Last Updated on October 14, 2023 by Ernest Godia
Two of the most widely used products in wood finishing are wood stains and wood finishes. Since they often go hand in hand, it can be challenging to differentiate their roles.
Both products are essential in the wood finishing process and can transform an ordinary piece of wood into a masterpiece. However, knowing the difference between a wood finish and wood stain can help you choose better and use each product more appropriately on your project.
This wood finish vs wood stain article examines the differences between wood stains and wood finishes. It defines the products, compares them side by side, and draws out their main differences.
What is the difference between a wood stain and a finish?
The main difference between wood stain and wood finishes like varnish is that stains soak into the pores in the wood, changing its color. On the other hand, finishes are intended to protect the wood by forming a tough coat on the surface. They are often colorless and may be glossy.
Special finishes like oils and waxes do not form a tough coat. Instead, they protect the wood by blocking its pores, making it resistant to water and other weather elements. However, their protection is often short-lived, making them the least preferred wood finishes.
Knowing more details about each product will help you understand its appropriate applications and how to use it on your project, so let’s dive right in.
What are wood finishes?
Wood finishes are typically clear-colored liquids that dry to form a tough, protective coat on the wood surface. While some finishes may have an amber or yellowish tint depending on the formula, they allow the character and color of the wood to remain visible.
Most wood finishes come in various sheen levels and can be resistant to scratching, moisture, and other potentially damaging elements.
Types of wood finishes
Wood finish refers to the protective coating applied to the surface of wood to enhance its durability, protect it from moisture, and provide a polished look. There are several types of wood finishes, including:
Shellac is an organic wood finish derived from resins secreted by a particular insect, the female lac bug. This insect is native to India and other southern Asian countries.
The wood finish is one of the commercially viable forms of shellac on the market. It dries pretty quickly, making it challenging to use for most DIYers. Nonetheless, the fast-drying property can be a plus as it can allow for the speedy completion of wood-finishing projects.
This is another fast-drying wood finish consisting of shellac and alcohol or synthetic substances. It can work on various surfaces, including metal and wood.
Since lacquer is typically thin and fast-drying, it can equally be challenging to apply for new DIYers. However, spraying makes it easier to apply. When done correctly, it forms a nice protective coat on stained wood or bare wood surfaces.
Our recommendation is Minwax Clear Lacquer. It is ideal for cabinets, woodwork, furniture, accessories, and doors. It is formulated for quick and easy application as it does not require sanding between coats. The lacquered surface dries to them in under 30 minutes and is ready for recoating in two hours.
Varnish is a resin dissolved in a liquid, which dries to form a hard protective coat on wood, plastic, metal, and other surfaces. It consists of resins, solvents, and oils.
It is a clear, transparent finish that provides a glossy, shiny appearance to the wood. It is effective in protecting wood from moisture and wear. Varnishes can be oil-based or water-based.
Varnishes may refer to any wood finish that dries to form a transparent, hard film. If you view varnishes this way, they encompass shellac, lacquer, and polyurethanes.
However, it is important to understand that varnish is a product of its own, different from the other three wood finishes discussed here. Unlike polyurethane which can be oil- or water-based, varnish is made of oils, resins, and solvents.
It is older and boasts a higher ratio of solids in its formula. For this reason, varnish is often ideal for outdoor use because it is less susceptible to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damage.
Polyurethane is a liquid plastic that dries to form a robust coat on wood and other surfaces. It is a synthetic resin that comes in varying thicknesses in water-based or oil-based formulations.
Since polyurethane is thick and dries relatively slowly, you can apply it with a paint roller or paintbrush.
Wax finishes are less durable but provide a soft sheen and a smooth feel to the wood. They need to be reapplied periodically for maintenance.
What Is Wood Stain?
As the term suggests, a wood stain is a coloring agent. It is applied to wood purposely to change the color.
Wood stains typically penetrate the wood to distribute the pigment, so they preserve the character of the wood and can make the grain pop.
They typically consist of a binder and pigment suspended in a vehicle or carrier substance. The vehicle can be water, oil, polyurethane, or alcohol.
Stains are available in various colors and can be transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque. They do not provide significant protection against moisture or wear on their own, but they can be combined with wood finishes for both color and protection.
- Transparent Stain: These stains provide a subtle tint to the wood while allowing the natural grain to be prominently visible.
