Staining Oak: How To Stain Oak Wood

Last Updated on October 18, 2023 by Ernest Godia

Do you have a love-hate relationship with your oak wood furniture or flooring? On the one hand, you appreciate the natural beauty and durability of the wood. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel like something is missing. 

Staining oak wood might be the solution you need. Not only does it give your wood a stunning new color, but it can also protect it from wear and tear. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the ins and outs of how to stain oak wood. We’ll also review and recommend some wood stains suitable for your oak project. 

Let’s get started!

How to stain oak wood

1: Prep the work area 

2: Clean and sand your oak surface 

3: Apply the first coat of wood stain and let it dry completely

5: Apply the second stain layer, dry it, and recoat if necessary.

6: Apply a finish coat

Does oak stain well?

Yes, oak stains very well due to its open grain and porous nature. This feature allows the stain to penetrate the wood deeply, creating a rich and even color.  

Its prominent wood grain can show through the stain, enhancing its aesthetic effect on the surrounding area. 

However, it is essential to note that the final color of the stained surface can vary depending on the type of oak and the specific stain used. The degree to which oak absorbs stains also depends on the amount of surface prep done before staining.

Do you need to treat/condition oak before staining?

You do not need to treat or condition oak wood before staining. Oak wood is stable and has a consistent, open grain that absorbs stains evenly. 

Unlike softwoods with uneven stain absorption that would blotch if not pre-sealed, oak can take stain evenly after sanding it.

However, consider treating the oak wood:

  • If it is particularly old
  • If it is too dry
  • If it is weathered. 

A light coat of wood conditioner will limit the chances of the stain job looking blotched.

If you decide to condition the wood, remember to use a product compatible with the stain you intend to use. For example, if you plan to stain with an oil-based stain from the Minwax brand, the conditioner should equally be oil-based and a Minwax product.

How to stain oak wood

Staining oak is a walk in the park if you’ve completed a few complex woodworking projects before. 

Not to compare it to child’s play, but its ability to absorb stains uniformly across the surface is incredibly satisfying. 

However, since oak is quite costly, practice on a piece of scrap wood to polish your technique before going all in on your project. This guide can help you polish your skills and complete the job like a pro.

Ensure you’ve checked the following supplies off your list before taking on the actual stain job.

Supplies you will need

  • Drop cloth or plastic sheeting
  • Masking tape
  • Paintbrush 
  • Lint-free cloth(s)
  • Pre-stain conditioner (optional)
  • Protective gloves, goggles, respirator mask
  • Sandpaper
  • Wood Stain
  • Top-coat finish
  • Stir sticks and a mixing container
  • Tack cloth

Step-by-step procedure of staining oak  

When you have all the supplies listed above and anything else you might need, follow these steps to complete your oak project.

Step 1: Prepare the work area.

Clear the area you will be working in to avoid any accidents. Place a drop cloth or plastic sheeting over the floor and secure it with masking tape around the edges and over objects.

Ensure the workspace is adequately ventilated if you’re working indoors. You can do this by opening windows and doors or using fans. If working in an outdoor area is a viable option, the better.

Also, wear your protective gloves, goggles, and mask to protect you from harmful wood dust and stain fumes.

Step 2: Clean and sand your oak surface.

If the wood was already treated, you must strip the existing finish first. You can use a chemical stripper to get through it faster. However, if it’s greasy or discolored, clean it with a special wood cleaner, rinse well, and let it dry completely.

Once the oak wood is clean and dry, sand it with 120-grit sandpaper. This coarse grit will knock down bumps and rough spots. You can use a power sander or a sanding block, depending on the size of your project.

Vacuum the dust and switch to 150-grit sandpaper. Continue sanding in the direction of the wood grain. Finish sanding with 220 grit sandpaper, and vacuum the dust. 

Wipe the surface further with a tack cloth or a rag dampened in mineral spirits to remove all the wood dust.

Step 3: Apply the first coat of wood stain.

Open the stain can and stir the contents thoroughly to distribute the pigments evenly. Use a stirring stick to stir the stain from the bottom of the can toward the top. 

Transfer the amount you’ll need to use into a small container to avoid contaminating the whole product. 

Using a brush or cloth, apply the first coat of wood stain evenly, working with the grain. Apply the stain liberally, making sure you cover the surface well. 

Allow the stain to penetrate the wood grain for 5-15 minutes, then wipe off the excess.

Step 4: Wait for the stain to dry.

