Wood stains do an excellent job of adding warmth to wooden floors, paneling, furniture, and more. But if the item is already painted, the first instinct is likely to want to strip down the paint before applying the stain.

Depending on the size of your paint job, paint stripping can be an added lot of work. So, can you use stain over paint wood and save yourself the hassle of paint stripping?

This article provides a detailed answer to this question. Read along to learn the options on the table when you want to stain a painted wood.

Can You Stain Over Painted Wood?

Yes. Staining a painted wood is entirely possible, but you will want to use gel stain instead of regular wood stain. The latter (standard wood stains) will not color your wood correctly because they need to penetrate the substrate in order to work. But a painted surface does not allow for such penetration.

Gel stain, on the other hand, works by forming a layer on the surface of the object you are staining. Its working is not dependent on penetration, so it will do the work even with the paint covering the wood pores.

Stain Over Paint Technique and Basics

It is crucial to understand how stain works to know how best to stain a piece of painted wood and get the best results. As already mentioned, different stains color wood by soaking into the fibers.

This is why wood grains tend to be more pronounced on stained wood, giving it a unique texture and natural beauty. The stain gets deep into the wood and locks in color.

In contrast, paint adheres to the wood by sitting on its surface, forming a masking layer on top of it. This means if you were to apply wood stain over a painted surface, it would only form a weathered, somewhat aged look rather than the even color of stained wood. 

With this understanding, you have one of two options: 

  • Test out the standard wood stain on a small, inconspicuous section of your painted wood to see if you like the faded look. If you do, proceed and complete the project following the procedure on the product label. 
  • Skip the regular water based stains or oil-based stains and use gel stain instead. In this case, follow the procedure below. 

Related: Painting vs staining wood

How to Stain Over Painted Wood

Even though you are skipping the whole stripping part, a bit of surface preparation is still required. Thankfully, it is a simple task.

The supplies you will need

  • Sanding block and fine-grit sandpaper—preferably 180 grit
  • Drop cloth
  • Safety face mask or respirator
  • Protective hand gloves
  • Foam brush or high-quality paintbrush
  • Washcloth
  • Power washer
  • Staining rag for wood
  • Staining pad (optional)

The procedure for staining over paint 

Here is a simplified step-by-step procedure to follow when completing this task.  

Step 1: Clean the painted surface

Start by getting rid of any accumulated dirt, dust, and grime on the surface you want to stain. Use a mild detergent or dish soap and water for this purpose. 

Once you have your cleaning solution ready, simply dunk a washcloth into the soapy solution and use it to wipe the entire surface of the object. Then, use a clean rag or towel to wipe it dry. 

Step 2: Scuff sand it with wet, fine-grit sandpaper

A light sanding is necessary to ensure the stain has something to grip on. You don’t want to make the surface rough or too smooth, so use 180-grit sandpaper to do the paint job.

First, sprinkle some clean water on the painted wood surface and the sanding tool. Then use the sanding block with the sandpaper on it to scuff up the entire surface.

Rub it lightly in circular motions to even out the surface and remove any minor imperfections and bumps.

Step 3: Wipe off the sanding residue and dry off the surface  

Once you have covered every inch of the wood surface, use a damp rag to wipe away the sanding dust. Ensure you wring the rag to remove the excess water before using it to clean the painted wood. 

Follow it through with a dry cloth to remove any traces of water left. After the wiping, leave the object to dry completely before staining it. 

Step 4: Prepare yourself and the workspace for staining 

You can choose whether or not to wear a respirator or safety face mask based on your threshold for wood stain odor. In any case, you will want to wear a pair of protective hand gloves to keep the product from staining your hands. 

Also, protect the wood work area by laying out a tarp to catch any spilling stains. Gel stains can be messy, so the drop cloth should come in handy in ensuring the colorant does not stain the painted deck, floor, lawn, or nearby objects where you are working.

More importantly, work in a well-ventilated area to keep you safe from any irritating stain odors. 

Step 5: Apply the first coat of gel stain 

You may want to ensure the stain you are using is darker than the paint currently on the wood. That said, use a foam brush to stain the painted wood. 

Dip the foam brush inside the paint can and use it to apply the right stain evenly on the surface. Even though the wood grain’s natural beauty will not be visible from the painted surface, we recommend rubbing the stain in one direction.

Keep a light touch to ensure a thin coat of stain that dries faster. Once you have covered the entire surface with thin, even strokes, inspect the surface for any uneven spots and use a lint-free rag or staining pad to wipe off all the stain.

Then, let it dry for an hour. 

Step 6: Add 2-3 more coats of gel stain

The first coat of gel stain will provide some decent coverage, but you need to apply two coats or more additional coats to deepen or darken the color. The color of the finish depends entirely on how many layers you will apply. 

While at it, ensure you use the same technique and allow the second coat to dry before adding the subsequent one. We recommend waiting an hour between coats, but you can wait for longer if the weather is unideal. 

Once done, let the painted surfaces cure for 24 to 48 hours or longer before sealing it.

