7 Tips for Staining Wood

A can of wood stain and a brush next to a stained patch of lumber.

Staining wood is an easy enough DIY task, but it's definitely a process that requires attention to detail. Otherwise, you can end up with an awfully big mess. Stained hands and clothing, uneven coloring, and a rough wood surface are just a few of the things that can go awry if you’re not particularly careful. Use the following tips to help you stain your wood surface, leaving it smooth, shiny, and just the color you were hoping to achieve.

1. Choosing a Stain

Pick a stain that matches the color you want to see once the finish has dried and been sealed. Remember that once you apply a finish or sealant, the stain will appear a little darker due to the glossy finish. Match the stain to other wooden items you already have in the room where the wood will be, so that the colors are cohesive and not a mixture of light and dark shades.

2. Cleaning and Sanding

Someone using sandpaper on an antique chair.

Before applying a stain to any surface, you’ll need to sand it lightly with sandpaper to make the surface smooth and more absorbent. Sand it lightly, in the direction of the grain, so as not to scratch the wood. After sanding, wipe it clan with a damp cotton cloth to remove the wood residue. Be sure to let the entire surface dry before proceeding.

3. Use Plastic or Rubber Gloves

Before you begin to apply the stain, make sure to put on disposable plastic gloves and to wear old clothes you won’t mind staining, such as ones you use to paint the house or dye your hair. Wood stain will stain skin, clothing, and hair very easily. Cover your hands and areas of skin that might otherwise come in contact with the wood stain.

4. Use Foam Brushes and Paper Towels

A variety of foam brushes against a white background.

Rather than using a bristled paintbrush to apply the stain onto the wood, opt for a small foam brush. Foam brushes can be used for this one job and then thrown away. Stain is very difficult—almost impossible—to get out of a paintbrush. When wiping the excess liquid stain away between coats, use strong paper towels rather than cloth, as these are easily disposable as well and don’t add any extra cleanup to the project.

5. Go With the Grain

Apply the stain by dipping the foam brush into the stain solution and wiping it in the direction of the grain of the wood, and then backward against the grain. By doing so, the color you’re applying will soak into the wood and the coloring will look natural. Any streaks will end up looking like part of the wood grain.

6. Apply Multiple Coats

A wood deck.

A wood stain requires at least two coats for an even finish. Allow the first coat to dry almost completely, and then wipe the surface with a paper towel to remove the excess stain that can collect in patches of the wood. Then, apply a second coat with the foam brush and allow it to dry completely. If you still haven’t achieved the hue you desire, try another coat or two. Never add another coat before the previous one has dried. Otherwise, the fresh stain will remove and push around the layer you’ve already applied.

7. Use a Sealant

For a wood surface that is glossy, deep, and fully protected, be sure to seal the surface after you’ve allowed it to dry completely. Some wood stains come with a polyurethane sealant as part of the stain—otherwise, you can purchase the sealant separately. A separate sealing finish can provide a little more protection for a wood surface, depending on its use and whether it will be used indoors or outdoors. The local hardware store will have plenty of sealant options to choose from.