- Semi-Transparent Stain: Semi-transparent stains offer a bit more color, but the wood’s grain is still visible to a large extent.
- Solid Stain: Solid stains are more like paints in that they completely cover the wood’s natural grain and provide a more opaque color.
Types of wood stain
The various types of wood stains on the market include:
- Water-based stains
These consist of pigment and binder, with water as the carrier substance. Because of the water base, these stains are typically the fastest drying of all types.
Like most water-based products, these stains are generally low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), low-odor, and friendlier to the environment. They also tend to offer great protection against mildew and molds.
- Oil-based stains
These ones dry slower than their water-based cousins due to the oil in their formulation. The stains typically comprise linseed oil as the carrier substance for the pigment and binder.
Most oil-based stains are more durable than water-based options, even though today’s improvements in manufacturing technology continue to make water-based products equally durable.
Oil-based stains clean with mineral spirits and may have more toxicity and a greater environmental impact.
- Gel stains
Gel stains are jelly-like wood stains, often with greater concentrations of pigment and less of the vehicle and binder.
They are easier to apply because of the thick consistency that eliminates runs. They generally dry slower than water or oil-based options.
Gel stains are the least penetrating of the three types and often form a film on the wood surface.
Wood finish pros and cons
Varnishes have multiple strengths and limitations that make them appropriate for specific applications. Here are some of the pros and cons.
- They offer lasting protection by forming a durable coat on the wood surface.
- Protect the wood from scratching
- Create a water-resistant film on the wood surface
- Most finishes have a self-leveling quality that eliminates brush strokes
- Preserves the wood’s natural look
- Applying wood finishes can take several hours or days to complete
Wood stain pros and cons
Like wood finishes, stains have their share of benefits and limitations. Here are some of the main pros and cons to consider.
- Wood stain enhances the wood color
- It makes them appear more appealing
- It preserves the natural beauty of wood
- Most wood stains offer UV protection, keeping the wood from fading.
- Some wood types form splotches when stained.
- Stains are not durable without a protective topcoat.
Best wood stain for indoor applications: Verathane Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain
This is a high-performance wood stain that requires only one coat to achieve the desired color. This means you can finish the project in less time.
The stain offers a whopping 75% more coverage, so you can use less stain to complete a large project, saving you money.
Its unique oil-based formula dries to the touch in just an hour. Since it gives off minimal odor, it is ideal for use indoors on projects like furniture, doors, cabinets, paneling, and trim.
Wood finish vs. wood stain side by side
This section compares wood finish or varnish and wood stain in terms of specific characteristics and features to help you decide how and when to use each product.
Stain versus finish—common uses
The primary use of wood stains is to color wood and enhance its grain. Stains come in all shades, allowing you to choose a preferred color for your wood project.
Since these stains fill the pores in the wood, they create some level of water resistance by blocking the spaces where moisture could enter and damage the wood. Additionally, the tinting pigment may also protect the wood from UV damage depending on its formula.
On the other hand, wood finishes are primarily transparent, even though tinted options are available to alter the color of the wood. Their primary use is to protect the wood surface from physical impact and scratches.
Finishes also form a waterproof seal on the wood surface, even though some types resist water better than others.
Unlike stains, finishes have a sheen and tend to make the wood glossy. This is why they are typically applied over stain to create a beautifully colored and glossy finish. Most finishes boast different sheen levels, from glossy to matte and everything in between.
Verdict: Choosing a tinted varnish may offer an all-in-one solution if you can find the product in your preferred shade. Otherwise, use a wood stain and finish together as the two products play complementary roles in coloring and protecting wood.
Wood finish vs. stain—application
Wood stains and finishes share most application methods, albeit with a few exceptions. For instance, you can apply varnish using a paint roller, whereas the roller is not a practical way to apply wood stain.
On the other hand, you can apply finishes such as lacquer with a sprayer and cannot use the spraying method when applying thick finishes like polyurethane and varnish.
When working with stains, you can typically use a sprayer, clean rag, paintbrush, paint pad, and foam brush to apply the product to wood. You must also wipe off the excess product from the surface once it has soaked into the wood.
When applying wood finishes, you can use a sprayer (for some finishes), roller, paintbrush, or foam brush. There is no wiping off the excess product when applying wood finishes, so you must ensure you achieve an even coat from the get-go.
