How To Stain Wood (5-Step Guide)

Last Updated On March 24, 2023

Learning how to stain wood?

Staining wood is a simple way to make wood furniture and other DIY projects beautiful.

We want your staining project to go smoothly, so that’s why we wrote this step-by-step guide with some great ideas and tips.

In this guide you'll learn:

  • What you need to know about staining wood
  • Supplies you'll need for staining wood
  • The step-by-step process for staining wood
How To Stain Wood?

So, before you do start your wood staining project, I recommend you read this home improvement tutorial to help you achieve a smooth finish.

What Do You Need To Know About Staining Wood?

Staining wood surfaces is an art, and it can help transform old and ugly furniture, decks, fences, and more into something completely beautiful. 

The process for staining wood varies from project to project, so we recommend that you check out our articles on wood staining and do some research on Youtube for recommendations specific to your project.

For example, when staining a wood banister, the easiest way is to tape any metal hardware and use a rag to wipe the stain on. On the contrary, if you are staining a fence, you might want to load the stain up into an HVLP sprayer, and quickly spray the stain onto the surface.

And finally, if you are staining a smaller object like a picture frame, the best way would be to use a paintbrush or foam brush. It all depends on the project.

Refinishing projects are a great way to restore old and ugly wood, and restraining not only has cosmetic advantages, but it also protects the wood from UV rays and water damage.

Read More >> What Is The Best Way To Stain A Deck?

What Supplies Will You Need For Staining Wood?

In the simplest form, all you need is a rag, some 120-grit sandpaper, and the stain for applying stain. 

Here’s a complete list of tools and supplies you’ll want for professional jobs:

Paint sprayer

An inexpensive HVLP paint sprayer is your best friend for staining large surfaces. Believe us, the amount of money you spend on a paint sprayer will be canceled out by the amount of time you save applying the stain. 


Sandpaper is necessary for surface preparation. You’ll want to use anywhere from 80 to 200-grit sandpaper when sanding your project.

Power sander

A power sander will help your project turn out more consistent. There are a few different types of power sanders. For a quick and easy solution, a vibrating palm sander will work great. For heavy-duty jobs, a rotary sander that connects to an air compressor will work great. 

Microfiber towel/rag

The microfiber cloth will serve for cleaning the surface of the wood, and a rag or old shirt is a perfectly good applicator for most types of stains.

Hand applicator for polishing

After you’re done staining, you might want to apply wax or polish to get rid of small scratches and imperfections.

Paintbrush/foam brush

Paintbrushes/foam brushes work well when staining small projects. Brushes with natural bristles typically work better with stains/wood finishes. 

Nitrile gloves

Use nitrile gloves when applying stain to avoid exposing your skin to damaging chemicals. Latex paint might wash off of your hands afterward, but stains will leave our hands discolored for days.

Cotton mask/respirator

Protect your respiratory system by using a cotton mask or respirator when applying stain.

Drop cloth

Use a drop cloth to cover flooring and concrete to avoid concrete stains.

Paint masker

If you are a frequent painter and you don’t already have a paint masker, pick up a 3M paint masker off of  Amazon to help speed up the preparation process.

Masking supplies

Painter’s tape and masking film/paper help cover up unwanted areas from getting stain on them. Shop online, or visit your local paint shop for a complete selection of masking materials.

Vacuum/air compressor

You may want to clean up the sawdust from sanding, and the best way to do it is by either sucking it out with a vacuum or blowing it out with an air compressor.

Tack Cloth

You can use a tack cloth to clean the surface of the wood before painting.

Read More >> How Do You Stain A Cedar Fence?

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

How To Stain Wood (5-Step Guide)

Now that you're ready to dive into your wood staining project, let's walk through the step-by-step process.

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

  1. Select the right stain for your project
  2. Clean and prep the surface of the wood
  3. Apply the stain using the most convenient method
  4. Re-apply a second coat of stain if necessary
  5. Inspect the results/polish

Step 1 - Select the right stain for your project

Do some research specific to your project to help you decide which type of stain will be the best decision. Here are the different types of stains you’ll see:

Oil-based stains 

Oil-based stains work great for penetrating the surface of the wood. Oil stains typically come in more natural colors and are a popular choice for both indoor and outdoor applications. 

