Wood stains can do wonders. They can make new wood look like old wood. Or an affordable wood look high-end.
But not all stains are equal.
There's a wide range of stain types and different ways to apply that makes it hard to know what's best for your project and skillset.
In this blog, we are going to go over the 5 most common types of stain and the pros and cons of each. Let's discuss.
First off, what is a stain?
A stain is a finish that is applied to wood to enhance the color, appearance, and grain.
Similar to paint, wood stains are made up of three parts: a pigment, a binder, and a solvent.
The pigment is a finely ground colored powder, the binder glues the pigment to the wood, and the solvent liquifies the binder and holds the pigment so you can spread easily.
It can either be sprayed or wiped into wood to alter the color, tone, or shade. The pigment collects and builds up in the cracks and crevasses of the wood to enhance the grain pattern.
1. Oil-based stain
Oil stains, are hands-down, the most popular stain on the market. When people think of wood stains, they're most likely thinking about oil stains. They're widely available and extremely easy to use.
Most oil stains use a linseed oil binder. Linseed oil, which is a natural and non-toxic oil, is what makes this stain easy to work with. It takes about 1-2 hours to dry, giving you plenty of time to remove excess, clean up spills, and fix inconsistencies before it dries.
Because it takes a while to dry, we suggest waiting 3 hours before applying another coat of stain and about 9 to 10 hours before applying a wood finish. And if you need to thin or clean up, use mineral spirits. AKA paint thinner.
Oil stains are a great choice because they deeply penetrate the wood, are highly durable, and provide an even finish. And even though the drying process takes some time (something us woodworkers don't have a lot of), it does make it 10x easier to fix any mistakes.
Oil based stains pros and cons
2. Varnish stain
Varnish stains resemble oil stains in every way, but one.
Varnish stains contain a binder of varnish, in place of oil. This makes the stain dry hard. Meaning you don't have to wipe any excess off to get an even coat.
And the best part of varnish stains: There's no need for a finishing coat. The stain is the finishing coat.
There is a learning curve when it comes to varnish stains, though. Like we said above, you don't have to wipe any excess away, but if the varnish was applied unevenly, it will look splotchy and you'll want to apply more coats. So in that regard, they are a little harder to work with than oil because there's less time to wipe off excess. And brushing or leaving the excess usually leaves brush marks that stand out.
Varnish stains are great to use as an overcoat on an already stained and finished surface or smaller projects.
Varnish stain pros and cons
3. Water-based stain
Water-based stains use a water-based finish as the binder and replace the solvent with water. They're environmentally friendly and contain less polluted particles.
The number one advantage to water-based stains is they're easy to clean up - all you need is water. And on top of that, they're also the least likely to irritate your skin or eyes since these stains are pretty natural.
But the biggest hassle with water-based stains is they're difficult to apply. Sometimes the water will raise the grain of the wood, making it a bit more textured.
This is easy to prevent, though. Just wet the wood before applying and leave overnight. The next day, smooth the surface by sanding off the raised grain, and then apply your stain.
Another downside is water-based stains dry fast. And when we say fast, we mean fast. You need to wipe away any excess immediately or else your stain might end up splotchy.
To make sure your application is applied evenly, it's best to divide the application into short time segments. Especially if it's a bigger surface.
Another way to combat this is to add a slow evaporating solvent, like lacquer retarder. But be warned: it will reduce the color intensity of the stain.
When working with water-based stains, try not to apply them over oil or varnish stains. It'll take over a week to dry.
Water-based stains pros and cons
Water-based stains are a viable alternative to oil-based stains. They penetrate deeper, resulting in deep, rich colors in only one coat. Like oil-based stains, they can be applied by hand or spray.
4. Gel stain
Gel stains, often referred to as glazing, are oil-based (sometimes varnish-based) with a very thick, almost jelly-like pigment.
They use a powdery thickening agent mixed with liquid resins, mineral spirits, or pigments to make it a gel consistency.
Gel stains work best for blotch-prone woods, like cherry and maple, because they give good results with less steps. And we are all about less steps when it comes to staining.
Here's what we mean: Usually, with other stains like oil or water-based, the only way to fix blotching is to sand it out or paint the wood. Time-consuming and annoying.
But because of its thicker consistency, gel stains don't penetrate into the resin deposits of the wood as excessively so there's very minimal blotching.
Plus, the thickness makes it not leak or drip like other stains do which gives you the ultimate control. That's why gel stains are most often used to shade, age, or accent a previously stained wood piece. It's easy to add a bit more drama and emphasize the grain patterns by adding graining in bland areas or darkening the lighter edges of adjacent planks.
But it's important to know that because of the thickness, gel stains can be a bit messier to apply - use a rag or cloth for best results.
Gel stain pros and cons
5. Lacquer stain
Unlike the name suggests, most lacquer wood stains don't contain any lacquer and instead, use a very fast drying varnish as the binder. They're called lacquer stains because a lot of professional finishers add this stain to lacquer to make a pigmented toner for adjusting color between coats of finish.
These stains are known for drying extremely fast. Like 15 minutes fast. Which makes them difficult to use because you have to work quickly (Topcoating the same day makes it worthwhile, though).
We only suggest using this type of stain if you are a professional woodworker, have spray equipment, a well-ventilated area, and a team to help. It's best to have at least two people to help with this stain - one person spraying the stain and the other wiping off the excess.
Lacquer stain pros and cons
Our biggest piece of advice
Here at Ruck Cabinet Doors, we partner with M.L. Campbell. We usually spray and then hand wipe to achieve maximum grain clarity.
No matter what type of stain you go with, our best piece of advice is to always sample on the wood you're using. Staining, and finishing in general, is a lot of trial and error and sampling is the best way to find out how to achieve the desired look.
And remember to always read the stain manufacturer's recommended staining methods and dry time. They always vary depending on the brand and the type of stain.
P.S. we're here to help.
If you ever want a break from spraying, we can help with that. We have the equipment and materials to make finishing a breeze (see us in action here). And a dedicated finishing department that cares about your doors just as much as you.
Paint? Stains? Primed doors? You name it. Check out our finishing page to see what we can do.
Wanna know more about finishing? Read more about it here: