Complete Staining Guide for beginners - w/ Videos

Staining wood for beginners

Are you getting ready to stain your wood project and have some questions?  In this blog post I have scoured the internet searching for the most common questions people have when tackling a staining project. 

Most of the questions I can answer from personal experience but there are a few that even me “The Professional” had to look up. 

Staining unfinished wood

Applying stain to an unfinished piece of wood is one of the more common applications people run into. This whole process can be so satisfying as you watch the plain wood quickly transform. 

When staining unfinished wood always properly prepare the surface prior to applying the stain. The quick skinny on prep is to always sand, condition and evenly apply stain to the surface. I will get into more specifics later in this article.

Applying wood stain with a rag

This is my preferred method for applying stain. When using a rag to apply stain I personally feel that I have much better control than with a brush. As the say in Karate Kid “Wax on Wax off”. Using a 2 rag technique you can apply with one rag and wipe with the other. 

Using a rag rather than a brush to apply also makes for a more hand finished piece.  I recommend using simple cotton painters rags as they will hold stain well.  

I also recycle my old white t-shirts using them as rags too!  I tend to only use white t-shirts as there is always a possibility of colored t-shirts bleeding while using oil based stains or mineral spirits.

What happens if you don’t wipe off wood stain?

Although the application process is quite quick never let stain set or puddle on an unfinished piece of wood. The longer the stain sits on a piece of wood the more it soaks into the wood. 

What the worst thing that will happen? It can become a nightmare to blend areas that soaked more than others. 

There are times that I would recommend leaving stain sit longer on the wood.  If there are areas that the stain does not soak in, you can try leaving a dab of stain to soak for a bit. I often use this technique to touch up spots.

How long do you let stain dry between coats

Working with stain is much different than working with paint.  There are manufacturer recommendations from 30 minutes to a mind blowing 2 hours.  I follow none of these time frames. I simply rub the surface with the tip of my finger.  If my finger get covered in stain I may wait a little longer.

Regardless, You will not hurt the finish if you don’t wait.  You will just need to work the stain into the material a little differently.

How many coats of stain on pine

The coats of stain needed for pine will be determined on your personal preference of color.  An important fact to keep in mind is that pine is a soft wood. Stains will penetrate soft woods much faster than hard woods.

Starting with one even coat of stain on pine will surely tell the tale. I typically only plan on one coat of stain on pine on going back to touch up areas with a second.

Why is my stain spotty 

Have you stained a sanded or unfinished piece of wood only to end up with a spotty or blotchy finish?  There may be a few areas of the prep that you will want to revisit. If you’re staining a pine board just understand that pine is a soft wood which absorbs stains like crazy.

Sand finished wood done to bare material

If your piece was stained before you will want to make sure that you sanded all the prior finishes off down to bare wood before applying a new stain. If you’re starting with an unfinished wood make sure to sand as well.  Using a fine grit sandpaper (220+) will help in achieving an even coat with minimal spots.

Was the piece stained prior?

If you are trying to stain a cabinet or piece of furniture that was stained prior you may be able to eliminate some of the prep work.  Have you considered using a Gel Stain? Gel Stain is a colored varnish that can be applied over pre-existing finishes. You may prefer using Gel Stains over traditional oil stains if your a beginner.

Wood not taking stain evenly

Wood conditioner?

There are also conditioning products on the market that can be used on bare wood prior to staining.  These products are to be applied prior to staining and help to achieve an even or more consistent coat of stain.  I personally do not use conditioners but always keep this knowledge in my pocket just in case.  

What is gel stain

Despite the name “gel stain” it is not really stain. It is actually a colored varnish in a gel form. Gel stains do not absorb into the material they sit on the surface while allowing some of the wood grains to shine. 

Gel stains have a purpose for sure. They make a great choice if you’re refinishing a cabinet or piece of furniture. You will save tons of time eliminating a complete sanding. Gel stains are also easier to get that even coat you’re trying to achieve. 

If you haven’t tried a Gel Stain I would definitely consider picking some up and trying them out. You may be surprised. 

Do I need varnish or clear coat after staining?

Adding a varnish or clear coat is completely up to you.  The traditional oil stain soaks into the wood. Adding a clear coat or varnish will help protect the original stain color and wood allowing it to last much longer. 

For surfaces that get a lot of wear & tear I would definitely recommend adding a protective coat. If you have a stained table top the clear coat will protect the wood from spills. 

How long to let stain dry before polyurethane

Unlike the wait time between coats of stain, polyurethane is different. Always follow the recommended dry time before applying a polyurethane. 

If the proper dry time is not met you can end up with a cracked clear coat as time goes on. 

How to get a glass like finish on wood

Whether you’re looking for a glass like finish or just a really smooth finish on your project it just takes time and effort.

To get that really smooth finish on your steam project requires lots of sanding. Most of the sanding can be done in the prep stages prior to staining your piece. 

After your piece is stained I like to start with 220-320 grit sandpaper on an orbital sander.  You will want to get your steam surface as smooth as possible prior to applying any clear coat or polyurethane.

After the stain surface is sanded smooth you will need to apply your choice of polyurethane, varnish or shellac. There are different advantages in disadvantages to each one of these products. One example is the potential of color change. Shellac has been known to add a yellow tint to the finished stain color.  Oil based clear coat will hold up much longer in high traffic areas than water-based.

After choosing your clear coat it is a simple process of applying clear coat and sanding.  We typically end our sanding with a 1200 grit sandpaper to achieve a really smooth surface.

If you want the wood surface to appear more glass like you will most likely be looking for a 2 part epoxy.  This type of finish is often found on bar tops as it will withstand all sorts of abuse.


Well I hope this article has helped you with any of your staining questions.  Happy Staining!