8 Types of Wood Stain and When To Use Them


Using a wood stain is one of the quickest and easiest ways to highlight or improve a piece’s aesthetic appeal. However, finding the right type of wood stain for a project can prove to be a daunting task. Luckily, I’m here to help. 

Here are eight types of wood stains: 

  1. Water-based wood stain
  2. Oil-based wood stain 
  3. Pigment wood stain 
  4. Dye wood stain 
  5. Pigment-dye wood stain 
  6. Gel wood stain 
  7. Varnish wood stain/polyurethane varnish
  8. Lacquer wood stain 

This article will expound on each type of wood stain – what makes them different, when they should be used, their pros and cons, and other important information you need to know before using them. Keep reading to learn more. 

1. Water-Based Wood Stain

A wood stain has three main components: colorant, vehicle, and binder. Colorant provides color, the vehicle is the solvent for the colorant, and the binder helps the color stick to the wood better.

Differences between components lead to different types of wood stains. The first two types of wood stains I’ll discuss vary depending on the vehicle used. 

As the name implies, water-based wood stains use water as their vehicle. This means that water is the pigment’s solvent and thinner.

When Should You Use a Water-Based Wood Stain?

You should use a water-based wood stain if you want more color options and a quick-drying period. However, these wood stains can be challenging to apply because they can make the wood feel rough. They also don’t penetrate well; therefore, they need a top coat. 

Pros

  • Dries quickly: Water-based wood stains dry very quickly (around 15 to 30 minutes). This is advantageous if you want a fast wood refinishing job. 
  • Variety: Water-based wood stains are available in a variety of colors, even those that are non-traditional. This makes it easier to customize or choose a stain of your preference. 
  • Environment-friendly and safer: Water-based stains are considered natural as they typically contain fewer pollutants. This makes them an eco-friendly and safe option. 
  • Easy clean-up: Unlike other stains, such as varnish stains, where cleaning up is a challenge, you only need water to remove spills of water-based wood stains. 

Cons 

  • Dries quickly: Fast-drying properties can be disadvantageous as you would have to quicken your pace and leave less room for error or adjustments. 
  • Rough touch: Wood absorbs water or moisture, making it feel scratchy or gritty when applying a water-based stain. This can be quickly resolved by wetting, cleaning, and lightly sanding the wood before staining. 
  • Does not penetrate deeply: Compared to other stains, water-based wood stains do not penetrate the wood as well. This may make it fade or remove easier. 
  • Needs a top coat: Because they do not adhere deeply, they need a top coat to help seal the stain into the wood. 

Tips for Using Water-Based Wood Stains

  • Section areas during applications. Because water-based wood stains dry so fast, it may be best to divide large surfaces into sections for easier and more even refinishing. 
  • Best paired with a water-based finish. Most water-based stains need finishing because of their poor penetration. To improve results, use water-based finishing instead. 
  • Wipe away excess or spills immediately. This helps avoid a blotchy end product. 
  • Slow down drying by adding retarders. You can add lacquer retarder or propylene glycol to delay drying. However, these additions will affect the color by muting or toning it down.

2. Oil-Based Wood Stain

Oil-based wood stains are a traditional option. Usually, the oil (or vehicle) is linseed oil. Sometimes the substance may also have some varnish mixed into it. 

Oil-based stains leave an excellent natural finish and soft coat. They also provide the wood with more depth and color. 

When Should You Use an Oil-Based Wood Stain?

You should use an oil-based wood stain when you need a durable, natural, and traditional finish. These are best for outdoor furniture or other woodwork that may be exposed to elements. These products need more resilient stains to resist damage and fading. 

Pros

  • Penetrates deeply: Unlike water-based stains, oil-based wood stains penetrate deeper, making them more durable. They are less likely to fade and will possibly last longer. 
  • More even finish: Oil-based stains dry slowly and may take up to 72 hours or longer. A single coat can take up to 2 hours to dry. This makes even application easier and more even than fast-drying stains because you can remove excess product, preventing blotches. 
  • Easy re-coating: It is easier to re-coat oil-based stains every few months to refresh or renew the wood finish. 
  • No need for a top coat: Because they penetrate deeply, oil stains don’t need a top layer, unlike water-based ones. 

Cons 

  • Dries slowly: The oil and varnish content (if any) makes drying slower. Oil-based stains can be discouraging for those who want a quick refinishing procedure because they take more time to dry.  