Step 7: Seal it with a clear finish

Once the gel stain has fully dried, clear coat it to offer maximum protection from scratching, water, sun damage, and paint peeling. Here, you can use a polyurethane finish or any sealant of your choice.

To be safe, be sure to confirm with the supplier if the selected sealant is compatible with your gel stain before buying. Check to see if you can apply gel stain on laminate cabinets, tables, and other painted furniture.

When to Apply Wood Stain on Paint

You can stain paint when you do not want to strip down as much paint for any reason. This alternative also works better when staining relatively small furniture projects, such as refurbishing a dresser or old furniture or kitchen cabinets.

You could also stain painted wood for decorative purposes. You have a painted wood that you wish to give a specific tint without losing the appeal of the original paint; you can stain it without stripping down that paint to bare wood.

Reasons for Applying Stain Over Paint 

The main reason for applying wood stain over paint is to alter the appearance of the painted wood surface. You could be in for refurbishing the paint without veering far off the original look. 

You can also stain over paint due to a damaged wood surface. Latex paint helps cover imperfections on raw wood. If you have such kind of wood and want to give it a certain tint, you would not want to remove the old paint coat masking the imperfections. 

Staining over paint can also be an option for changing the theme of the particular room from an old stain to a new lighter color—whether a guest bedroom or dining room. 

Whatever the case, the underlying reason is to keep the coat of paint while altering the paint color to suit the new purpose. 

How Do I Prepare a Painted Wood Surface for Staining? 

To prepare a finished piece for staining;

  • Wipe it with a clean rag soaked in soapy water
  • Dry it with a clean, dry rag
  • Lightly sanding down the surface with 180-grit sandpaper.
  • Next, wipe down the sanding dust with a damp rag and let it dry. 

How to Achieve a Smooth Look and Feel

To achieve a smooth look and feel when staining a previously painted surface, start by scuff sanding with medium-grit sandpaper to even out the surface and remove any bumps and minor imperfections that could show through the finish.

More importantly, always wipe the stain straight in the same direction throughout the surface after applying it with a foam brush. Wiping incomplete straight lines from one end of the surface to the other does two things:

  • It ensures you remove the excess stain to form one coat with a quick drying time.
  • Wiping always leaves visible lines. Maintaining the same direction ensures they are beautifully aligned and uniform like wood grain to give an aesthetic appeal.

Stain Over Paint Wood: Tips for Success

  • Always wipe the excess product with a clean, dry lint-free cloth in one uniform direction or the direction of the wood grain for a uniform look.
  • Always use a foam brush to apply stain in one direction or the direction of the wood grain. 
  • Always ensure the stain is darker colored than the paint you are working on.


Can you stain over white paint?

Yes, staining over white paint is possible. You can apply stain over white or milk paint with gel stain and achieve your desired look. Applying dark stain over white paint allows you to deepen the look into whichever look you want. 

Will stain cover paint?

Wood stain does not cover paint. Instead, it provides a tinted look that gives the painted surface a unique appearance, not the authentic look of stained wood-grain. If you prefer it darker, consider applying multiple layers of stain, allowing each coat to dry before adding the next. 

Can you stain over paint without sanding?

Yes, you can stain over paint without sanding it, but ensure you clean the surface and dry it thoroughly before staining. However, note that the stain will not be too dark since paint typically forms a semi gloss surface that reduces the stain’s ability to adhere properly.  

Can you stain over paint for an antique look?

Yes. Staining over paint creates a unique, antique look, not the authentic stained wood-grain appearance.

Antiquing with stain over paint may require that you remove the paint before applying stain or simply using gel stain instead of standard water-based stain, oil-based stain, or semi-transparent stain. 

Recommended Reading: How To Stain Cabinets That Are Already Stained

Can you use grey stain over white paint?

Yes, you can use grey stain over white paint. However, I would recommend using a no pain gel stain instead. This type of stain doesn’t require any primer and goes on much more smoothly than regular paint or even a traditional wood stain.

What does stain over paint look like?

It can give a weathered and aged look. Over time, paint will yellow and crack, while the stained area will usually remain dark. The contrast between the new paint and the old stain can be quite drastic, which is why many people choose to stain over paint instead of painting over stained wood.

How to stain over paint to distress wood

The key is to add a dark wood stain over your paint. This will help to age and distress the wood. Be sure to use a brush or rag to apply the stain, and then use a clean cloth to wipe off any excess. Let the stain dry completely before moving on to the next step.

If you want to give your piece an extra distressed look, you can also use a sandpaper block to rough up the surface of the wood. Again, be sure to do this lightly, so you don’t damage the paint or sealant that you’ve already applied.

Can you put stain over paint Summary

Staining over painted wood has become popular among DIYers who would rather not deal with the hassle of paint stripping it to bare wood.

The latter is time-consuming and costly as it involves buying the striping agent at an added cost. If you have an entire piece of painted wood that you wish to modify its color, staining can be an option for you.

Consider referring to this tutorial to guide you through the process. Here’s also how to stain over polyurethane wood.