Most wood stains promise a dry time of 2 hours under optimal conditions. However, wait as long as the specific manufacturer recommends and a little longer if necessary. 

Also, note that the drying time will depend on the ambient temperature and humidity. 

Step 5: Apply the second stain layer.

Apply a second coat of wood stain to reinforce the depth and richness of the color. Use the same application technique as in step 3. 

Step 6: Wait for it to dry, and recoat if necessary.

Once the second coat of stain is dry, inspect the surface to see if it requires additional coating. Still, if you desire a darker color, apply a third coat of stain following the same procedure as the previous coats.

Step 7: Apply a finish coat. 

After the final coat of stain has dried, apply a coat or two of a topcoat sealer. Allow the finished surface to dry completely before use.

This finishing product could be polyurethane, lacquer, or polycrylic. Choose a finish like polyurethane for high-traffic oak surfaces and polycrylic or lacquer for surfaces that are likely to receive the least abuse.

Summary of the steps for staining oak wood

How many stain coats are necessary?

The number of coats of wood stain required depends on the desired color and the type of wood you are staining.

In most cases, one or two coats of wood stain are sufficient to achieve the desired color on oak. However, if you want a deeper or richer color, you may need to apply additional coats of stain.

How to stain oak wood lighter

Whatever your reason for wanting to stain oak wood lighter, there are different ways to get your desired results.  

Here are some reliable ways to get your stained oak to look a few shades lighter.

  1. Diluting the stain: One way to lighten the color of the stain is to dilute it with water or mineral spirits. This will reduce the concentration of the stain and make it lighter when applied to the wood.
  2. Using a lighter-colored stain: Another option is to choose a lighter-colored stain than the one you would typically use. For example, you can opt for a lighter color, such as golden oak or natural, instead of a dark walnut stain.
  3. Wiping the stain immediately after application. The longer the stain sits on the wood, the darker the color. Wiping the stain immediately after applying it allows for more natural wood grain to show through, resulting in a lighter finish.

How to stain oak wood darker

Staining oak wood a shade darker has several benefits. For example, it can help you match existing furniture or décor, conceal imperfections, or add some depth and richness to the wood’s grain and texture.

There are several ways to achieve this effect. However, the results of each method may vary slightly or significantly from each other. So be sure to test it out on scrap wood to ensure you achieve the desired outcome.

  1. Using a darker stain: The most straightforward way to darken oak wood is to use a darker-colored product. Dark walnut, ebony, and espresso are popular for creating a darker finish.
  2. Applying multiple coats of stain: Applying multiple coats of stain can also create a darker finish. Each coat will darken the wood slightly, so applying the stain evenly is important. In addition, allowing each coat to dry completely before recoating is crucial.
  3. Applying a wood conditioner: Applying a wood conditioner before staining can help the wood absorb more stain, creating a darker finish. This is especially useful for woods that are difficult to stain, such as maple or pine.
  4. Using a gel stain: Gel stains are thicker than traditional liquid ones and can help achieve a darker finish. They are also easier to apply and can help prevent streaking and blotching.
  5. Using a dye: Dye stains can be mixed with water or alcohol to create a darker color. They penetrate the wood deeply, creating a more uniform color.

Best wood stains for white oak wood

White oak is beautiful but can look plain and boring. However, staining can accentuate the grain patterns and protect the wood from wear and tear. If you need help figuring out where to begin, here are some stain recommendations to get you started.

Best dark stain on white oak– Varathane dark walnut

Staining oak

A dark walnut stain creates a rich, warm finish that enhances the natural beauty of white oak wood and gives it a more traditional or formal look.

Varathane Dark Walnut is an exceptional dark stain, perfect for all interior wood projects. Whether you are working on furniture, cabinets, doors, trim, or paneling, this fast-drying oil-based formula creates excellent color coverage with just one coat.

With its high-performance stain system enhanced with nano pigment particles, this product penetrates deep into the wood to seal its pores and highlight its natural beauty.

Unlike other products, Varathane Dark Walnut does not require a wood conditioner, making it a hassle-free solution for your woodworking needs.

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Best light stain for white oak- Minwax Golden oak

Staining oak with Minwax Golden oak

Minwax Golden Oak Wood Finish gives white oak wood a warm, golden hue, highlighting its natural beauty and creating a classic, timeless look.

This deep penetrating, oil-based wood stain provides a rich, even color that enhances the natural wood grain in just one coat.

