Last Updated on August 31, 2022 by Ernest Godia
The first step to a successful stain job is to pick the best wood stain type for the project.
Contrary to what many woodworkers believe, your ideal choice of wood stain should not just depend on what is already on the market but also on how creative you are willing to be with your project.
While numerous stain brands offer various types of wood stains, you can create your own wood stain at home. Whether you buy or make your stain, the product can breathe new life into a piece of wood or furniture, transforming it from ordinary to spectacular.
First things first—what is wood stain?
Wood stain is a homemade or commercially available product that alters the color of the wood when applied to the surface. Since standard wood stains penetrate the pores on wood surfaces, they typically enhance the grain pattern, making it pop.
Wood stain can work by penetrating the pores on wood or forming a film on the surface. All stains enhance the wood’s color and appearance regardless of whether they penetrate the grain or sit on the surface.
This write-up looks at the various types of wood stains available under commercial and homemade varieties to help you choose better for your projects.
What types of wood stains are there?
Wood stains fall into two main categories, namely homemade and commercial wood stains. Commercially available stains are similar to paint in that they comprise three main components: a pigment, solvent, and a binder.
The solvent is the vehicle carrying the pigment (colorant; often a colored powder). As the name suggests, the binder is the substance holding the dye to the solvent, creating a uniform suspension.
Here is a table summarizing the various types of wood stains available.
Homemade vs. Commercial wood stains at a glance
|Homemade wood stains||Commercial wood stains|
|Water-based wood stain |
Oil-based wood stain
Varnish wood stain
Metal dye stain
Water soluble dye stain
Natural household stains for wood
Alternative household stains you can make at home and use on your wood include iron acetate (from steel wool and vinegar), coffee, and tea. Some DIYers also get away with water-based ink and black walnut husks that have been found to highlight the wood grain.
1. Iron acetate
This is the product of dissolving a ball of steel wool in vinegar. Vinegar contains acetic acid that readily reacts with the iron in your steel wool pad to form iron acetate (and hydrogen gas).
When you apply the resulting iron acetate solution to wood, it reacts with the natural substances and organic compounds in the wood, altering its color.
Coffee contains substances called tannins or tannic acid that color the wood. To use coffee to stain your wood, brew a strong cup of coffee and apply it to your wood using a high-quality natural-bristled brush.
You want to make the coffee as strong as possible to extract more tannic acid. The stronger the coffee, the deeper the color it will transfer to your wood. Also, ensure you filter out all the residue before using the coffee to stain your wood.
Like coffee, black tea contains tannins that can stain wood. However, you must make the tea as strong as possible to increase its coloring potential. Still, tea is a less effective stain than coffee.
Once your tea is ready, use a high-quality natural-bristled brush to apply it to your project.
Benefits of using natural household stains
- Natural household stains can save you money since the necessary ingredients are often products you already have at home in your panty.
- These stains do not rely on penetrating the wood grain to apply the color. This quality makes them ideal for blotch-prone wood types like pine that do not accept standard wood stains too well.
- These homemade stains are eco-friendly. Unlike commercially available wood stains laden with chemicals, natural wood stains are organic and safer for the environment.
- Natural household wood stains do not emit any volatile organic compounds (VOCs), unlike standard wood stains, which often contain harmful ingredients that may affect your health.
Limitations of natural household wood stains
- Only suitable for indoor projects
Perhaps the one main limitation of using coffee or tea for staining wood is their inability to withstand the elements—tea and coffee work best for staining indoor wood projects. If the stained wood is left outdoors, weather elements can quickly fade the color.
- Limited range of colors
The homemade wood stains also offer limited color selections. Coffee, tea, and iron acetate are generally black stains that only allow you to choose how dark or light you want to go.
Commercial types of wood stain
Commercial wood stains are available in seven main types: water-based wood stains, oil-based wood stains, varnish wood stains, lacquer stains, gel stains, metal dye stains, and water-soluble dye stains.
1. Water-based wood stain
As the name suggests, water-based stains contain water as the binder and solvent for the wood dyes in their composition. They typically have no harsh chemical ingredients, making them environmentally friendly and with low odor.
Water-based stains do not irritate the eyes or skin, making them safe to use, especially indoors or in enclosed environments. Additionally, they clean up easily with water and soap since they are mainly natural.
These stains are fast-drying. While this may mean completing the project sooner, you must work quickly in smaller portions at a time or end up with a splotchy finish.
On the flip side, these stains may be challenging to apply since the water in them tends to raise the wood grain. So you must always sand the wood between coats to even out the raised grain—unless you want a textured finish.
2. Oil-based wood stain
These are a collection of liquid products consisting mainly of linseed oil as the carrier and added chemical ingredients – including petroleum distillates – giving the stains a higher toxicity profile.
The added chemical binders in oil-based stains make them higher in VOCs and with a pungent odor. The oil in these stains also makes them slower drying, often taking about 1 to 2 hours to dry.
The longer drying time is a mixed blessing. It allows for ample time to work the stain onto the wood and reduces the occurrence of blotches. However, it also means longer project timelines.
When working with oil-based wood stains, consider waiting for at least 3 hours between coats and approximately 9 to 10 hours before applying a sealer.
Cleaning oil-based stains is more challenging than their water-based cousins—you must use mineral spirits or paint thinner to remove the stains.
Despite their limitations, oil stains are some of the most popular because they are easier to apply and deeply penetrate the wood to give the best results. They are also highly durable like most oil-based products and provide a more polished look.