You may want to use a wood conditioner before applying oil-based stains on softwoods to help the stain absorb more consistently into the wood grains. 

Water-based stains 

Water-based stains are less toxic and very useful, but they tend to stay more on the surface of the wood. Water-based are products are also good if you are looking for a specific color of the stain.

Gel stains

Gel stains work great for a hard and durable finish. Keep the sanding to a minimum when using gel stains.

Step 2 - Clean and prep the surface of the wood

Wood stain/varnish requires that you lightly sand the surface and clean it before applying the stain

First, you’ll want to use something like a 120-grit sanding sponge to rough up the surface of the wood. Remember, sandpaper above 200-grit might prevent gel stains from adhering properly, so you must read the directions on the label of the specific stain you use.

Ideally, a vacuum or compressed air will remove the dust from the pores of the wood for a perfect finish.

If you don’t have access to a vacuum or an air compressor, you can use a microfiber cloth to thoroughly clean the surface of the wood. Wipe the surface with a tack cloth before staining.

Step 3 - Apply the stain using the most convenient method

Applying stain is easy because it is thinner than paint. Here are a few different ways to apply stain:

Apply using a clean rag

Put on a pair of nitrile gloves and a rag to apply the stain to the surface. All you have to do is completely saturate the rag in stain, and wipe it onto the surface of the bare wood. 

This can be kind of a messy process, so you’ll want to mask off unwanted areas to avoid getting stain on them.

Apply using a  bristle brush/Foam brush

You can always apply stain with a paintbrush or foam brush. Using a brush is probably the cleanest way to apply stain. Remember to brush the stain on in the direction of the wood grain for the best results.

Apply using a paint sprayer

Use an HVLP paint sprayer to spray the stain onto the surface. Paint sprayers are a great way to apply to large surfaces like decking and fencing without taking too long.

Step 4 - Re-apply a second coat of stain if necessary

You might notice that some parts of the wood absorbed the stain and look unfinished. That’s where you’ll want to apply a second coat of stain.

When applying the second coat of stain, you probably won’t need as much stain. Plan on using about 50% less, but don’t be afraid to spray liberally if the stain seems to absorb into the wood.

Step 5 - Inspect results/Polish

Inspect your stain job by looking for bubbles and other problem spots. You can always lightly spots where there is too much stain build-up. Excess stain can be lightly sanded with 120-grit or 220-grit sandpaper. 

Now, if you really want your stain job to look fantastic, you’ll polish it out as you would your car’s paint job.

Use a hand applicator and automotive carnauba wax to polish the wood to perfection. You now have a perfectly stained DIY  project.

You could also apply a thin layer of polyurethane paint or sealer/sealant over the top of the stain to further protect it. Just make sure that you rough up the surface with steel wool beforehand if you are applying the polyurethane over an oil-based stain.

Read More >> What Are The Best Solid Deck Stains?

Other Valuable Resources On Staining Wood

Shop local listings for secondhand paint products

You may want to take advantage of the local listings when buying/selling materials like scrap wood for your job. You might get lucky and find a seller who painted a huge job and has materials leftover. 

Try sites like the Facebook marketplace, Craig’s List, and your local classifieds to save money on your project.

Need a ladder?

Check out our list of recommended ladders to help you complete your stain job effortlessly. We've researched to find the highest quality, best value, and most popular ladders on the market to help give you a good idea of what to buy.

Looking to buy a paint sprayer?

Don't buy a paint sprayer that functions poorly. See our list of recommended paint sprayers that will make your staining process much faster. You don't have to spend a lot of money on a decent paint sprayer, so consider picking one up off of Amazon.

Are you searching for local painters? 

We have the best search tool for finding local painters. Log onto our Pro Paint Corner main page to locate the best painters in your area.

Read More >> What Are The Best Exterior Wood Stains?

Ask Us Questions

Don’t forget to leave us all your questions on our Pro Paint Corner page. We’ll give you a quick answer to any of your questions.

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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