Introduction to Wood Staining




About: Completed a masters in mechanical engineering and then realised I didn't want to be an engineer. So I'm a freelance propmaker and costumier for film, theatre and music videos. Occasionally, I need to find ...

Wood stain has a lovely effect of enhancing the appearance of the wood by embracing the lovely grain pattern and making it pop with a change in colour unlike paint, which covers it up.  I’m building a set of bookcases at the moment and have been experimenting with a variety of effects.  These experiments are on the cheap white soft wood available from most big box stores (which could be spruce, fir, pine or other).

I am not a carpenter or cabinet maker, just an experimental hobbyist.  These instructions are a guide but I encourage you to try your own sample experiments from start to finish before going for the real thing.  Stain is really hard to remove entirely.

Step 1: Applying Commercial Wood Stain

Wood stain is a thin, coloured liquid that penetrates the surface of wood and marks it that colour.  Readily available for about $8.00 in a 1 quart can.  Sand the wood with 180 grit paper until it is smooth and clean the dust off.  Apply the stain by dabbing a lint-free cloth into the stain and rubbing it in or use a natural bristle brush to apply thin layers which you wipe the excess off after 5-15 minutes.  Always try to work with the grain.  Good long and definite strokes, don't tickle the wood.

Natural brushes are not that expensive; 69 cents for a 2” brush from Harbor Freight or a whole box of 36 for $10.95.  I prefer using an old cotton t-shirt cut into 4”x8” pieces that I fold into a stack and hold with a binder clip.  The material is cheap, soaks up stain well and the rounded edge minimises brush marks whilst keeping my hands clean holding the clip.

Step 2: Mixing Stains for Custom Colours

When you don’t find a colour of stain you like, you can mix them together quite happily like paint.  I tried using Minwax Polyshades which boasts a stain and a polyurethane topcoat all in one application.  I bought 1 quart of the Bombay Mahogany for $12.00 hoping for a deep dark tone with a pop of red.  It states that one coat is sufficient and another is okay for a deeper colour.  One coat was much too light and no good.  Coats 2, 3 and 4 made it darker but nowhere near the shop sample on pine.

I mixed some ebony stain into the Bombay mahogany in varying ratios (settling on 1:5) for a darker stain but still with some red and the benefit of a topcoat.  It is hard to salvage stained wood as you have to sand a decent layer off to get to where the stain has not penetrated.  In a vain attempt, I sanded the surface down along the grain with 80 grit, which was successful in revealing the bare summerwood and less of the springwood.  I used these "sanding screens" from Harbor Freight which are quite good at $0.99 for 20 sheets which fit my sander, and they're double sided.  The lattice layout prevents clogging of the sheet.

Once cleaned up, I wiped on some of my stain mix with a folded rag to produce a personally pleasing weathered or burnt effect.  It made the wood grain more vibrant and is how the rest of the bookcase will be treated.  I also took a plane to the edges to create a chamfer showing the original wood as a line around the edge for a bit of definition.

Step 3: Dealing With End Grain

On solid wood boards, the end grain is the side at the end of the board where you can see the growth rings, i.e. when you see a tree stump, that whole surface is end grain.  End grain absorbs stain better than the other faces because of the wood structure.  The pores of the wood suck the stain down further into the wood and make it appear much darker than the face.

One way to deal with it is to “burnish” the end grain which requires sanding to a higher grit than the face and making the pores effectively smaller.  You would sand it all to say, 180 grit, but on the ends continue to 220 grit, 320 grit and maybe even 400-600 grit if you’re determined. This makes the ends very smooth and limits the depth at which stain is absorbed thus maintaining colour shade.  This is detailed in the next step.

Another way is to sand the end as normal and apply a “glue size” which is a mix of carpenter’s glue / PVA and water in a 1 part glue : 10 parts water.  Brush the mix on to wet the entire end and let it dry out fully for a couple of hours then sand the end with 180 to remove that layer of glue mix from the surface.  The glue mix left only in the pores will inhibit the stain and give a more even colour.

