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How To Stain Wood – Easy Process That Works Great

Wood stain is a centuries-old dye or pigment used to change the color of raw wood. Read the wiki page to learn more about the history. However, for this article, I’ll just cover my basic and simple process for how to stain wood on a sanded and ready project.

How To Stain Wood

For my pine coffee table project I’ll be using a pre-stain wood conditioner, and then after a few minutes I’ll apply my English Chestnut (from Minwax) oil-based stain.

I want a lot of stain to soak into the wood to make it darker, so I will be brushing on the stain. This puts more stain on the surface than if I just wiped it on with a rag.

I’m using a cheap throwaway brush to save on cleanup. This work fine since I’ll be wiping off the stain after a few minutes, so it’s not like any of the brush strokes will be visible.

And using a brush also lays down the coat much quicker, so I can cover a larger area before removing the excess.

I’ve only sanded the project up to 180 grit. This leaves a slightly rougher finish than my typical 220 grit finish sanding. I do this because I want the stain to be darker, and the rougher the wood, the darker it gets.

However, for the exposed end grain I’ve sanded to 220. End grain is notorious for soaking up additional stain and getting darker than the rest of the project.

So if you want the end grain to be a closer color to the face and edge grain, sand it to a finer grit. This helps close up the pores more than they would be otherwise, and then it soaks up less stain.

But overall, the sanding process is CRITICAL for a good looking finish. Take your time and get the sanding done right, before applying any stain or finish.

>> More Sanding Tips – Sand Like You Know What You’re Doing (new window)

Application – How To Stain Wood

First is the setup of your finishing area. You’ll want to lay out your pieces in a way you can easily get to them while staining, without having to reach over too far.

Every piece should be elevated from the work bench. I’ve made some little pine blocks I set out to put my table top on. This allows me to stain all the way to the lower edge without staining my work bench.

Piece getting stained is elevated from work bench with wood blocks

First, I’ll apply the pre-stain conditioner, let it soak in for about 10 minutes, and then wipe off the excess with a clean rag. This conditioner is really helpful by reducing uneven colors in the finish. It reduces blotchiness and dark areas.

Pine table top after applying pre stain wood conditioner

At this point you want to go ahead and apply the stain. The can even says you need to stain within 2 hours of applying the conditioner.

Before you start, stir your stain really well. You’ll feel part of the stain material globbed up at the bottom. This needs to be broken loose and stirred until it’s mixed in.

Now soak up some stain in your brush and just brush it on, going with the grain when possible.

At this stage, the stain will not look perfectly even. That’s ok, just brush it on so it’s sitting on the surface and soaking in.

Just applied english chestnut stain to this pine table top using a brush

You’ll want the stain to sit there about 15 minutes or so.

I try to only apply stain in about 5 minute increments, covering however much area that ends up being. I just make sure it’s a complete surface of a given board (never stop a coat without finishing that particular surface).

This way when I start my 15 minute timer, I know the starting point of that surface will get 20 minutes, which is still OK. If you had been applying for 15 minutes straight, then parts are ready to be wiped off as soon as your done. This just complicates things and may end up with an uneven finish.

Once it’s set for 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll wipe off what’s left on the surface with clean rags. I use paper towels for this step, and it takes 6 or 7 to get the job done on a piece this size.

SAFETY NOTE >> Do NOT wad up and throw used stain rags in the trash, or anywhere for that matter. Lay them out flat in an area where there’s plenty ventilation to avoid fumes gathering and creating heat. Wet stain rags, if disposed of improperly, can spontaneously combust and start a fire. I like to lay mine out until they’ve dried, then I toss them in a metal bucket until trash day.

So during this step (wiping off excess stain), take your time and wipe it off in the direction with the grain of the wood.

For my table top, I’ve got breadboard ends. I’m careful not to wipe across any grain at this joint. Doing so could leave obvious lines in the finish going across the grain, which looks very unprofessional.

Pine coffee table top - just wiped off stain

Once it’s all wiped off, let it sit overnight. At this point you can determine if it got dark enough. You can darken it more by applying another coat and doing the process again.

Once the final coat on this surface has dried overnight, you’ll want to flip the piece over and stain the under or back side as well.


Pine table top sanded and ready for stain
Pine table top after letting stain sit overnight

This is after sitting overnight. As you can see, it’s a flat finish, which is to be expected with stain alone. I’ll achieve a nice satin or glossy sheen later on after I apply the protective finish.

So that’s it – my process on how to stain wood – Subscribe below for access to free woodworking resources, and to get content like this delivered to your inbox.

Next – What kind of protective finish to use

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About The Author
Adam has been woodworking for the last 10 years. He considers himself a 'Small Shop Woodworker' and practices his hobby in his garage. With the lack of time, space, and proper tools, he always finds ways to get great results without over-complicating or over-thinking the process. Various shop jigs, table saw sleds, and tricks of the trade have served him well. God has blessed him with a beautiful family, as well as a passion for teaching others about woodworking. You can read more about Adam here.

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