Ever been in the stain aisle at your local hardware store, just staring at all the different options, and have no idea what stain to use?
Been there, done that.
Gel, Polyshade, Oil-based, Water-based, Varnish, Organic … the list goes on.
Here’s a quick run-through of the most common wood stains (the stuff you’ll find in any hardware store) and their differences to help you decide.
This post contains affiliate links. See my full disclosure here.
Oil-based stain is the most common type of stain. It is available in any paint or hardware store and is often the first choice for DIYers.
Pros: Easy to apply, rich color, enhances the natural wood grain
Use: Wood Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Wood Doors, Trim, Molding, Hardwood Floors
Application: Cloth, Staining Pad, Natural Bristle Brush. Apply stain, allow it to penetrate for 5-15 minutes, and wipe off the excess with a clean cloth. For a darker finish, apply a second coat after 4-6 hours.
Cons: Oil-bases stains add beautiful color, but no protection. Once the stain has dried, apply a clear finish for protection.
I use oil-based stain and a Polyurethane or Polycrylic finish on most of my projects.
Water-based stain produces a slightly softer color than oil-based stain. It is available in more hues than oil-based stain and is often mixed right in the store (like paint).
Pros: Fast-drying, easy water cleanup, thicker formula reduces blotching on soft woods
Use: Wood Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Wood Doors, Trim, Molding, Accessories
Application: Cloth, Staining Pad, Synthetic Bristle Brush, Foam Brush, or Rag. Apply stain, allow it to penetrate for 1-5 minutes, and wipe off the excess with a clean cloth. For a darker finish, apply a second coat after 2 hours.
Cons: Water-based stains raise the grain of wood if applied without a water-based pre-stain wood conditioner. Make sure to apply a wood conditioner prior to staining. Water-based stains also dry very quickly, which makes it difficult to apply over large surfaces. Depending on your project, the quick dry-time could be a pro or a con. Once the stain has dried, apply a clear finish for protection. Use Polycrylic for a crystal-clear finish or Water Based Oil Modified Polyurethane for a warm, amber tone.
Gel stain lies on the surface of wood rather than soaking into the grain. As a result, it covers porous and non-porous surfaces evenly. Additionally, gel stain doesn’t run or splatter, which is ideal for vertical surfaces, such as cabinets or doors. However, because gel stain does not penetrate the wood grain, it does not add as much depth to wood as liquid stains do.
Pros: No drips (good for vertical surfaces), uniform color, can use on wood, veneer, metal, and fiberglass
Use: Woodwork, Furniture, Doors, Molding, Trim, Cabinets, Accessories
Application: Brush, Cloth, or Foam Applicator. Apply stain, allow it to sit for 3 minutes, and wipe off the excess with a clean cloth. For a darker finish, apply a second coat after 8-10 hours. After 24 hours, apply a clear protective finish such as Polyurethane, Water Based Oil Modified Polyurethane, or Spar Urethane (for exterior use).
Cons: Collects in tight corners or crevices and can be difficult to remove. Does not penetrate and enhance the wood grain as liquid stains do.
Polyshade stain is stain and polyurethane in one fell swoop. It enhances the wood grain with a beautiful, rich color and polyurethane finish.
Pros: Stain and protective coat in one step, can apply over polyurethane to change the color of finished wood without removing the existing finish, available in satin or gloss sheen
Use: Furniture, Woodwork, Doors, Cabinets, Accessories
Application: Natural Bristle Brush. Apply stain, let dry for 6 or more hours, rub the surface lightly with fine steel wool, and add a second coat. Apply a third coat for deeper color. For additional protection, add a coat of Polyurethane.
Cons: Must apply very thin coats, maintain a “wet” edge, and take care to minimize brush marks and bubbles (much like applying polyurethane).
Though there are some significant differences to be aware of, a lot of the decision comes down to personal preference.
Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!
Thanks for stopping by Bitterroot DIY!