Staining Wood: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

Intimidated by staining wood or keep running into missteps? Follow these 5 easy steps for a flawless finish every time!

I have learned so much from teaching others in DIY Workshops. One of the things that continues to surprise me is how nervous people are about staining wood! Mainly because they have never done it before. Staining wood is a great choice for enhancing its natural beauty, especially pine. I prefer to use pine for projects (hello, The Polished Pine!) mainly because it is soft, cheap, and easy to work with. Sometimes I like the natural light color of the wood but mostly I prefer a deeper, darker color. Using stain opens up a whole world of options for more enhanced color. 

The great news is staining wood could not be easier! All you need to do is apply the stain to the wood, let it soak in, and then wipe off excess. That’s seriously it!  It’s one of those things you put off doing but once you finally try it, blows your mind on how easy and awesome it is!

You’ll be surprised at how much stain can enhance the wood grain and all those knots. A little bit will go a long way. Unlike paint, which sits on top, stain is absorbed into the surface of the wood by soaking into the wood fibers. It is also permanent. The only way to remove wood stain is to completely sand it out of the wood fibers. Some people I know (uh, me!) have suffered through this mistake. Check out Step 1 to avoid this issue!

Staining Wood: a Complete Beginner’s Guide

Staining is an easy way to enhance wood’s natural beauty. Follow these 5 Steps for a  guaranteed flawless finish.

Step 1: Begin with the Correct Stain

It may seem overwhelming to choose the ‘right’ stain but it basically comes down to whether or not your project will be exposed to the elements. As a general rule of thumb think oil based for projects that will be outside and water based for projects that will be inside. 

Oil Based Stains

If you are staining a project for outdoor use, for example a picnic table, an oil based stain is your best choice. Oil based stains are more durable and made to stand up to the elements – wind, rain, and sun. They typically take a little longer to dry and have a very strong odor. 

Water Based Stains

I almost exclusively use water based stains. Although water based stains are less durable than oil, they are perfect for home decor projects. There are a wide range of colors available and clean up is easy with soap and water. Another plus is they do not smell nearly as strong as oil based stains which makes them easier to use indoors. I’ve used water based stains on everything from floating shelves I built for my kitchen, wood frames, wood signs, and even porch signs. It works for porch signs since I add a protective layer (Step #5!) and keep it under my porch roof so it’s never directly in the elements.

A Note About Color Choice

I think the real challenge comes when choosing a stain color. There are so many options! It can be hard to visualize what your final product will look like, especially since the end result depends on the type of wood and how long the stain was able to soak into the wood.

Whatever stain color you choose I absolutely recommend testing it first. Apply a small amount to the back of your project. Or if you don’t want to do that, use a scrap piece of wood (the same type as your project piece) to see how it will actually look. Wait for it to fully dry and decide if that is the right shade you were looking for. 

TIP: Apply several different colors of stain on a scrap piece of wood and label each one. I keep this in my workshop and reference it whenever I need help in deciding which colors of stain I want for projects!

Step 2: Prepare Work Area

Choose a suitable work area and protect your surface, if necessary. Check the label of the stain you are using for complete instructions but an optimal environment would be dry and around 70 degrees. I try to stain outside but living in the northeast does not make that easy! So I typically end up in my basement which is dry and warm – perfect for staining. 

Wear old clothes. Stain is very watery and permanent so expect drops of stain and splatter to get everywhere. This includes your carpet, table, clothes, fingers, furniture – anything it touches! An old box flattened out works great to stain on because it absorbs all the little drops of stain that will fall from your brush/rag or project.

Gather all your supplies ahead of time
  • Rag or foam brush
  • Clean rag to wipe down project
  • Stir stick
  • Stain can opener
  • Latex gloves (because no one thinks the permanent dark brown stain under your fingernails looks attractive. Or at least I’ve been told)
  • Old clothes
  • Table covering – I like to use an old flattened out box

I typically work in pockets of time, like that 25 minutes before the kids get off the bus or in the old days, during a nap. For this reason I keep an old oversized flannel with my stains so I can quickly throw it on over whatever I’m wearing without having to ‘waste’ time changing. I also keep everything together: all my stains and supplies, old flannel, and flattened box in the basement closet. This way, everything is exactly where I need it and no time is lost looking for or gathering supplies from different areas. 