3. Varnish stain
While oil stains contain oil as the binder, varnish stains contain varnish instead. This is the only thing differentiating them from oil-based wood stains.
Varnish stains dry hard due to the varnish in their composition. They also form a film on the wood surface, so you do not have to wipe off the excess product during application. This also means you need to apply them with a brush, not lint-free rags like oil or water-based stains.
Because varnish stains do not need a finishing coat, you must apply the coat of stain evenly to avoid an uneven or splotchy look. This is to say that it is slightly more challenging to work with varnish stains than oil and water-based stains.
4. Lacquer stain
These stains use a very fast drying varnish as the binder. They typically do not contain any lacquer despite the name.
Professionals sometimes use this stain to create a pigmented toner by adding it to lacquer. This is one of the reasons behind the name.
As you’d expect, lacquer stains dry pretty fast, often within 15 minutes. While this quality speeds up your work, it makes it challenging. You must work quickly to achieve the desired finish.
Consider using spray equipment to apply lacquer stains, and work with them only if you are a professional finisher.
It is also best to work in pairs, with one person applying the stain while another wipes the excess.
5. Gel stain
Gel stains are jelly-like and heavily pigmented wood stains.
They are typically oil-based and dry to form a film on the wood surface. For this reason, they are ideal for blotch-prone woods with uneven grain structure or tight pores that do not accept standard wood stains well.
The stains get their jelly-like consistency from their mixture of mineral spirits, liquid resins, and pigments or powdery thickening agents in their composition.
The thick consistency makes gel stains slower drying, often taking about 8 to 24 hours to dry between coats.
On the brighter side, the stains give you much control, making them easy to work with.
6. Metal Dye Stain
Metal dye stains have metals such as copper, cobalt, and nickel added to their composition to make them durable on wood. Once applied, the metals in these stains help slow down their fading on the wood.
Spraying is the best application method for these stains, even though some of them require thinning before use. Always check the label for this information.
The stains are fast-drying and offer great coverage with minimum effort or skill.
7. Water Soluble Dye Stain
Also referred to as aniline dyes, water-soluble dye stains are available in powder form. You must mix them with water to apply them to the wood.
These water-soluble stains are transparent, so they do not mask the wood grain regardless of the number of coats you apply. This quality makes them ideal for woods with naturally attractive grain patterns.
The water used to mix these stains may raise the wood grain, so you need to hit the raised grain with fine sandpaper between coats for the best results.
How to clean wood stains off your tools
Different wood stains have different physical and chemical properties that influence how you can clean them off surfaces. To keep your tools like paintbrushes in a reusable condition, you will want to know how to clean each type of wood stain off these tools.
Cleaning water-based wood stains
- Scrape the excess wood stain from the brush, removing as much of it as possible. You can do this by running the bristles back and forth across a piece of cardboard or scrap piece of wood.
- Rub the stain-soaked bristles on a rag to remove more of the stain.
- Wash the used rags and brushes with warm water and soap.
Cleaning oil-based wood stains
- Scrape the excess wood stain from the brush, removing as much of it as possible. You can run the bristles back and forth across a cardboard or scrap piece of wood.
- Rub the stain-soaked bristles on a rag to remove more of the stain.
- Pour mineral spirits into a bowl or metal can and dip the dirty brushes inside. Allow the solvent to soak the bristles for a few minutes.
- After most of the stain has come off, discard the used solvent and pour some fresh mineral spirits into the container.
- Swish the bristles in the liquid to force any remaining stain out into the solvent. For stubborn stains, consider combing through the bristles with a wire brush to remove all the pigment.
- Rub the bristles with a rag to remove the mineral spirits and any lodged pigment, and then wash the paintbrush with warm water and soap.
Here is a video with additional DIY stains you can make at home:
FAQs on types of wood stain
What type of wood stain is best?
Due to their durability, oil-based wood stains are considered the best choice for furniture or other large wood surfaces. Their slower drying time gives them an edge, ensuring a more even finish on the stained piece. Their deeper penetration also provides the wood with a richer color.
What is the difference between wood stain and wood finish?
While wood stains are designed to add color to wood, finishes primarily protect the wood surface. Wood stains may offer some level of protection against water damage by blocking the wood pores but do little to protect the surface from physical damage.
Here is an article that discusses the difference between wood stain and wood finish in detail.
Which stain is better oil-based or water-based?
Oil-based stain is the better choice for wood projects meant to be directly exposed to the weather elements such as wind, the sun, and rain. The stain is more durable and resilient to the elements. However, water-based stains are ideal for indoor projects due to their low toxicity.
Can I stain over stain?
Absolutely. Applying stain over stain is pretty straightforward, especially if the new stain is darker than the older one already on the wood. If you apply a lighter stain over a darker one, the color change may be negligible and unnoticeable.
What is the difference between wood stain and varnish?
Standard wood stains penetrate the wood to distribute the pigment, while varnishes work by sitting on the wood surface. Wood stains are also pigmented, whereas varnishes are mainly colorless. The standard practice is to apply varnish over the wood stain to protect the wood and lock in the stain color.
Conclusion on the types of wood stain
Commercially available wood stains may readily come to mind when considering the types of wood stains to use on your projects. However, we hope this write-up helps broaden your perspective to include the natural household stains we have provided here.
Both categories of wood stains have their fair share of strengths and limitations. Mainly, if you want to stain indoor wood darker, consider going for the homemade varieties.
However, if you want a variety of stain colors for your wood, commercial wood stains are your best bet.
Have any additions or thoughts to share? Let us know them in the comments.