Can you mix stain with polyurethane to create a custom finish?

For years now, the question of mixing stain and polyurethane has been debated. Some say it’s possible, while others claim the two products are incompatible and should never be mixed.

In this post, we will cover what types of stains work well with polyurethane and why. We’ll also talk about how long the mixture needs to dry before applying a topcoat and offer tips on creating your poly-stain mix.

Can You Mix Stain With Polyurethane?

Yes. You can mix stain with polyurethane to achieve your desired finish color. Mixing stain and poly is a common practice in woodworking. It helps improve the product’s protection against stained wood while reducing the application time. When mixing, ensure both have the same base. That means oil-based poly with oil-based stain and vice versa.

How Much Stain Do You Mix With Polyurethane?

There’s no standard volume for mixing polyurethane and wood stains. However, the most accepted ratio is 50 percent stain to 50 percent polyurethane.

Still, your mixture can contain as little as 25 percent stain and 75 percent polyurethane, depending on the color and consistency you want.

The wood stain will act as a thinner for polyurethane. So, the more the stain in the mixture, the thinner it is likely to be. A mixture with more stain than polyurethane may have a thicker consistency resulting in a glossier surface when applied.

With this detail out of the way, the next logical question is how to mix the two products. Let us look at the mixing procedure below.

How to Mix Stain With Polyurethane

The procedure for mixing stain and polyurethane is straightforward. Here are the steps to follow. And this procedure works best when mixing stain with polyurethane for floors.

Step 1: Cover the floor or worktop with a tarp

You want to cover the surface where you wish to mix the two solutions with plastic sheeting or a suitable drop cloth. Wood stain can spill on the floor or tabletop and discolor it.

Polyurethanes can spill while you stir them and cause undesirable spots on the floor or worktop where you are working.

Covering the surface will provide a buffer that gathers any accidental spills and protects the worktop or floor from unwanted staining.

Are you working on a floor, here’s another article on using wood stain on concrete that may offer additional insights on how to handle the staining process effectively.

Step 2: Prepare the stain

Start by stirring the stain in its container to achieve an even consistency. Wood stain is made up of pigments or colorants usually suspended in a solvent or vehicle.

Since the colorant isn’t always dissolved in the vehicle, its heavier particles tend to settle at the bottom of the container. 

Stirring the stain helps distribute the pigments to achieve a full and rich color throughout the wood stain.

Step 3: Prepare the polyurethane

Like wood stains, polyurethanes need gentle stirring to achieve a custom color and consistency throughout the liquid. 

Use a stirring stick for this purpose and ensure you work in a well-ventilated area. Also, gently stir the solution to avoid the risk of creating bubbles or spilling it all over the place. 

Ensure you are working on top of the drop cloth or plastic sheeting to keep the spillage from muddying the floor or tabletop in case of spills. 

Step 4: Add the stain and polyurethane together 

Once you have stirred both solutions in their respective containers, it’s time to add them together in a glass jar. Pour equal parts of the wood stain and polyurethane into the container you intend to create your mixture. 

The container can be a clean, empty plain latex paint bucket or some other container with a lid. The lid is necessary if you don’t intend to use all or some of the mixture immediately. You will need to close it for safe storage. 

Additionally, you will want to ensure the container is large enough to accommodate the stain and poly without overflowing.

Step 5: Mix them up until the color is even.

The next step is to gently stir the mixture until it achieves an even color and consistency. Remember, polyurethane is usually thicker than wood stain. Therefore, mixing them will result in a thinner solution, so you need to mix them until you achieve a uniform consistency. If you’re looking to adjust the thickness of the mixture, you can refer to our guide on how to thin out wood stain.

If you mix only a small amount of polyurethane and wood stain in a large bucket, consider tipping the bucket to the side to allow for better mixing.

There’s no standard way to measure when the mixture is ready, so eyeball it and use your better judgment to tell when it has mixed well. You may have to stir gently and patiently for a few minutes to ensure it is well mixed. 

Step 6: Cover and mark the container if you plan to store it

Suppose you wish to use the mixture in the future, cover and mark its container for easier identification. Again, it is upon you to decide what kind of marking works best for you.

You must thoroughly stir the mixture before use if you store it for future use. Also, we recommend stirring it a bit from time to time during application to ensure it remains uniform in color and consistency. 

What Kind of Stain Can I Mix With Polyurethane?

The best kind of stain to mix with polyurethane is an oil-based stain. 

