How to Apply Wood Stain

by Alex Merrill

Staining wood.

At its root, the act of staining wood is actually a branch of art, which therefore leaves the learner much room to grow in technique and nuance.

What a pun-tastic intro. On a more mature note, the process of staining wood can be as simple or as difficult as the practitioner cares for it to be. There are many, many brands of stain, from the international to the local. Furthermore, each brand may have 20 or more specific hues of stain, complicating the selection process for the beginner. Besides all this, there are products plainly labeled ‘wood stain’, then there are also products that have been around for even longer and masquerade as ‘oils’ or ‘finishes’.

My advice would be to go around to some local furniture shops, find some finishes that you particularly appreciate, and ask if they’ll give the background on how it was done. If that sounds far too extroverted for your taste, go to your local big box building supply, pick up a basketful of samples, including different brands and hues, go through the self-checkout, and be on your merry way.


There a few additional items needed no matter your personality type. Depending on the final look you desire, these might include clean, lint free rags, staining brushes, sandpaper, steel wool, and good latex (or similar) gloves. The rags and gloves are a must.

Always stain wood in a well-ventilated area – over-inhalation of stain is not the right way to make yourself happy. Try the stain color on some sample pieces to see how you like it before going full-monty on your newly finished masterpiece.

To begin staining, dip the rag in the stain with a gloved hand and wipe it across the wood. Continue to coat the wood in a nice even coat, always moving along the direction of the grain. Once the entire piece is covered, wait 2-4 minutes for it to soak in. Longer soaking will result in marginally deeper tones in the finished product. Wipe the surface now with a clean rag to even out any heavy or light areas. This wipe-off should be in long, straight passes, and again always in the direction of the grain.

This done, the piece should sit to let the stain set properly for the time recommended on the can. Escape the fumes and revel in how much beauty a simple stain is able to bring to a piece of wood.

The aforementioned nuances in staining come into play when you venture outside the realm of the single brand, single coat operation, and into the mix-and-match, multi-coat world that is oh-so wide. My own explorations in this land are limited, but mentors of mine speak in hushed tones of proprietary blends of this and that finishes, applied this number of times, with that special procedure done between coats. I find myself liking most of the stains that I’ve applied to wood projects of mine, but a more finely-tuned eye would no doubt be more discerning.

In the end, enjoy the journey, experiment freely and often, and stay excited to discover more and improve your craft of staining wood.