Step 3: Prepare Wood: Sand & Conditioner

You only need to worry about sanding if you are planning to use reclaimed or pallet wood. If you are not, then skip right ahead to the part on conditioning wood WHICH IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP! I immediately apologize for using all caps! haha! But seriously using conditioner on your wood before you stain is so very important! Applying wood conditioner guarantees your stain will be evenly absorbed into the wood. Especially important to use with pine because a splotchy and uneven stain job will be glaringly obvious!

Sanding – for Reclaimed or Pallet Wood

If you are using reclaimed or pallet wood you will need to clean the wood first. If it’s totally disgusting, you can use a wire brush and bucket of soapy water. Typically, a good hard stream of water from your hose will do the trick. Sunshine to dry and then you’re ready to sand. 

You will want to sand down to the natural wood as much as possible. This will take some elbow grease but be totally worth it for the smooth, even looking color you’ll get. Use an orbital sander if you have one. A sanding block will also work. Begin with a lower grit like 120, then sand again with 220 grit to smooth out.

Remember that staining wood enhances its natural beauty and brings out the wood’s rich textures and colors. Similarly, it also enhances any imperfections of the wood – scratches, grooves, dents, and knots. You may want to leave the dents, grooves, knots, and other imperfections as they are for a rustic look or fill them in with stainable wood filler. Fill any holes or cracks, let dry, and sand away the excess.

After all sanding is completed, wipe down with a tack cloth or better yet, vacuum all the dust away. 


Oh man if I could somehow include computer fireworks right here I totally would! Anything to hammer home that wood conditioner is so important for staining! Especially for soft woods like pine. It will absorb into the wood and help the stain evenly saturate the wood without looking splotchy and uneven.

The good news is it’s really easy and if you are already set up to stain, might as well do this too! You should follow the instructions on the specific brand you choose but the basic idea is to apply the wood conditioner with a foam brush and let soak into the wood for about 10-15 minutes. Wipe away the excess conditioner with a clean rag. Apply your stain within the next hour or so. 

These preparation steps seem easy to skip but don’t! In the end, the time it takes to properly prepare your piece of wood is less than the time it will take to fix any mistakes! True story! Chronic mistake maker over here. Rest easy in knowing I made all the mistakes so now I can let you know what NOT to do!

Step 4: Application of Stain

This is the easiest step! Especially since you’ve already used the wood conditioner to get your wood ready. The process is the same! To begin, carefully stir the stain as it tends to settle. Really scrape the bottom of the can to fully mix. 

Use a rag or foam brush to apply. I like to work in sections, with the wood grain, across my project piece. You will want to saturate the wood with stain and then let it soak into the wood for about 15-20 minutes. Once it has had a chance to soak in, wipe off the excess, and I mean ALL of the excess stain, with a clean rag. An old t-shirt works great for this. 

Leaving extra stain on your wood will not make it look darker. Stain that is not absorbed into the wood fibers will simply sit on top of the wood. And worse, if you do not wipe it off, it dries into a tacky layer and is a pain to remove.

Step 5: Finishing Options

Protect all your hard work! Now that you have stained your piece of wood you will definitely want to protect it from every day wear and tear. You will want to be sure your stain has completely dried before applying any type of finish. At least 8 hours of dry time or better yet, overnight. 

My favorite finish is a water based polycrylic.  It dries crystal clear and you can choose glossy, satin, or matte finish. It is the perfect choice for protecting items from light use and minimal wear and tear.

Polyurethane is a great choice for sealing projects that require a more durable finish. This is an absolute for your outdoor projects or something that will get a lot of use. I used polyurethane on a kitchen table I refinished to protect it against wet glasses and lots of wear and tear. I also used it to finish a set of corn hole boards to stand up to outdoor elements and again, lots of wear and tear. The biggest drawback to polyurethane, however, is it can leave a yellowish tint to your project. For some stains this may not be too noticeable but for a lighter shades, you will definitely notice a yellow tint.

So there you have it! The 5 Steps to achieving a perfectly, beautiful stained piece of wood. What are you waiting for?!? Get out there and stain something with all the confidence of pro DIYer!

Already forgot half the steps!?! No worries, I got you! I made this quick reference sheet just for you! You can download here!

I’d love to see how your staining project turned out! Don’t forget to tag #ThePolishedPine when posting!

Check out some of my favorite projects!

DIY Initial Fabric String Art

Mini House Home is Where Mom is

Mini Wood House with Chimney

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