Step 4: When Have You Sanded Enough?

Sanding end grain is time consuming as it is naturally quite rough.  After the initial 80 grit sanding it may feel as smooth as the rest of the board but the stain will tell a different story.  The key is to watch for that layer of lighter coloured sawdust to disappear.  Sanding with 80, 120 and 180 grit can still produce peaks and valleys on the end which are filled with the sanding dust; these are the light areas you want to get rid of.  Going up to 220 and finally 320, the surface is clear or any lighter scratches and is relatively flat.  It will also feel beautifully smooth to the touch.  Now you are ready.

Step 5: Alternative Staining Mixtures

There are a host of alternative wood stains you can use with varying success including black coffee /  tea, crushed berries and nut shells.  Vinegar and steel wool is a great mix that adds great age to new wood in an ebonising effect.

Put on some protective gloves and take a roll of 0000# extra fine steel wire wool under a hot tap to wash off any rust-inhibiting oils.  Make sure it is actually wire wool in the packet as I am aware there are some imitations that will not work.  Pull the steel wool apart into a thin layer and place in a glass jar.  Pour over ordinary white vinegar until the wool is covered.  Cider vinegar is also an option.  If you have some rusty nails, throw those in too and leave the jar with a loose lid for 24-48 hours until the bubbles have stopped and the vinegar is darker.  Give the jar a shake every while / when you walk past it.

Strain the mix through a coffee filter or cloth to remove the small metal particles.  Brush the mix on with a brush to leave a wet layer, a rag will not get the surface wet enough.  Again, go with the grain when applying.  Let the wood dry for a few hours and it will go a magnificent dark colour.  Softwoods go a blue-grey, great for aging new wood.  Hardwoods go darker depending on the tannin content of the wood.  Mahogany and oak go very dark from this reaction.

This forum post documents different wood reactions to the vinegar mix.

The sharp smell will dissipate after a few days.  The surface will also need a top coat of oil or varnish to protect it.

Step 6: Wood Stain Blotchy?

Wood is a variable material and can be unpredictable to stain resulting in blotches where the wood is of a different density.  You can apply a wood conditioner which is a brush-on liquid that soaks into the wood pores and evens the stain absorption.

A different method is using Caustic Soda (Sodium Hydroxide or Lye) to oxidise the surface.  In the UK, you can get caustic soda as a powder from Boots and other hardware places as a drain cleaner, about £2.50 for 500g.  CAUTION: It is very dangerous stuff and causes severe burns on contact with skin, so treat it carefully with gloves and goggles in a ventilated area. 

Mix one (1) teaspoon with one (1) litre of water into a spray bottle to make a dilute solution.  Spray it all over the wood and it will change colour almost immediately but will dry to a more natural colour.  Once dry, the grain will be a bit more exposed and most importantly even, making stain more even.  In the US, caustic soda is much harder to buy and have heard that a mix of one part cheap drain cleaner with one part water achieves a similar effect, but I have not tried it.

This webpage details the caustic soda technique for aging pine.

Step 7: In Conclusion

Remember to try out a sample first before embarking on the entire process.  Wood is a funny thing and like underwear, stains only makes it funnier.  My bookcase will receive all the stain results I've gathered soon.



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9 Discussions


3 years ago on Step 5

for my outdoor projects using soft pallet wood, old motor oil is the best. stain color may vary but it is very termite-repelant and quite weather and waterproof. apply it with a brush and do several layers much like applying manufactured wood oils.


5 years ago on Introduction

Cool ideas. I love to experiment with non-commercial stuff. : )

The vinegar mixture is called vinegar black, and is an old recipe used on leather, especially. In leather, to get an even darker effect, you can soak the leather in black tea, which is rich in tannin, let it dry and then apply the vinegar black. I'd guess the same effect could be gotten with wood. However, the coat of varnish or wax or whatever will be even more important - I don't think the wood would absorb much tea, so you'd probably get the tannin mostly on the surface.