Both stains and finishes need to go on a well-prepped and sanded surface. The wood needs to be blemish-free; otherwise, the imperfections will show through the finished surface. Glossy finishes may actually highlight any blemishes on your wood.
Verdict: Stains and finishes have similar application techniques, procedures, and requirements with only a few exceptions in techniques.
Wood finish vs. stain—weather resistance
Weather resistance determines whether you can use a product on exterior applications. This is one area where no clear winner exists between stains and finishes.
For instance, while wood stains have a UV protection factor added to their formulas, they cannot withstand prolonged water exposure. So, exterior grade stains usually have a sealant added to the formula to create a powerful, film-forming blend.
On the other hand, most finishes can withstand prolonged exposure to water and precipitation but do not offer sun protection due to their clear color. So pigments are sometimes added to the formula to make them UV resistant.
When choosing a stain or finish for outdoor use, always ensure the product is specified as an exterior grade. Using an interior-grade product outdoors may give suboptimal results.
Verdict: Both stains and finishes must be formulated for outdoor use to be weatherproof. Still, you must reapply the product every few years to maintain its protection.
Wood stain vs. wood finish—drying time
The average drying time for wood stains is between 24 and 48 hours for exterior stains and about 6 to 24 hours for interior wood stains. Ideally, interior stains dry faster than their exterior-grade cousins.
When to apply a second coat of stain
Standard wood stain requires waiting an hour before adding a second coat. Gel stains typically take longer to dry—about 6 to 8 hours before you can add a second coat. Both types of wood stain will always have the recommended drying time specified on the label.
When to apply a sealant over wood stain
Waiting times for applying a sealant over stained wood surfaces vary between stain types and brands. For instance, conventional wood stains may require up to 24 hours of drying time before you can apply a topcoat.
However, fast-drying brands like Minwax Performance Series Tintable Interior Stain allow for sealing in as little as 2 hours (for oil finishes) and about 6 hours (for water-based finishes).
Wood finish drying time
In contrast, drying times vary significantly for different wood finishes. For example, shellac dries in just 30 minutes, and you can recoat after one hour of drying.
Lacquer dries even faster, in just about 5 to 10 minutes. However, we recommend letting it dry for an hour before recoating.
Thick finishes like polyurethane and varnishes take longer to dry, with water-based options drying faster than oil-based varieties.
Water-based polyurethane becomes dry and ready for recoating in 2 to 4 hours. Oil-based poly requires about 10 to 24 hours of drying time before recoating. However, fast-drying oil-based poly allows for recoating in as little as 4 hours of drying.
Varnish is often ready for recoating without sanding in about 4 hours. If you wait longer than recommended on the label before recoating, you will typically need to sand between coats and wait for 24 hours before you can add the subsequent coat of varnish.
Verdict: Wood stains and finishes have similar drying times and ranges. It is essential always to read the product label and follow the drying time recommended there.
Finish versus wood stain—care and maintenance
Stained wood without a topcoat requires constant care to maintain the color and the integrity of the wood surface.
Standard wood stains penetrate the wood pores without forming a film on the surface. While occupying the pores can offer some water resistance, any pooling water or prolonged moisture exposure can still damage the wood.
You must constantly watch out for anything that comes in contact with the wood because:
- Physical objects, chemicals, and heat can damage the wood.
- Dirt, dust particles, and grime can enter the pores on unfinished wood, becoming stubborn stains with time.
On the other hand, wood finish forms a tough coat that acts as a barrier between the wood and the outside environment. So the wood remains safe even with little maintenance.
Finished wood requires little care and maintenance because:
- The glossy surface leaves no room for dirt to hide.
- Dirt and stains hardly stick to the shiny surface, making it easier for dirt to come off. For instance, you only need to wipe the surface with a damp rag to keep the wood looking pristine.
- The tough coat on the wood surface protects the wood from physical damage.
Verdict: Finished wood surfaces are much easier to maintain than unfinished, stained wood.
Wood stain vs. finish—how to apply
You will typically need to follow the same procedure when preparing a piece of wood for staining and finishing. Both products need a clean, smooth surface with any inconsistencies sanded down.
How to apply wood stain
Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the procedure for applying wood stains. But first is the list of supplies you must assemble for the project.
- Wood stain
- Protective hand gloves
- Drop cloth
- Lint-free rags
- Rubber gloves
- Tack cloth
Step 1: Protect the work area with a drop cloth.
