My Top 10 Tips for Staining Wood

My Top 10 Tips for Staining Wood

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I had so much fun making our fence sign, that I had to make my mom one too.

Top 10 wood staining and finishing tips - Peonies and Cream

I decided to stain hers rather than paint it to see the sign in a different way.

And I love how it turned out!

I am a huge stain fan, in fact, I stain almost everything I make.

Top 10 wood staining and finishing tips - Peonies and Cream

This project reminded me of my very first woodworking experiences.

I always thought I would hate the staining process (because it intimidated me) and love the sanding portion instead.

Oh man could I have been more wrong?

Instead, I love not only the way staining looks, but I enjoy the process of it!

And I think you will too!

Here are my top ten stain tips, to help you fall in love with wood staining like I have!

Top 10 wood staining and finishing tips - Peonies and Cream

Water or oil

First lets talk about stain options. There are water based and oil based stains. Oil based stains take longer to dry, which is an advantage when working with large scale projects to help ensure even coating. But, as you have probably already assumed, since it takes longer to dry, it extends the length of your project. Now on the other hand, water based stains dry rather quickly. This definitely cuts down project time, but also can cause uneven stain coverage and blotchy, or pooled spots. I typically work with an oil based stain. I like that I'm not on the clock when applying it, and usually plan for the time, so I can put on a coat, and then move on to other things while it dries, and typically come back to it the next day to continue on. 

Cloth over brush

Almost everything I have read online only talks about applying your stain with a brush. I find this to be totally crazy! I have only ever stained with a brush once, and that was the very first time. I now stain with a plain white wash cloth. I bought a large pack of them at Walmart for ridiculously cheap, and they've always worked well for me (especially since you need a rag to wipe off any excess stain anyways). Be careful with this method, cause it can drip from an overly soaked rag, but so can a brush. It can also stain your hands pretty well, which is why I wear nitrile gloves when staining. And since I usually use the same stain color, I can place it in a glass mason jar and seal it, keeping my rag damp enough to pick up and use on a different day. Just be sure you label the jar if you do this with more than one shade. 

Brush types

If you do want to use a brush, the bristle type depends on the stain you are using. If you are using a water based stain, you should use a synthetic brush to avoid swelling of the bristles. These brushes can be cleaned with mineral spirits (paint thinner). You can use a natural bristle brush for oil-based stains, and they can be cleaned with regular old soap and water. 

Prep - sand and clean

Before beginning, make sure your piece is fully sanded and cleaned off, at least to your liking. My sanding depends on what I am making. If I am making a piece of furniture that will be sat on, touched often, or has any type of flat horizontal surface (for lots of dusting) I sand pretty thoroughly. If it is just a wall hanging or sign, I'm much less thorough and mostly just smooth the edges a bit and any overly rough areas. Be sure too always sand in the direction of the grain to avoid any "scratch" marks when finishing. Right before I stain, I also typically grab a barely damp rag and wipe it gently over my project to remove any unwanted dust or fragments left from sanding. 


If you don't already have a preferred stain color, or brand even, then I highly recommend testing out your stain on some leftover wood, or even the back of your project. You don't have to do the entire process, but do a coat or two and let it dry as you would on your piece, to ensure you are satisfied with the end result. Most hardware stores and even Amazon sells tester cans for just this purpose! This is how I found our go-to shade, as well as the one I use for all projects for my mom. Also, keep in mind that different surfaces of the wood will take the stain differently. Knotty and heavily grained areas will soak up much more stain than smooth even surfaces. Rough surfaces will too, especially areas where the wood has been cut against the grain such as edges of a piece of wood. Make sure you test these areas too to get a full picture. 

Save your preferred stain

With that said, once you do find the stain for your project, I recommend you make a note of it if it's a shade you intend to use again. I'd suggest putting a note in your phone or even snapping a picture of the can. That way, if you happen to be at the store and need stain for a project, you don't need to worry if you didn't check before you left. Trust me, I've been in this situation more times than I'd like to admit. 

Shaken or Stirred

This tip I had to do quite a bit of research to ensure I was giving out the best information. I have always shaken my stain to thoroughly mix any settled pigment back in. But a lot of content out in internet land says to never shake stain of any kind. This info, while well-intentioned, is ill-informed. The reasoning behind this rule is that shaking can cause more "air bubbles" than stirring. While this may be true, in any typical stain these bubbles don't last long at all in the can, let alone on your project, and you will be wiping them off before they dry anyways. The true intent of this rule is for any polyurethane finishes or stains with polyurethane mixed in. When using these products you should absolutely stir instead of shaking to minimize bubbles. I hope that clears that up a little better. 

Backside first

This is kind of a silly tip, but one I have learned through messing it up many, many times. If you are staining something like a sign that will have one entire side covered up by a wall or otherwise, stain this side first. Let me explain what I mean. If you read my how-to for wood sign bases, you know I like to stain the backs as well. They sit just about an inch or so off of the wall, and I like to stain all the surfaces to make sure they match from any angle. But I'm not crazy about it. I try to stain the back first, so that I can turn it over and lay the just stained side on my saw-horses to continue staining all the most visible areas. This might leave small smudges or marks on the back side, but all I am concerned about is that the overall color matches and there isn't any untreated wood. 

Take your time - let it dry

I am the queen of trying to cut corners on projects. Time and materials are precious resources for all of us, and if I feel like I can save on either, I always try. But drying time is not the place to do this. You want each coat to be dry enough before moving on. You don't want there to still be any stickiness or tact to the previous coat. Trying to stain over this can cause you to wipe off stain from the previous coat, leaving uneven spots. It can also leave marks in stain that's partially dried, adding an unwanted texture. As I said above, I usually try to do a coat, and then let it dry overnight and go back the next day to continue. 

Sand and clean between

If there are any rough areas after a coat of stain, you can lightly sand it with a very fine grain sandpaper like 400 grit sandpaper to remove any uneven areas. Make sure the stain is completely dry beforehand, and clean any sawdust off before applying any further coats. This step should also be done between any finishing coats, like with a polyurethane seal. ANd don't forget to clear off any dust from sanding. You can use a damp rag here or you can use Tack Cloth which has a grippy, tacky texture and really grabs all the small fine particals for a truely smooth finish. 

So that's it guys, those are my top ten tips for wood finishing with stain!

Have you tried staining yet? If so, do you have a go-to stain shade?

Let me know in the comments below! Or, tag me in an Instagram post with @Peoniesandcream or #Peoniesandcream.

The best tips for wood finishing and staining - Peonies and Cream


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