Different Types of Wood Stain Finishes for Interior and Exterior Surfaces

Different wood stains colours and finishes

The correct choice of wood stain or finish can enhance the appearance of wood and give your home an appealing look. However, you need to know the different types of wood stains to choose the right one for your woodworking project. 

A wood stain consists of a coloring agent dissolved, mixed, or suspended in a solvent acting as the carrier or ‘vehicle.’ The carrier substance can be water, lacquer, polyurethane, varnish, or shellac. 

There are at least seven types of wood stain.

 Let’s dive in and look at them in detail. 

Different Types of Wood Stains Finishes and Colours

Wood stains come in various forms, including liquids and gels designed to protect the wood and enhance its color. In this write-up, you will learn about seven stain types you can use to enhance the appearance or preserve the grain of your wooden furniture, deck and floors .  

1. Oil Based wood Stain 

An oil based wood stain is the most popular wood stain that comes to mind for most people when they think of staining wood. 

Composition and Ingredients

Most oil-based stains contain linseed oil or a mixture of varnish and linseed oil, making them the easiest to use.

The linseed oil or linseed oil and varnish binder make the stain dry slower, allowing more time to remove the excess product and achieve a desirable, consistent stain even when working on large areas of wood. 

Linseed oil is a yellowish oil obtained from the seeds of the flax plant. It is a natural, non-toxic product commonly used as a leading wood preservative. Still, you can identify an oil-based stain by its thinning behavior that sets it apart. 

Other oil stains contain only dye or a combination of dye and a resin binder, ensuring the adherence of pigments to the wood surface. 

Many oil stains can also contain a proprietary thickening agent not listed on the label, often designed to control penetration.

Because of this long list of ingredients including volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), always double-check the label on the product if you want an all-natural option. 

Thinning Process

Manufacturers use mineral spirits – or a paint thinner – for this purpose. Often, you will find the thinner listed on the oil stain label as ‘aliphatic hydrocarbon’ or ‘petroleum distillate.’ 

Learn more about wiping stain vs penetrating stain.

Stand out Features

  1. One unique characteristic of oil-based stains is their penetration. They tend to be durable and penetrate deep inside the wood grain. Best for outdoor wooden furniture and decks.
  2. Oil-based stains can also contain synthetic pigments in addition to the dyes that give them their characteristic colors. The most common synthetic pigment in oil stains is iron oxide. Such oil stains have a heavier texture with less wood penetration and are often referred to as wiping stains.

Application and Drying Time

For the best results, use a rag to apply oil based wood stain, but you can also opt for a brush.   Wait at least three hours before applying another coat of oil stains. 

If you intend to apply any type of wood finish after staining, consider waiting about eight to nine hours before applying the finish. 

Price

This kind of stain typically costs an average of $20 per quart.

Best wood oil-based stain to try- General Finishes Oil Based Penetrating Wood Stain

2. Varnish Wood Stain

What is the difference between varnish and stain?

Varnish (also called polyurethane varnish) stains are more like oil stains, except they dry into a hard coat, unlike oil that dries into a softer coat. 

Also, while oil stains may use a mix of binders, varnish wood stains contain varnish as the binder. 

Difference Between Varnish and Oil based Stain

If you applied a finish over an oil stain that you left to dry without wiping, the finish might peel off. This is because thick layers of oil stain never really harden.

With varnish as the binder, you can apply the stain and leave it to dry without wiping, then apply a finish over it without any problems. 

While this hardness can be advantageous, it also means you have less time to wipe off the excess stain or spills during application. As such, it is more difficult to apply a varnish stain than an oil-based stain.

Thinning Process

Like oil stains, varnish-based stains use mineral spirits as thinner. For this reason, manufacturers are always keen to label their varnish stains to distinguish them from oil stains. 

Still, if you cannot find this distinction on a container, pour some stain onto a piece of wood and observe how it dries. 

If it dries hard, it is a vanish-based stain. However, if it evaporates on drying, you are dealing with an oil-based stain. 

Application and Uses

You will not necessarily need to apply another finishing when you use a varnish stain because it dries into a hard, protective finishing coat itself. 

You may also use a varnish stain over an already stained, finished wooden surface (like indoor furniture) to improve its sheen. The varnish stain will act as a finishing coat. 

Polyurethane varnish is an artificial resin. A varnished surface is heat resistant and can hold out well against acid spills and other chemicals. 

Consider using varnish-based stains when working on small woodworking projects and apply the stain along the wood grain for the best results. 

Price

The price of varnish wood stain ranges between $10 and $30 per quart.