Mixing oil-based stain with oil-based polyurethane provides a durable finish that can create special effects like faux colors on furniture, walls, and other wooden surfaces. 

What Kind of Polyurethane Can You Mix With Stain?

You can mix oil-based polyurethane with oil stain to create a mixture with your desired color and consistency. When mixing polyurethane and wood stain, ensure the two solutions have the same base. For instance, they must both be oil-based to mix.  

Can you mix oil-based stain with water-based polyurethane

No. Oil and water never mix. Water-based poly will likely have adhesion problems if mixed with or applied over an oil-based wood stain. So, always ensure the polyurethane and stain have the same base to mix them.

You can always tell whether the product is oil-based or water-based by reading the label on the container. 

Can you mix gel stain with polyurethane?

Mixing gel stain and polyurethane isn’t common in woodworking. If you wish to mix polyurethane and stain, consider going for oil stain and oil-based poly. 

Will stain dry over polyurethane?

Applying penetrating stain over polyurethane isn’t a common practice and may present drying problems. However, gel stain can work well and dry over polyurethane since it doesn’t penetrate the stained or unstained wood. 

How long after staining can I apply polyurethane?

You should apply polyurethane between 24 to 48 hours after staining. However, you may need to wait a day more or longer in case of humid summer weather, slowing down the stain drying process. 

It’s generally better to wait for as long as three days for the same stain to dry before applying polyurethane if you are unwilling to take a chance. 

Should I sand between stain and polyurethane?

Yes, you need to sand between coats of stain and polyurethane using a synthetic sanding pad to remove any colored surfaces imperfections that may become visible under the clear coat.

Consider using fine-grit sandpaper for this purpose and wipe away the sanding dust before applying the poly.  

Cautions to Take When Mixing Polyurethane and Stain

  • Don’t mix water-based stain with oil-based polyurethane. Ensure the two products are both oil-based to be compatible.
  • Avoid mixing several types of stains together. Different wood stains have varying chemical compositions, so mixing them can result in incompatibility issues. 
  • Don’t mix oil-based stain with water-based polyurethane. Doing so will result in incompatibility issues. 
  • Mix one-part stain with one-part poly or 25 percent stain with 75 percent polyurethane for the desired results. 
  • Work with the same grain patterns and avoid applying too much polyurethane.

Benefits of Mixing Stain and Poly 

Mixing polyurethane and wood stain is a common practice today—but why? 

Mixing offers more color options than pure wood stains. 

Stain and polyurethane finishes are some of the most popular in woodworking. But since the range of stain colors available is limited, you can mix stain and polyurethane to achieve more variety in stain color choices. 

Mixing poly and stain reduces application time. 

Usually, you would have to apply stain and let it dry before coating it with a polyurethane sealant. However, mixing the two products helps reduce the steps in the application process to a one-step task, saving time and effort.  

You get a stronger, more protective topcoat.

The mixture of polyurethane and stain is more potent than individual poly or stain. As such, it offers more protection to your wood. 

What is Stain?

Wood stain is a pigmented substance used for coloring wood and enhancing the natural beauty of its grain. Stains can also protect the wood from molds, water damage, and the damaging effects of UV rays.

Types of stain 

Wood stains exist in a wide variety of colors and types. This section looks at the various types of stains available. 

Water-based stain

These are wood stains consisting of water as the binder or vehicle and water-soluble aniline dyes as the colorant.

Water-based stains are ecologically friendly and less polluting to the environment since they do not contain chemical thinners in their formula. They also do not irritate the skin in case of contact.

Water-based stains are also easier to clean and dry quicker than other wood stain types.  

Oil-based stain

Oil stains are what come to mind when you speak of wood stains. They are the most common type of stain and often consist of linseed oil or occasionally a mixture of varnish and linseed oil as the binder. 

Oil stains are slow-drying. This property makes them easier to apply because you have more time to wipe off the excess stain before it gets tacky. 

To clean them, you will need to use mineral spirits (latex paint thinner) in addition to soap and water.

Read also: Do you need to seal stained wood?

Varnish wood stain

These are stains containing only polyurethane varnish or oil-based varnish as the binder. They look pretty much the same as oil stains, except the varnish makes them dry hard, unlike oil stains. 

Because of the varnish, you can apply stain on a stained surface and leave it to dry without wiping off the excess. On the other hand, oil stains will never dry if you don’t wipe the excess after application. 

Lacquer Stain

These are fast-drying wood stains containing a fast-drying pigmented varnish, mostly ketones, and xylene. 