6 years ago on Step 5

Went to the forum to check out the samples. I absolutely love this stain!! Thank you so much for sharing


6 years ago on Introduction

Oh hey, I've been looking at that Minwax Polyshades--because it also says you can paint it right over other stained wood with just a touch of sanding--and wondering how the colors really look. That one, two, and three coats photo you've got up there is really helpful; three coats is actually the exact color I want. From their site I thought Bombay Mahogany would be much too dark.

I love your tip about using cut up T-shirts in a binder clip. I've been using them just folded over, and enough work like that shreds my various disposable gloves, so my hands end up stained anyway. That seems like a great way to be able to use the T-shirts, apply some force behind the material to rub it into the wood, and still keep my hands a little cleaner. Thanks!

4 replies

Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

Minwax have a little piece on what the Polyshades look like over an existing stain. I believe that in practice, the final shade will look like a combination of the two colours. The stain suspended in polyurethane makes the mix much thicker than stain which means it doesn't absorb as deeply as a stain alone.

I (and many others) have discovered that if you're applying Polyshades to a large area, it will start to dry before you can cover the whole piece and cause brush marks or drips or other unwelcome details. So do be careful with it. Glad you like the binder clip tip though, saves my gloves a treat too!


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

Yes, thanks again for the binder clip idea.

I don't like the foam "brushes" I've used before because the paddle inside the foam interferes with smooth application. I'm going to make some flexible Oogoo paddles with rounded corners and put them in the middle of the T-shirts, then put the binder clips over the whole thing, see how that works out. (Oogoo is pretty easily found here on Instructables if you're not familiar with it..)

Oh, sure, Minwax have a comparison chart on their site...but hey, look at what they say the Bombay Mahogany will look like, and look how yours turned out! So it's nice to have some feedback besides their own color charts.

I think I must have an odd temperament when it comes to colors. I really, really hate applying thick stains, mostly for the reason you mention. But I also don't really care for the resulting color, either. I've found that I most enjoy the result when I first thoroughly soak my applicator in mineral spirits , then spread a little stain on the applicator, then rub it into the wood. I *love* the result; it feels like the wood grain is really glowing through the stain, and it seems to go on very evenly. It's sort of like getting aged wood with a specific color instead of the grey that comes with weathering. But I wonder if that would invalidate the built-in finish of the Polyshades, or even if it could be used that way.


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

Oh yeah, I have a whole pack of Sugru sitting around. I like the idea of the stiffening pad it would provide.

Applying thin layers of stain will give you the even coverage, but it will take more layers to get the colour on the tin. I don't think you would get the full effect of Polyshades by applying it as you stated so I would put a coat or oil or polyurethane over the top for stain protection. But if it is the colour you want, then go for it! Just remember to do all the boring sanding first.


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

The guy at the big box store last week suggested that if I wanted to apply stain over existing stain, I should try Minwax Gel. I had actually asked if there was something I could use to paint and provide something like the appearance of cherry stain, without all the sanding down to bare wood. (Why didn't he mention Polyshades? I don't know. I found it when I went to the Minwax page to figure out what I was doing wrong with the Gel.) His comment was "You can use paint, but, well, it will always look painted."

I have been trying it on all kinds of wood, stained and unstained, with sanding on the stained woods and without, etc since then. I can't get this stuff to NOT look like reddish-brown paint unless there are lots of visible brush strokes, and they're terrible. It is so, so, so thick, and nothing shows through at all. I can't thin it down, I can't apply light coats, I can't do anything but slather it on and end up with a thick even coat of, well, paint. And I still have to apply some kind of finish!

If Polyshades will thin down and not look nastily brush-stroked, it's probably a much better solution, even if I have to use additional finishing. I would have had to put finish on the Gel anyway. I don't mind doing some surface sanding; it's the sanding down to bare wood that was just too imposing in this project.