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Staining Interior Wood

Wood finishing expert Bruce Johnson shares basic wood staining tips and offers advice on how to stain some of the more popular wood species.

While wood in its natural state can provide breathtaking beauty, it doesn't always match the other colors or wood tones in our home. Adding stain — which contains dyes and pigments blended with either mineral spirits or water — to bare or stripped wood can both change the color and highlight the grain pattern of any interior wood.

Since wood is a product of nature, it can vary from tree to tree, even in the same wood species. To avoid surprises, first test any stain you are considering on an inconspicuous spot to insure that the color of the stain — in conjunction with the natural color of the wood — produces the color you desire.

Oil or Water?

Minwax® stains and finishes are available with either of two solvents: water or oil-based mineral spirits. For the best results, select a pre-stain wood conditioner, stain and finish with the same solvent.

You can use the following criteria to determine whether to use an oil-based or water-based wood conditioner, stain and finish on each of your projects:

OIL-BASED PRODUCTS.

  • Give you a longer working time, enabling you to stain floors, cabinets, paneling and doors without the worry of dried lap marks.
  • Do not raise the grain, eliminating the need for additional sanding.
  • Are applied with a natural bristle brush, while water-based products must be applied with a synthetic brush.

WATER-BASED PRODUCTS.

  • Are low odor.
  • Dry faster, enabling you to stain and finish in one day.
  • Require only soap and water for clean-up.
  • Come in a wider range of vibrant stain colors.
Quick description of Minwax stain products.
Minwax Stain ProductsKey Point
Minwax Wood Finish Traditional oil-based penetrating stain.
Minwax Gel Stain This thick-bodied stain is ideal for vertical application and works on both wood and non-wood surfaces.
Minwax Water Based Wood Stain Fast-drying, low odor water-based stain available in 50 beautiful colors.

Application Tips

All stains require open pores for adequate absorption into the wood. Applying stain over a finished surface, such as lacquered kitchen cabinets, will not change the color of the wood. Your cloth will simply wipe off the stain blocked from the pores by the existing finish.

Sand bare or stripped wood lightly with #150, #180 or #220-grit sandpaper to open the pores in preparation for staining. Always sand in the direction of the grain to avoid leaving unsightly scratches.

Stain can be applied with a bristle brush, a foam brush, an aerosol can or a cloth. On woods with large, open pores, such as oak, mahogany and ash, increase your pressure to work the stain into the pores. Rubbing or brushing against the direction of the grain will help fill deep pores with stain. Apply a liberal amount of stain, giving the wood an ample amount to absorb.

Pay attention to how long you leave the stain on the wood before wiping off any unabsorbed liquid. The longer the stain is left on, the deeper and richer the color will be. For consistent color, use careful timing. Never allow any excess stain to dry on wood surface—it will cause all sorts of adhesion and other issues.

Remove the last of any unabsorbed stain with a dry cloth wiped only in the direction of the grain of the wood. Swirl marks left by a stain-saturated cloth will become even more obvious under a coat of clear finish.

When staining vertical surfaces, such as unfinished paneling or doors, try Minwax® Gel Stain. Its thicker consistency enables it to cling to vertical surfaces without immediately running, giving you more time to apply an even coat of stain.

Remember: a stain provides color, but not protection. Once the stain has dried, apply a clear finish to protect both the stain and the wood — and to make the final results look even more beautiful.

Staining Popular Woods

All woods have two characteristics that play important roles in determining their final appearance: their natural color and the size of their pores. Unlike paint, both water-based and oil-based stains are absorbed into the wood rather than laying on top of it. For that reason, the natural wood color will blend with the color of the stain you choose. In order to accurately predict the final color of your project, always test any stain you select on an inconspicuous place on the wood first.

In addition to their natural color, each species of wood has unique properties that will also affect the staining results. Here are a few examples:

OAK

Always a popular hardwood, oak has a strong grain pattern and large, open pores that absorb stain readily. For that reason, oak is attractive with nearly any color of stain. It does not tend to turn blotchy, but like all woods it will stain more evenly after an application of Minwax® Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner or Minwax®Water-Based Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner. To insure that any stain penetrates and fills oak's deep pores, apply a liberal amount of stain to the wood, then work it into the pores using a cloth in a swirling motion. Afterwards remove any unabsorbed stain by rubbing a clean cloth in the direction of the grain of the board.

ALDER AND ASPEN

These two hardwoods have become the darlings of the unfinished furniture industry, for they are lightweight, affordable and easy to machine. Unfortunately, they absorb stains unevenly. To help reduce blotchiness when staining, first apply a liberal coat of a pre-stain wood conditioner.

ASH AND CHESTNUT

These hardwoods share many of the characteristics of oak and should be stained in the same manner described above for oak.

BIRCH

Less expensive than hard maple, birch is often substituted for maple in furniture and kitchen cabinets. Like hard maple, however, it does not absorb stain evenly and should not be stained with dark colored stains. When staining, first apply a pre-stain wood conditioner, then select stains lighter in color.

CHERRY

The distinctive reddish hue of cherry reduces the need to stain this popular hardwood. Unlike oak and ash, cherry has a subtle grain pattern and small pores which do not absorb as much stain, making it difficult to make any significant changes in its natural color. The whitish sapwood (new growth close to the tree's bark) often found along the edges of cherry boards can be stained using Minwax® Wood Finish™ to blend with the reddish, mature heartwood.

"Want to learn more about different wood types? Check out this handy Wood Species chart.

MAHOGANY (ALSO ROSEWOOD AND IPE)

These South American hardwoods are noted for their dark, rich colors and their high levels of natural oils. In most instances, additional staining is not necessary. When it is, always use an oil-based stain, such as Minwax® Wood Finish™ or Minwax® Gel Stain, to insure compatibility with the natural oils in these woods.

MAPLE

As its name implies, hard maple is an extremely dense, tight-pored wood that does not absorb much stain. Unlike oak and ash, the grain pattern of maple is uneven, causing it to absorb stains in varying degrees. To reduce any blotchiness, first apply a coat of Minwax® Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner. Even then, it is advisable to only stain maple with light to medium colored stains.

PINE (ALSO FIR AND CEDAR)

These three popular softwoods are beautiful when finished naturally or with only a light application of stain. Problems arise, however, under darker stains, for all three absorb stain unevenly, especially around knots and blemishes. Always apply a liberal coat of Minwax® Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner prior to staining and even then select light to medium colors. These woods also are less likely to exhibit blotchiness if stained and finished with Minwax® PolyShades® or Minwax® Gel Stain.

POPLAR

Often called "poor man's cherry," poplar has a grain pattern similar to prized cherry, but lacks the same reddish hue. When stained with Minwax® Wood Finish™ Cherry, Red Mahogany or other colors containing red dyes and pigments, less expensive poplar can be made to look very much like cherry.

Wood Staining Do's and Don'ts

DO…

Always prepare the wood with a light sanding and an application of Minwax® Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner (see Wood Preparation for other tips).

Stir the can thoroughly to evenly redistribute any color pigments which may have settled to the bottom.

Apply a second coat according to label directions to achieve a darker, richer color tone.

DON'T…

Leave hinges, handles, knobs or pulls on a piece you are staining or finishing. Wood finishing products may also change the color of any metal hardware.

Attempt to obtain a darker color by allowing any unabsorbed stain to dry on top of the wood, as this will later peel off. Stains are formulated to dry in the wood, not on the wood.

Apply a finish before the stain has completely dried. The solvent in the finish will activate the damp stain, allowing your brush or cloth to pull it out of the pores of the wood.