for staining to have maximum control over stain after applying.


  • Verity of colors
  • Will not obscure wood
  • Easy maintenance


  • Fade under UV exposure

6. Metalized Dye Stain

Metalized Dye Stain

These types of stains are best while working with bare woods. They are also known as know grain raising stains (NGRS).

They are non-grain raising stains as they are easily dissolved in fast evaporating solvents and provides a very good depth of color. They were introduced in the 1950s and were called as metal complex stains.

They are ready to use stains dissolved in glycol ether blended with ethanol, methanol, and sometimes with retarder. The most popular brand names for manufacturing these wood stains are ultra penetrating stain, super-penetrating stains, and Solar-Lux.

These dyes are also available in concentrated form and can be easily thinned with water, alcohol, or any lacquer thinner. For concentrated stains, they are popular with Trans Tint and Wizard Tints brands.

For the application of these stains, always use a sprayer. If it dries too fast, add 10% of any purpose made retarder to stain and slow down the drying time. Also, use a smooth wet cloth to even out this stain.


  • Best for bare woods
  • Resist Fading


  • Dry too fast

7. Varnish Wood Stain

Varnish stains are very similar to oil-based wood stains. These stains only contain varnish as a binder. It can also be a polyurethane varnish.

Polyurethane is an artificial resin and can be in the form of liquid plastic. Polyurethane varnishes are heat resistant and give a strong resistance against acid and chemical spills.

These stains dry hard which means that they can easily maintain even consistency of color on a wood surface as it solvent portions evaporates completely and the rest of it polymerize to make a durable coat over wood. Varnish stains also use the same thinning material petroleum distillates just like oil stains.

The big reason behind brands labeling both stains differently is the difference of binder. With varnish wood stain, there is no need to use a finishing coat as it forms a protective and strong layer on wood that cannot be easily chipped.

The big drawback of using varnish wood stain is that it can look still look splotchy and will require more coats to make it even.

Varnish stains are suggested for a small woodworking project and if you are working with an already stained or worn out wood surface. Varnish can be applied with a roller or a brush. Apply in the direction of the wood grain.


  • Natural look
  • Hard dry
  • Protection from dirt and water


  • Yellowish with time
  • Bubble formation

What Kind of Stain Need to Use on Different Types of Wood Surface/Material?

Choosing a stain carefully before starting your project will save you from the trouble of redoing the whole process again.

If you are planning to stain your wooden furniture, cabinets, floors, or other surfaces, it is important to know which type of stain will work according to your wood design.

1. Wooden Furniture

While working with wooden furniture, the selection of a stain that will give your furniture a stunning look is tricky. However, you can completely change the final look of your wooden furniture by choosing a different type of stains. Some stains will give your furniture a natural look while others will give your furniture an elegant antique look.

To give your furniture a distressed look, use an oil-based stain. This stain will give your furniture that stylish look you want. As an oil-based stain will always leave your furniture surface smooth, it is recommended for wooden chairs, tables.

This stain is strong and it is very less likely to dent when using on furniture like chairs legs, table, etc.

Apply a finishing coat of polyurethane over the stain and this provides an extra protective layer for your wooden furniture while giving it a new distressed look.

You can also use an acrylic stain on your furniture. It will also leave the surface smooth and soft. But keep in mind this type of stain will take much longer to dry and can be expensive.

2. Wooden Cabinets

Now, if you want to select a good stain for your cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom, you have to be very careful about different factors because of unique conditions. Moisture content is high in the kitchen and it doesn't remain constant because of various cooking functions.

A bathroom also deals with a lot of shower steam and moisture. Wooden cabinets in both places are highly likely to develop mildew.

Considering all these factors, select a stain that has a high capability of mildew resistance. We will suggest you select an oil-based stain as it will not absorb water.

Use an oil-based stain in a semi-gloss to create an even look. Due to the smoothness of this stain, it will be easy to clean any dust or food particles from the cabinet.

However, if you are looking to stain the interior of your wooden cabinets, use a satin sheen stain to prevent stickiness on shelves. If you are planning to stain cabinets elsewhere in your home, use a latex stain to give your wood natural and shiny look.

3. Wooden Floors

Wooden Floors

You have to consider a lot of factors while staining a wooden floor. A stain should be enough strong to handle daily shoe traffic, dripping umbrellas, and rushing other kinds of heavy material over your wood floor.

It can be damaged by many other issues like if you are adjusting your furniture or sofas from one side to another.

A latex stain is the best choice for staining a wooden floor. Use this stain in gloss or a semi-gloss to leave your wood smooth, flat, and easy to mop.

An oil-based- stain is also a good option for staining your wood floor. You can use polyurethane to topcoat your oil-based stain. It will guard wood against any dust particle. Keep in mind If you are using polyurethane, allow it to dry for a longer period. Otherwise, your wood surface will be sticky.