Best wood varnish stain – Minwax 63010444 Fast Drying Polyurethane

3. Water-Based Wood Stain

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Water-based wood stains are generally safer than any other type of stain because they are mainly natural. 

Composition and Ingredients

This type of stain consists of water-soluble dyes that determine the stain’s color and water as the solvent and thinner. As a result, water-based stains are far less polluting to the environment and will not often irritate the skin, eyes, or respiratory system. 

Features

  • Easier to clean up than varnish-based or oil stains. You can get rid of water-based stain spills with just water.
  • Water-based stains don’t penetrate deeply into the grain of the wood, so they offer little protection for the wood. Best for interior wood furniture.
  • If you plan to use a water-based finish, water-based wood stain is the best choice to go with that finish. 

Application and Usage

Perhaps the most significant limitation of water-based wood stains is their difficulty of use. To apply a water-based stain, wet the wooden surface with water ahead of time since the water in the stain raises the wood grain – which tends to affect its texture. 

Other than wetting, clean up and sand the wooden surface before applying the water-based stain coat.

Also, wood surfaces with freshly applied water-based stains can be blotchy. Constantly wipe away the excess product as you stain wood to avoid the splotchy appearance since water dries quickly.

Avoid using a resin or water-based polyurethane finish over varnish or oil-based stains. 

To stain small areas at a time, you can slow down the evaporating sped of your stain by adding a solvent such as lacquer retarder or propylene glycol into it. These solvents are slower to dry and will reduce the rate at which your water-based stain dries.

There is a caveat to using these slow-drying solvents, though; they tend to mute your stain color, which may mean you do not achieve your desired water-based stain color. Usually, water-based stains help enhance the wood grain with their high-quality pigments. 

Price

Water-based wood stains should set you back anywhere between $30 and $40 a quart on average. 

Best wood finish to try out – General Finishes Water Based Wood Stain, 1 Pint, Antique Oak

4. Gel Stain

This type of stain is akin to mayonnaise in its thick consistency. Gel stains are typically varnish- or oil-based, so cleaning or thinning them requires the use of mineral spirits. 

Composition and Ingredients

They consist of thickened pigments suspended in a highly viscous ‘vehicle’ that makes it easy to apply even when the wood is on a vertical orientation. You can easily control a gel stain and achieve an even finish with it. 

Because of their thickness, gel stains are no suitable candidates for wood penetration. Their high viscosity means they will mostly remain on the wood surface and not penetrate deep into the grain.

Application and Uses

Gel stains are the best choice for staining wooden furniture such as pine chairs that easily get splotchy from staining. Using any splotchy stains can mean lots of work sanding off an entire coat before you can apply another coat. 

You simply cannot fix a blotchy stained wood surface by applying another layer of stain over the bad one. The only other quick fix available is usually to paint the blotchy surface, but this means losing your wood’s beautiful natural appearance. 

Also, for such woods, consider applying a layer of wood conditioner or washcoat before staining. This will guarantee the best possible results. 

Unlike other types of wood stain finishes, apply a gel stain with a rag in circular motions and not in the direction of the grain for the best results.

Precautions

  • Ensure proper ventilation where you are staining wood with a gel stain.
  • Wear protective hand gloves and test a sample on an inconspicuous part of the wood or a sample before going all-in. While gel stains are unbeaten for creating blotch-free coats, they can be messy to use because of their characteristic jelly-type texture.

Price

On average, a gel stain costs around $20 to $30 per quart. 

Best Gel Stain recommendation- Old Masters 158798 84104 Gel Stain Crimson Fire Oil-Based

5. Water-Soluble Dye Stain

Here is another type of wood stain variety that is available in powder form. Water-soluble dye stain stains were originally designed for dying fabric but have since been repurposed. Today, you can even a good water-soluble wood stain for gun stocks.

Usage Tips

Start by adding water to dissolve the dye, preferably in the ratio of one ounce of dye per quart of water. You can add more dye powder to your mixture if you wish to create a deeper color.

The water-soluble dye stains, or aniline dyes, come in a wide variety of colors that do an excellent job preserving wood grain. 

The dye stains never overshadow the wood’s natural appearance regardless of the number of coats of stain you apply. This pigmentation property makes the water-soluble dye stain much easier to work with than most other wood stain types.  

You may want to use hot water as it dissolves the dye better, but cold distilled water still gets the job done. 

The least preferred option should be tap water. This water can be loaded with minerals like sodium and calcium that could impact the color of the dye. 

Application 

The water-soluble dye stains are best for interior wood projects (such as house furniture, wooden floors) because the pigments are vulnerable to UV light, which can cause the dye to fade out. 