Minwax Golden Oak Wood Finish is incredibly easy to apply. Simply use a clean cloth or wood stain brush to apply the wood stain in the direction of the grain.

One of the standout features of this product is its quick-drying formula. With the ability to deeply penetrate wood pores within 5 minutes of application, it resists lapping and dries in just two hours.

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Best wood stains for red oak wood

Finding the right stain for red oak is challenging because its reddish hue can sometimes clash with certain color schemes. However, with several stain colors to choose from, here are some that we recommend.

Best dark stain for red oak- Minwax Jacobean

Staining oak with Minwax Jacobean

If you’re looking for a beautiful and rich dark stain for your red oak wood projects, Minwax Jacobean Wood Stain is definitely worth considering. This stain is a deep brown color that looks great on various wood types and projects.

This oil-based stain deeply penetrates the wood pores, creating a rich and even color in just one coat. It’s perfect for all your interior staining projects, such as wood furniture, cabinets, doors, and more. 

With its quick-drying formula—two hours per coat—Minwax Jacobean Wood Stain makes staining your interior wood projects faster and more convenient. 

The application process is easy and hassle-free. Simply use a clean cloth or wood stain brush to apply the stain in the direction of the grain, wait for 5–15 minutes, and wipe away the excess stain. The longer you wait, the darker and richer the color will be. 

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Best natural stain for red oak- Minwax Red Oak Wood Stain 

Staining oak with Minwax red oak

This is an excellent, semi-transparent product for staining red oak surfaces. Its warm red undertones complement the natural beauty of red oak, providing a light to medium color that enhances the wood grain. 

This classic red oak wood stain is specifically designed to penetrate deep into the wood fibers, providing superior coverage and durability.

The oil-based formula makes it pretty easy to use on open-grained red oak surfaces. Its quick-drying profile and the ability to provide a rich, even color make it an ideal choice for several types of surfaces. 

The unique formula allows it to penetrate wood pores deeply within 5 minutes of application. The minimum dry time is two hours, making all your wood projects a day’s work.

In addition, this product is versatile and suitable for various interior staining projects, such as hardwood floors, wood furniture, cabinets, doors, and more. 

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How do you make oak look modern?

Oak furniture or cabinets may look outdated and no longer fit into current design trends, which can be a reason to give them a modern look. 

Here are some of the ways you can revamp your oak wood items:

  • Paint it: If you prefer something other than the wood grain or natural color, consider painting the oak. A fresh coat of paint in light gray, white, or cream color can make a big difference.
  • Update the hardware: Swapping outdated hardware with sleek, modern options can give your oak furniture or cabinets an instant modern update.
  • Go for a minimalist look: Pairing oak with clean, simple lines and minimal accessories can balance out the heaviness of the oak and make it look more modern.
  • Mix and match: Don’t be afraid to mix oak with other materials, like metal, glass, or concrete. The contrast between warm wood, cool metals, or sleek glass can create a modern, industrial look.
  • Choose a lighter stain: Dark stains can make oak look dated. Opt for a lighter stain to give the wood a modern look. However, if you’re up for a challenge or want to try something different, consider staining it with different colors to give it an edge. 

Refer to our article for more details on the two-tone staining techniques.


Does oak stain better than pine?

Yes, oak takes wood stain way better than pine does. Oak is a hardwood with a uniformly open grain that evenly absorbs wood stains. Conversely, pine is softwood with an unevenly open grain that would quickly become blotchy when stained.

Does gel stain work well on oak?

Yes, gel stain works well on oak wood. Oak wood has a prominent grain pattern, and gel stains work particularly well on wood with strong grain patterns. Still, you can use other types of wood stains on oak, be they oil-based, water-based, dye-based, or even natural wood stains.

Does oak plywood stain well?

Yes, oak plywood can be stained just like solid oak wood. Keep in mind that the staining process may differ slightly from staining solid oak wood, as the plywood may have a different absorption rate and may require more coats of stain to achieve the desired color.

Final thoughts on staining oak

Staining oak wood can take your furniture, flooring, cabinets, or any other wooden surface from dull to dazzling in just a few simple steps.

By selecting the right stain, preparing the wood properly, and following our guide on how to stain oak, you can achieve a stunning finish that will last for ages.  

We look forward to seeing all the beautiful oak projects you will complete with the help of our article. So don’t hesitate to leave a comment in the section below.

Happy staining!

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