4. Wooden Trims

Selecting an oil stain is the best choice when working with interior trims like door casings. As oil stains will offer high durability against any scuff marks. This stain is also very easy for regular cleaning and doesn't leave a surface sticky.

If you have decorative and stylish trims or you are working on complex designs in circles, select a latex stain. This stain will easily get into every part and provide full coverage for your design. Select a flat or satin latex as it will give a smoother coverage and will not require you to clean it regularly.

Before starting with stain, preparing the surface is ideal for the best results.

5. Bare Wood and Wooden Decks

While working with bare woods and wooden decks, it is important to use a pre-stain conditioner for your wood. Selecting a pre-stain conditioner depends on the type of stain that you will be using.

The pre-stain will allow your stain to get absorbed more quickly, uniformly, and beautifully. Wait for at least 20 minutes before applying a stain. Remove any excess pre-stain from wood.

Now stir your stain and be very careful about air baubles and apply your first coat. You can use an oil stain for your wooden deck but extreme weather conditions can damage this stain.

So, it is a good choice to choose an acrylic stain over an oil stain. Acrylic stains are specially formulated for outdoor conditions and prevent moisture and mold.

6. Wooden Knickknacks

Wooden knickknacks often require staining and kind of stain for this purpose depends on the size and scope of the whole woodworking project. An oil stain is best if you are dealing with larger and big wooden boxes or photo frames.

If you are working with smaller projects like decorating your small knickknack with different colors, A craft stain is recommended. To tightly lock in the stain, you might want to topcoat your wood with a polyurethane layer. Polyurethane coating will prevent it from damage by making the outer surface strong.

7. Wood Ceiling Beams

Wood Ceiling Beams

Adding a perfect stain to your wooden ceiling beams will add beautiful color to a whole room. Adding colors to your beams by using a stain is very easy. For this purpose, use an acrylic-based stain.

Start this project on a dry day. Keep your doors open to provide natural ventilation. An acrylic-based stain will give your wood perfect protection against moisture and is available in different colors. You can also mix different colors of stain if you want to give your beams more of an artistic look.

As there are different types of wood and each one has a different nature, they will react completely differently to a wood stain. For example, softwoods over absorb the stain, and hardwoods don't take stain very well.

Below is a comparison of wood for a stain project:

8. Pale Woods/ Pine Wood

Pale woods like pine and poplar require a very light coating of stain. When you are working on a pinewood project or any other softwood, it is recommended to use pigmented oil stains. These stains are best effective while working with trim, shelves and in, expensive furniture.

As pigmented oil stains are non-penetrating they are not recommended for hardwoods. With oil-based stains, you can easily give your pale woods a cherry color, and oak color, or any other expensive wood color.

Always try to apply a very moderate coat of oil-based stain on pine wood. Before applying, use a pre-staining conditioner and choose between light to medium stain.

9. Ashwood/ Hard Woods

If you are working with an oak and ash wood, try to select a stain that is good for hardwoods. It is suggested to choose between light to darker shades.

One of the best stains while working with ash wood projects is penetrating oil-based stain. This type of stain enhances the natural beauty of an oak or ash wood by creating exciting colors. An ashwood has large pores and absorbs stain very easily.

You can control the intensity of color by the length of time you stain your wood. Drying time will be longer than usual while working with such types of projects and once dry these stains are very hard to remove. so, try to wipe out any excess of this stain as soon as you can.

10. Birchwood

This type of wood is very hard to work with stain. These birch woods are less expensive woods than maple wood and are often used as a substitute for maple.

While working with birch wood, always select a water-based stain. As these woods do not take stain very well and stain absorption is uneven, water-based stains can be used for the best possible results.

Apply a pre-stain wood conditioner before staining your wood. Use a brush to apply stain and do it in very even consistency. Wait for your birch to dry. If the results are not even, apply toner on your wood.

11. Alder Wood

Alder wood is very easy to get discolored over time. To avoid blotching, always pre-treat your alder wood. The biggest problem while working with this kind of wood is that it absorbs a wood stain in an uneven form.

Any pigment type stain will not soak well in alder wood and it is advised to use aniline dyes.

Apply a thin coat of these dyes on your wood and wait for it to dry before applying any further coat to get a better result.

Alder Wood


We tried to discuss various types of wood stains and which one is best under different circumstances.

Commonly used wood stains are oil-based and water-based stains. Always test a sample of stain that you are using. Apply it on a piece of wood that you will be using for your project.

Wait for the stain to properly dry and then observe the results. In this way, you will always know how a specific stain will work on your wood.

Use gloves and masks and try to avoid contacting or digesting any wood stain. It is a good approach to stain your wooden objects as it provides a permanent coloring to your wood by penetrating it.

We hope that with all the information, you will manage to choose the right stain for your furniture or any woodworking project.


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