Despite numerous advancements in wood stain technology, water-soluble wood stains are still a favorite choice of wood stain due to their richness and variety of colors.

There are also powdered dye stains that dissolve in oil or alcohol. Shellac is sometimes added to an alcohol-soluble powdered dye stain to make the mixture dry quicker.  

On the other hand, an oil-soluble dye can be mixed with oil stains to create new colors.

If you wish to preserve your wood’s color, use a water-soluble wood stain. It will be much easier to maintain the wood’s natural appearance and feel despite how unskilled you are with the stain preparation or application. 

You can also darken the wood or lighten it after applying the stain since it does not consist of any binder.

Best Water soluble dye stain to try –General Finishes Water Based Dye, 1 Quart, Medium Brown

6. Lacquer Wood Stain

Many professional woodworkers love lacquer stains because they’re fast-drying, reducing the amount of time spent on each staining project. 

Stain Composition

This type of stain consists of thinners and binders designed for rapid drying — usually a short oil varnish. 

Lacquer stains do not actually contain lacquer as the binder. Instead, they mainly consist of volatile organic compounds (xylene and ketones) that can be mixed with lacquer to create a pigmented lacquer. This is the likely reason why the lacquer wood stains are so-called. 

Fast Drying time

Because of their unique composition, lacquer stain can completely dry in as little time as 15 minutes. 

While fast-drying is a major plus, it also means higher chances of sustaining mistakes when using this type of wood stain. So, bring a teammate to wipe out the excess product while you apply the stain in case of a large project like wooden floors. 

Precautions When Using Lacquer Varnish

  • Wear a safety mask to protect yourself from the vaporizing solvents in lacquer stain that cause a pungent odor when staining with it.
  • Stain wood in a well-ventilated area. 

Application

Usually, a single coating of lacquer stain will be sufficient, though you can increase it to two layers which should be plenty. The stain has a thin texture making it effective in penetrating the wood.

Air bubbles can sometimes appear on the wood surface when using lacquer stain especially when the temperature is unideal. One solution would be to add lacquer thinner to the stain. You may also adjust the room temperature to avoid bubbles. 

Whatever the case, lacquer stain is your best bet if you want to complete your project quickly and have someone to team up with on the project. 

Price

Lacquer wood stains are some of the lowly priced in the market and costs an average of about $15 per quart.

Best wood Finish product recommendation – Minwax 155000000 Clear Lacquer

7. Metal-Complex Dye Stain

Also called metalized dye stain, metal-complex dye stain is a kind of dye stain that is more resistant to fading than water-soluble dye stains. 

Even though the sun’s UV light and other conditions still cause this dye stain to fade, the rate of fading is much slower than other dyes. This durability is thanks to metals such as nickel, chromium, copper, and cobalt added to create a strong dye. 

Thinning Process

This type of stain comes in concentrated liquid form. You can thin metalized dye stain using acetone thinner, alcohol, water, or lacquer thinner and is ready for use.

Application

You can use the metalized dye stain by spraying it directly on the wood surface or add it to lacquer and use it as a toner – whichever suits your project needs. 

Often, the dye will not raise wood grain, so manufacturers usually label them as NGR, abbreviating ‘non-grain-raising.’ 

If you buy a concentrated metalized dye stain and thin it with water, the non-grain-raising property may not hold anymore. The introduction of water as a thinner brings about grain raising, even though it helps slow down drying time and allows more time for applying the stain.

To slow down drying time without raising h wood grain, consider adding a retarder instead of water to the stain. 

Drying time

Like lacquer wood stain, metalized dye stains dry pretty fast, making them a favorite choice for many woodworking professionals. They only need a couple of minutes to get the job done. 

The other thing to like about metalized dye stains is how easy they are to apply. Because you only need to spray them onto the wood surface, it is much easier to achieve an even coat with these wood stains.

Consider using metal-complex dye stains when staining bare woods. Their great color depth will come in handy in helping transform any bare wood. 

Quick Tips on Wood Stain Safety 

Doing your wood staining by yourself can save you money. However, staining has a permanent impact on your wooden furniture, deck, or floors, so you want to get it right while being safe.

Here is a brief overview of what to do or keep in mind to keep yourself and your wood safe when staining. 