Step 2: Prepare the wood surface by cleaning and sanding it with medium-grit sandpaper. Switch to finer grit sandpaper for the final sanding and wipe the wood dust with a tack cloth.
If the wood has holes and gouges, fill them with a wood filler and let them dry first before sanding.
Step 3: Apply the stain with a lint-free cloth. You could also use a synthetic bristled paintbrush, paint pad, or sprayer to apply the stain onto the wood. Ensure you cover every inch of the surface with generous amounts of the stain.
Step 4: Let the stain sit for 5 to 15 minutes (or as recommended on the label), and then wipe off the excess stain with a clean, lint-free rag along the direction of the wood grain.
Step 5: Let the stain dry for the recommended time and observe if you like the color. If you prefer it deeper, apply another coat following the same procedure.
Applying wood finish
Here is a breakdown of the steps to follow when applying wood finish. First is the list of materials and tools to use.
- Wood finish (varnish, shellac, polyurethane, or lacquer)
- Applicator (roller or foam brush and natural bristle brush for poly and varnish, or sprayer for lacquer and shellac)
- Protective hand gloves
- Drop cloth
- Rubber gloves
- Tack cloth
Preliminary step: Prepare the work area by laying down a drop cloth to collect any sanding dust and spills.
Step 1: Clean and sand the wood surface with medium-grit sandpaper. Sand the entire surface gently to remove all inconsistencies, and then switch to finer grit sandpaper for the final sanding. Once done, wipe down the wood with a tack cloth to remove the dust.
If the wood has any cracks or holes, fill them first with a suitable wood filler and let it dry before sanding and wiping.
Step 2: Once the wood is dry, use a natural bristled brush to apply the finish. If you have lacquer, you may spray it onto the wood. Ensure you cover the entire project with a thin, even coat.
If you are applying polyurethane or varnish, thin it according to the manufacturer’s instructions and apply it as the primer.
Step 3: Let the first coat (primer) dry completely before applying the next. This drying time will vary depending on the product you are using, so we recommend reading the manufacturer’s instructions and following them.
Step 5: Once the first coat is completely dry, apply the second coat of the pure (not thinned) finish the same way you applied the first, and then let it dry.
FAQS: Wood Finish vs Wood Stain
What is the difference between a wood finish and a wood stain?
Wood finishes are meant to protect the wood surface from physical damage, water damage, and sometimes UV radiation. On the other hand, the primary role of wood stains is to add color to the wood.
Do I have to sand between coats of stain?
Yes, sanding between coats of wood stain is necessary to create a smooth finish. Let the stain dry completely before sanding with fine-grit sandpaper or rubbing with 0000 steel wool to smoothen the surface.
Which finish is best for wood?
Most woodworking professionals consider lacquer the best finish for wood due to its fast-drying property and its incredible ability to impart depth and richness to the wood. The finish can also be adequately or excellently durable, depending on the type of lacquer used.
Is it necessary to use both wood finish and wood stain in a project?
Not always. It depends on your project’s goals. You can use either wood finish or wood stain separately or combine them based on your desired results.
How long does wood finish typically last?
The durability of wood finish varies depending on factors like the type of finish used, the wood’s exposure to elements, and the quality of application. Generally, it can last several years.
Can I apply wood stain over an existing wood finish?
It’s generally not recommended to apply wood stain over an existing finish because the stain may not penetrate the surface properly. It’s better to strip the old finish before staining.
Which is easier to work with, water-based or oil-based wood stain?
Water-based stains are easier to work with for beginners. They have a quick drying time and emit fewer fumes, making them more user-friendly.
Is there a specific wood type that works best with wood finish or wood stain?
Both wood finish and wood stain can be used on various wood types. The choice depends on the specific look and protection you want to achieve rather than the wood type.
Wood finish vs wood stain final thoughts
Any woodwork requires knowledge of wood finishing to preserve the beauty of wooden projects and make them durable.
- Use wood stain when you want to enhance the color of your wooden projects and make the grain pop.
- Use wood film-forming finishes when you wish to retain the wood’s natural color and protect it from weather elements and physical damage.
- Ultimately, use stains and finishes together to create colorful wood projects with glossy sheens and a layer of protection from the elements.
We hope this guide helps clarify the key differences between wood finishes and wood stains and helps make your projects more successful. Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments section.