How To Apply Stain? (5-Step Guide)

Last Updated On September 22, 2023

Want to know how to stain wood or another surface? 

We have all the tips on how to apply stain on all your DIY refinishing projects.

In this guide you'll learn:

  • What you need to know about how to apply stain
  • Supplies you'll need apply stain
  • The step-by-step process for applying stain

And much more!

How To Apply Stain? (5-Step Guide)

So, before you do apply stain, I recommend you read this quick DIY guide to help you do it like a pro.

What Do You Need To Know About Applying Stain?

Applying stain for wood finishing is only slightly different than applying paint. One difference, for example, is that some wood finish (traditional oil-based stains) can be easily applied to a surface by using a cloth. 

What Supplies Will You Need For Applying Stain?

In the simplest of instances, you can apply stain to by using a clean cloth, however, you'll want some other essential supplies to do the job right. 

Here is a professional list of supplies you'll want for staining wood:

Your wood stain of choice

There are so many different products that you can apply to your wood project. Stain colors vary enormously, so we recommend going on Amazon and browsing around for a 4 to 5-star rated stain with multiple good reviews.

Read More >> What Are The Best Stains To Use on Fences?

Read More >> What Are The Best Deck Stains To Use on Weathered Wood?

Read More >> What Are The Best Stains To Use on Cedar Wood?

Applicator Cloth/Old T-Shirts

Some pro painters use old t-shirts or microfiber towels to applicate stain.

Chemical Resistant Gloves/Nitrile Gloves

Don't expose your hands to toxic chemicals. Wearing nitrile gloves is a must especially when applying stain with a cloth.

Drop Cloth 

A drop cloth will prevent you from getting paint on the floor.

Solvent/Wood Stain Remover 

Solvents(paint thinner, wood stain remover, mineral spirits) are always a good thing to have around when you're painting. Staining and painting is a messy job, and you'll need more than water to clean things up afterwards,especially when working with oil-based stains.

Paint Masker

We recommend buying yourself a 3M paint masker to help you mask areas that won't be painted.

A paint masker works by connecting the tape to the masking material, and rolling it all out in one. If there are lagre areas that can't get stain on them, a paint masker will help you easily cover them up.

Foam Brush 

You might choose a foam brush for smaller stain projects.

Paint Sprayer

We highly recommend using a paint sprayer on larger stain projects because they are increasingly more affordable, and they make short work out of larger spaces.

Check out our recommendations of the best paint sprayers where we've recommended high-end, low budget, and most popular options for paint sprayers. A handheld HVLP paint sprayer is the best way to spray your project on an inexpensive budget.

Read More >> What Are The Best Paint Sprayers For Decks?

How To Apply Stain (5-Step Guide)

Now that you've got all the supplies you need, let's walk through the step-by-step process to applying stain like a pro.

(Psst! You can click on any of the links below to jump directly to that step.)

  1. Lightly sand
  2. Clean the surface
  3. Apply the stain using the appropriate method
  4. Apply a second coat of stain
  5. Apply polyurethane and/or carnauba wax

Step 1 - Lightly sand

Lightly stain the surface to get rid of any imperfections in the wood. There are many different types of sandpaper and power sanders that will help you prep for your stain job.

If the wood surface hasn't been stained or finished and is coarse, you can work your way up from 800-grit to 120-grit or 220-grit sandpaper for optimum results. 

Take into account that using higher than 220-grit sandpaper isn't a good idea when staining because the stain won't work its way down into the pores of super smooth surfaces.

Here are a few different sanding tools that will help you along the way:

Sanding sponge 

Sanding sponges are a great way to prep for smaller home projects like wood trim, banisters, cabinets, etc because they allow you to get into all the nooks and crannies of the wood.

Good technique for using a sanding sponge is to float your hand over the surface. You don't want to apply pressure because it creates imperfections in the wood. 

Wall sander/Sanding pole

Connect some 120-grit sandpaper to a sanding pole to quickly smooth out projects like wood siding and fences.

Palm sander/orbital sander 

Use a palm sander or air sander for super quick preparation. Just be careful not to over-sand the surface when using electric or air-powered sanders.