  1. Always wear disposable rubber gloves and safety glasses when applying wood stain. You never know when some stain will spill – it is better to be safe than sorry. Most types of wood stain contain chemicals that can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. So make sure to dispose of wood stain and paint properly.
  2. Wear old clothes or ones you do not mind staining since some wood stain could spill on you. Ensure that the clothes cover your arms and legs so that no stain can get in contact with your bare skin. 
  3. Always test the wood stain on a piece of scrap wood before going all-in to your project. This will give you a feel of what the outcome will look like. You can also determine if you need to make any adjustments to the stain before starting.  
  4. Do stir the can of stain right before staining your wood. This is especially crucial for oil-based stains; it will bring the constituent pigments and dyes up from the bottom of the can, where they tend to sediment during storage. 
  5. Keep your workspace well-ventilated when working with most types of wood stains particularly lacquer and oil stains as they contain volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).
  6. Go with a water-based stain whenever you can to avoid fumes. Unlike other types of wood stains, water-based stains come in a wide variety of rich colors that could benefit your project. 
  7. Keep mineral spirits, water, or any solvent you will need during your application nearby. You don’t want to leave your project halfway to go for something you need, especially if you are working with a fast-drying stain
  8. Carefully read the labels on each stain product before use. Follow the specific instructions from the manufacturer because application requirements and best practices may vary from one type of wood stain to the other. 

Different Wood Stains FAQs 

What Kind Of Stain Is the Easiest To Apply on Wood

If you’re looking for a kind of stain that is easy to apply on wood, go for Oil-based stains. This is because oil stains have a linseed oil binder which makes them dry slowly, allowing you ample time to wipe off the excess.

What kind of stain is the hardest to apply on wood?

Varnish stains are the hardest to use on wood because they dry too quickly. As a result, brush marks become prominent when you try to get rid of the excess stain.

Should I Stain with a Brush or a Rag?

You can use either a rag or brush to stain your furniture, depending on your preference or what the manufacturer recommends. Soft-bristled brushes can be a more effective way to get stains into the hard-to-reach areas of wood you wish to stain, such as recessed areas and inside corners. 

Pay attention to how fast your stain dries and wipe off all the excess product before the stain dries. 

Can I Apply a Wood Stain with a Sponge? 

No, you should never use a sponge to apply wood stain. The sponge will soak up the stain, so you should opt instead for a paintbrush or wet cloth (not dripping.)

Also, you cannot always remove the stain after application, so it is better to apply thinner coats for a start and add more coats as needed.

What is the Best Natural Wood Finish?

The best way to bring out the natural characteristics of the wood grain is to use a penetrating oil such as Tung oil, double-boiled Linseed oil, or Walnut oil, or when working with oil-based finishes. 

How Many Coats of Stain Should I Apply?

Two coats. If you want a deeper color, apply a third coat of the wood stain, but notice that dense hardwood may not accept more than one coat. 

You can also apply a clear protective finish for additional sheen or luster. Consider going for Minwax Wipe-On Poly or Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane for this purpose. 

What Happens if You Don’t Wipe off Excess Stains?

If you do not wipe off the stain during the application, the material remaining on the wood surface will become sticky. Stains are designed to penetrate the wood grain, not to sit on the wood surface. 

Do I Have to Sand the Wood Surface Between Coats?

No, sanding between coats is unnecessary, but it can help ensure that a second coat is more even and provides a better finish. To sand between coats of stain, wait for the first coat to dry, then use 220- or 240-grit sandpaper or extra-fine steel wool to give the surface a light sanding. 

This sanding should ensure the succeeding coat adheres well to the surface of the wood. 

Can I Mix Wood Stains?

You can mix wood stains together only if they have the same base, such as water. For instance, if you have a water-based stain, you can mix any other water-based stain with it to create custom colors. 

It is best to attempt mixing stains only if they are from the same manufacturer. Ensure the base stain color is as close as possible to your desired finish. Then, pick another stain that will bring the base color closer to the color you want.

Does Stain Protect my Wooden Furniture?

No, the stain does not protect the wood furniture. It simply colors it or darkens its appearance by adding pigments. Rubbing stain into wood will bring out its grain pattern and give it a more dramatic look that may be more appealing. 

How to Clean Oil Stain Finish Brush

Wash the brush in a thinner to remove as much stain as possible. Squeeze the excess thinner out of the brush. While the brush bristles are still wet, wash them with plenty of warm soapy water.

What Type of Wood Stain Finish do You Prefer?

If you are like many people, then you probably knew only about gel stains and oil stains. Thankfully, now you have complete knowledge of the full range of wood stains to choose from.

This guide provides you with detailed information on each of the different types of wood stain to inform your choices based on what your woodworking project requires. 

We hope you enjoy this guide and that the information you find here helps you find the correct choice of wood stain for your needs. With the right stain, you can create some stunning finishes even on ordinary-looking woods.

If you have any observations or comments, do not hesitate to drop them in the comments section. 

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