How to Choose and Apply Wood Stains and Finishes

Updated on May 13, 2019

When coating a new or stripped piece of wood furniture, it’s important to choose the correct stain and finish and then apply them properly. The most popular finishes for home use are traditional oil-based stains and varnishes, but there are many other options on the market.

Most people still opt for a traditional two-step stain and finish process, which allows you to control each step independently. For instance, adding additional coats of stain to darken a finish or extra coats of varnish to deepen the gloss. Many products combine both the stain and the final finish, which makes the whole process easier. Though you do lose some control over the final results, because these products are usually only offered in limited color choices, plus you build up color with each coat.

Different Stains React Differently to Certain Varieties of Wood

Remember, the same stain will react differently on different varieties of wood. Softwoods, such as pine and poplar, will soak up stain like a sponge, while harder varieties, such as oak or maple, will absorb much less color. If you have a scrap of your wood, take it to the store with you. Most paint and hardware stores and even home centers allow you to try a color before you buy it.

Consider Satin Over Glossy Finishes

Also, it is easier to create a professional-looking finish with satin rather than glossy finishes. Satin helps to hide flaws and imperfections, and it is especially nice to use on antiques for a more authentic look and feel. Gloss is harder to work with and can leave a “plastic” appearance—a dead giveaway that it was a do-it-yourself project.


Here's a breakdown of the main methods of staining, including their usual drying time and best uses.

Gel Stains

Typical drying time: 2 to 4 hours

These are heavy-bodied stains that have the advantage of being able to cling to vertical surfaces. They are also recommended for blending in blotchy or discolored wood. Sometimes, gels can create a bit of a “painted” look that may obscure the natural beauty of the fine wood grain. Most gel stains are water-based, which makes cleanup easy.

Oil Stains

Typical drying time: About 24 hours

Oil Stains are the most popular option for fine furniture and cabinetry. They are designed to highlight the wood’s natural grain and character.

Water-Based Stains

Typical drying time: About 2 hours

Many new water-based stains apply like traditional oil-based products.

They are great for beginners because they dry quickly and offer easier cleanup; however, they do not produce results that appear as professional as oil-based products.

Aniline Dye Stains

Typical drying time: 24 hours or less

Aniline Dye Stains are often used by professional wood finishers and are supplied in a powder form that can be mixed with water, alcohol, or finishing oil to create exceptionally vivid tints on fine woods. Aniline dyes can also be blended with wax for a hand-rubbed shine. Note: Ask for aniline dye at your local hardware or paint supply store.

Combo Stains and Finishes

Typical drying time: 24 hours or less

These are easy-to-use combination products that are a mixture of stain and some type of finish, usually either a varnish or an oil finish.


Here's a breakdown of the main finishes that you can use for these wood staining projects.


Typical drying time: 4 to 24 hours

These are a popular choice for most projects. Watch for the term polyurethane varnish when water resistance is needed, such as on floors and dining tables. Conventional varnishes have always been petroleum based; however, some polyurethane finishes are also offered in water-based versions that dry very quickly. All come in your choice of satin or gloss.

Oil Finishes

Typical drying time: 12 to 24 hours

These are usually made of tung oil or linseed oil in a hand-rubbed and easy-to-use base. Some brands also contain tints and are a great option for beginners because they can be applied in one step and are hard to mess up.


Typical drying time: 2 to 4 hours

This is the professional choice for most cabinetry and furniture because it dries quickly and can be applied in multiple coats for a “mile-deep” appearance. Exercise caution when using lacquer on refinished furniture, because it can react badly to trace residues left from the stripping process—so make sure to rinse off any stripping chemicals thoroughly. Lacquer is available in gloss and satin.


Typical drying time: less than 1 hour

Wax has been popular for centuries because it is easy to apply, dries quickly, and is almost foolproof. Many wax products are available in assorted tints so that you can stain and finish in one step. The disadvantage is that no other finish can be applied once wax is on the surface. You will have to completely strip and refinish the piece if you ever want to change its appearance.

Warning: Finishing Products Are Highly Flammable

Most finishing products are highly flammable, so you should keep all finishing processes away from open flame or heat sources. Also, allow rags to dry out completely after use, and do not store them in a bag. Hang them or lay them flat. Rags soaked in flammable substances can self-combust, even after they are dry.

How to Apply Stains and Finishes to Wood

Once you’ve chosen your finish, it’s time to apply it. Here we go!

Materials You'll Need

  • Work apron or old clothes
  • Disposable or rubber gloves
  • Newspaper or drop cloth
  • Sandpaper (medium, fine, and superfine)
  • Sanding block and/or electric sander
  • Tack cloth
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Stain of your choice
  • Poly brushes for stain
  • Cotton rags or paper towels
  • Final finish of your choice
  • Good bristle brushes (for varnish)
  • Steel wool
  • Wood filler (if necessary)


  1. Prep the surface: Before you begin, don’t forget to spread drop cloths to protect the surrounding area and to change into old clothes that can get messy. Then using a sanding block and/or an electric sander, sand the raw wood with medium sandpaper and then follow up with fine and superfine sandpaper until all sanding lines are smoothed away and no longer visible. Always work in the direction of the grain. If you have applied wood filler, sand it until all excess is removed.
  2. Remove all dust: Vacuum the wood, the work area, and even your clothes, then use a tack cloth to pick up all remaining dust. Dust is an enemy to a good final finish.
  3. Stir it up: Make sure to stir the stain thoroughly before you apply it. It is important to mix all pigments and solids into the stain base to achieve an even coat. Do not shake stain unless the manufacturer recommends it.
  4. Apply the stain: Brush on the stain in the direction of the wood grain and use a cotton rag to wipe off any excess. If a second coat of stain is desired, follow the manufacturer’s directions. Many stains must completely dry between coats, which usually takes 24 hours. Allow the final coat of stain to dry overnight before applying the finish.
  5. Get ready to varnish: Use a tack rag again to rub down all surfaces before varnishing.
  6. Stir again: Stir your varnish completely. Do not shake it, because this can create bubbles in the finish.
  7. Apply finish: Using good bristle brushes, brush the finish on across the grain and then quickly re-brush it in the direction of the grain. This assures that all grain is filled with the coating.
  8. Be patient: Follow the varnish manufacturer’s directions, but generally allow each coat to dry overnight. Do not try to rush the drying process with fans, because this can stir up dust that will necessitate sanding and finishing again.
  9. Apply a second coat: If more than one coat is needed, lightly buff the previous coat with superfine steel wool, then rub down all surfaces again with a tack rag, and then apply the next coat.

How to Hide Wood Blemishes

If you have a chip or a ding in a piece of furniture, the problem may be that the wood finish or the varnish has been damaged, rather than the actual wood itself.

Clear fingernail polish can sometimes be used to hide tiny defects. If the damage is larger and you don’t want to refinish the entire piece, any wood filler can often do the trick. FamoWood and similar products come in several colors to match existing finishes.

Generally, I would use FamoWood, as it stays so soft that it molds to fit the chipped area. Another option is using wax fillers, which are melted with heat so they fill an area and form a permanent bond. After you are finished, choose a good-quality, tinted furniture polish to help even out the repaired areas.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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