Contrary to what the name may suggest, lacquer stains do not contain any lacquer. They get their name from the fast drying agent in their formula. 

The stains take only about 15 minutes to dry, making them popular among professional woodworkers.

Gel Stain

As the name suggests, gel stains exist in a jelly-type form. They are highly dense with a high concentration of pigments in a thickened form. 

Unlike oil and water-based stains that cure by penetrating the wood, gel stains have little penetration ability because of their thickness. They generally cure by forming a solid-colored stain blend on the surface of the substrate. 

Most gel stains are oil-based, so you can use one part mineral spirits to thin or clean them. Here is an in-depth comparison between gel stain and regular stain to learn from.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is an artificial resin existing in liquid plastic form. They are available in two primary forms: water-based varieties and oil-based options in satin and glossy finishes.

Water-based poly

Water-based polyurethane is the most popular polyurethane type due to its low odor and less toxic fumes.

They dry clear without leaving a tint as oil-based versions do. Water-based polyurethanes also dry faster, making them quicker to apply. However, these polyurethanes don’t hold up well against chemicals and heat.

Oil-based polyurethane 

These versions are more durable than water-based options and hold much better against chemicals and heat. 

Ensure you apply them in a well-ventilated area since they produce toxic fumes that could be hazardous.  

Stain Polyurethane Mix FAQs

Here are a few questions for those interested in adding stain to polyurethane.

Can you add stain to polyurethane? 

Yes, you can mix stain with polyurethane to get the stain color you want for your wood finishing project. Polyurethane is a resilient material that handles both water and oil-based stains well, even without having to heavily prep your surface first.

Can Minwax stain be added to polyurethane?

Minwax PolyShades contains both stain and polyurethane in its formula already; hence, it’s unnecessary to add polyurethane to it. As an advantage, the stain can be used over polyurethane finishes to change or enhance the color without removing the existing finish.

Can stain be mixed with water-based polyurethane?

Oil and water do not mix, so oil stain cannot mix with water-based polyurethane. Water-based poly can also have adhesion problems if used over an oil-based stain coat. Instead, consider applying a coat of de-waxed shellac as a barrier between the polyurethane and the oil-based stain layer.

Related read: What is the difference between polyurethane and shellac?

Is stain and poly in one product good?

Mixtures of polyurethanes and stains are among the best products ever made because they have excellent tinting and coating qualities. 

Interesting read: Can you tint polyurethane?

Does polyurethane stick to stains?

Yes, polyurethane sticks to stained wood. You, however, need to scuff it up with steel wool before applying a very thin coat of polyurethane using a fine brush, cloth, or foam pad. 

Does oil-based stain need to be mixed?

It is always best to stir oil-based stains with a flat stir stick to distribute the pigment in the liquid. Pigment particles are heavier than the liquid tend to settle at the bottom of the container. Therefore, stirring the stain before use will ensure a uniform color all across the liquid. 

Can you mix stain colors?

Yes, you can mix different colors of stains together to create new colors. Mix stains with the same undertone to create a more subtle color. Use stains with similar undertones as opposed to complementary undertones to create a more dramatic effect. Read our guide that answers the question ‘can you mix wood stains?’ to learn more.

Can you mix stain with Tung oil?

It’s generally not recommended to mix Tung oil with stain. Each has different purposes and properties. Stain is used for coloring wood, while Tung oil is a natural wood finish providing protection and enhancing wood’s beauty. Applying them separately ensures better results for both staining and finishing.

Read also: Can you paint over composite decking?

Can You Mix Stain With Polyurethane Summary

So, Can you Mix Stain With Polyurethane?

Both stains and polyurethanes are excellent products for finishing wood furniture. Better still, mixing poly and stain can multiply the benefits and save you time by reducing the application into a one-off process.  

We hope you found this guide helpful. Please share your thoughts and observations in the comment section below.

6 thoughts on “Can You Mix Stain With Polyurethane?”

  1. Experimenting on getting the perfect color for a project. Love the color I’m getting with a gloss poly-stain product but not nearly as shiny as I’d like. Could I apply a clear polyurethane coat on top?

  2. If I am using a product like minwax complete1 step, how long do you recommend waiting before the final top coat? Would I sand between coats? Do I need to add a sealer first?

    • How long you should wait depends on the type of poly – is it oil-based or water-based? But make sure the previous coat is dry enough before adding the final topcoat. Should buff between coats to help avoid cloudiness and level the surface.

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