Belt sander

A belt sander will help you in situations where the wood is extremely coarse. You can start with a belt sander, and work your way up to using a palm sander or sanding sponge.

Step 2 - Clean the surface

Don't use higher than 180-grit sandpaper if you are using gel stain because it will prevent the thicker consistency stain from penetrating the pores of the wood.

You might even try a pre-stain wood conditioner to perfectly prepare the wood for its stain job.

You might even want to remove a previous stain before staining your project to get it down to bare wood, and we have a process for that too. 

Step 3 - Apply the stain using the appropriate method

Next, you'll want to decide the best way to apply the stain. Here are the different ways to apply stain and some instances where using each particular method is convenient:

Apply stain using a clean cloth 

Using a cloth to apply stain is how professionals apply stain to smaller projects.

All you have to do is saturate a cloth with some stain, and wipe it onto the surface of the wood. Just remember to use nitrile or chemical resistant gloves to avoid exposing your skin to potentially toxic chemicals contained in the stain formula.

You might apply stain with a cloth on surfaces like banisters, coffee tables, and other smaller surface areas with lots of curves and cracks.

Apply stain using a paintbrush/roller 

Using a paintbrush or roller is naturally one method for applying stain or paint.

Use a 3/4 inch cover roller when applying stains to projects like decks, exteriors, siding, etc.

Read More >> What Are The Best Paint Rollers To Use?

Apply stain using a paint sprayer 

A paint sprayer will help you cover large areas fast. We recommend owning a paint sprayer because they are more and more affordable, and they come in handy.

You might use a paint sprayer when applying stain to a fence, home exterior, or deck

Check out our paint sprayer recommendations.

Apply stain using a foam brush

Saturate the foam brush with stain, and apply it evenly along the direction of the wood grain.

Staining wood can actually increase its lifespan. This is because the stain prevents splintering, rot, and rain from destroying the wood's surface.

Step 4 - Apply a second coat of stain

Most woodworking stains are relatively fast-drying, so wipe away the excess stain to prevent further sanding later on.

Softwoods will generally require more stain because it will absorb more profoundly into the pores. You can avoid this by sanding softer woods with 220-grit sandpaper.

After the first coat of stain/varnish is dry according to the time recommended on the container, you may or may not want to apply a second coat of stain. For example, wood surfaces with knots and other imperfections may absorb the stain and leave dry spots.

You might also lightly sand any excess stain/blotches from the surface before calling it good.

Step 5 - Apply a top coat - polyurethane and/or carnauba wax

After you have satisfactory applied a couple coats of stain, there is always the option of applying a coat of polyurethane paint over the top to give the wood a hard layer of protection from scratches and UV rays. 

Buffing the wood out with carnauba wax(like you would a car) is another great way to protect and preserve your stain project.

You can even apply a clear lacquer to some wood projects for a good sealant, but be sure to do your research to make sure lacquer is compatible with the specific stain and wood type.

Sanding with high-grit sandpaper is always an option after applying the polyurethane coating. You could even wet sand the surface with 1000 to 2000-grit sandpaper for an ultra smooth finish in projects like hardwood floors and other interior projects.

Read More >> What Are The Best Stains To Use On A Deck?

Other Valuable Resources On How To Apply Stain

Hit us with all the hard questions

Do you have questions about your stain job? We're here to answer them. Click on our home page for quick answers.

Do you need a ladder for your next job?

We've done our research on all things ladders. Check out our recommendations on ladders, step ladders, scaffolding, and more. 

Meet Your Pro Paint Corner Author

Ryan Nichols

Ryan Nichols

I first painted professionally in my late teens. I have painted everything from long military base walls to spraying cedar wood siding on cabins in the mountains of Utah. I am also an automotive technician with plenty of auto body and paint experience. In my spare time, I even enjoy artistic oil painting.

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Got Paint Questions? Search For In-Depth Answers Below!

Ryan Nichols

Ryan Nichols

I first painted professionally in my late teens. I have painted everything from long military base walls to spraying cedar wood siding on cabins in the mountains of Utah. I am also an automotive technician with plenty of auto body and paint experience. In my spare time, I even enjoy artistic oil painting.

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