Tips for Using Oil-Based Wood Stains

  • Add a top layer of wax. Wax helps soften the oily finish, thus, improving your work’s quality. 
  • Use rags when applying and wait three hours before the next coat. This helps achieve better results. 
  • Wipe off excess product. You must remove extra oil, or the stain will need even more time to dry. The excess stain could also lead to peeling. 
  • Avoid using water-based stains as a finish. Although oil-based stains don’t need it, if you have to apply some finish, avoid water-based or resin ones. 

3. Pigment Wood Stains 

Pigments are the component in wood stain dyes that impart color to the wood. However, they are not necessarily just pigments. They can also be dyes or a combination of dye and pigment. 

For the following three types of wood stains, I’ll be discussing different wood stains based on their coloring agents. For this section, I’ll focus on pigment wood stains.

Pigments come in larger molecules than dyes. As a result, instead of dissolving in the vehicle, they are suspended instead. Their large sizes allow them to have more opaque colors compared to dyes. 

When Should You Use a Pigment Wood Stain?

You should use a pigment wood stain for woods with larger pores. The large pigment molecules prevent the stain from penetrating properly in fine-grained wood. This wood stain can also be used if you want to obscure a material’s features, or if the material will be constantly exposed to UV light. 

Pros

  • Obscures wood features: Pigment wood stains are suitable for the job if you wish to hide certain wood qualities and appearances.

Cons 

  • More resistant to UV: Pigment-based stains are less likely to fade over time. 
  • Needs a binder: Pigments do not penetrate or bond well with wood; thus, they need binders to promote such interactions. 
  • Uneven finishes: If the wood pores are unevenly distributed, there will be areas where the pigment is better received. This could lead to uneven discoloration.

Tips for Using Pigment Wood Stains

  • Choose wood stains with finely-grounded pigments. Many commercial stains now contain grounded pigments to allow better wood penetration, similar to but just short of dyes.  

4. Dye Wood Stains 

As I’ve previously mentioned, wood stains may also contain dyes, which shall impart color to the woodwork. Dyes are smaller than pigments; thus, they dissolve well in the vehicle. Moreover, they have a more transparent color effect. 

Powdered dyes can be dissolved using water, oil, or alcohol. However, metalized dyes are already available in liquid or concentration form. 

Here are several types of dye wood stains:

  • Water-soluble dye wood stain: This type is available in powder form, which shall be dissolved in water before use.
  • Metal-complex/metalized dye wood stain: Unlike water-soluble dyes, these are more resistant to fading and are already available in a liquid form. 

When Should You Use a Dye Wood Stain?

You should use a dye wood stain for fine-grained wood. The product molecules’ small size allows them to penetrate the fine pores, which pigment-based molecules cannot. Water-soluble dye wood stains should be used for indoor wood furniture. 

Pros

  • Customizable: There are various dyes and colors to choose from when using dye wood stain. 
  • Preserves natural wood appearance: Dye stains are beginner-friendly because even if you pile on many layers, they will not obscure the wood’s natural quality and features. 
  • Penetrates deeply: This is because of the dye’s small molecular size. As they adhere deeply, they allow for a more transparent effect. 

Cons 

  • Fades when exposed to UV. Due to adverse reactions to UV exposure, it is not advisable to use dye wood stains for exterior woodwork. 

Tips for Using Dye Wood Stains

  • Use hot water for dissolving dyes. In general, hot water dissolves solutes faster and better than cold water. 
  • Avoid using tap water. Tap water contains minerals that may affect the quality and color of the dye when used. 
  • Use oil-soluble powdered dyes to create new oil stain colors. Oil stains are usually limited in variety, but with oil-soluble dyes, you can expand your choice of colors. 

5. Pigment-Dye Wood Stain

Most commercial dyes these days are not strictly pigment-based or dye-based. They may be a combination of both, but the ratios may vary. Some may contain more pigment and less dye, and vice versa. 

When Should You Use a Pigment-Dye Wood Stain?

You should use a pigment-dye wood stain if you’re looking for a more even finish. The pigments can color the large pores and scratches, while the dyes can access the fine grains. However, the wood would be prone to UV fading, similar to dye-based wood stains. 

6. Gel Wood Stain

Gel wood stains are usually oil-based stains that are distinct for their thickness. While most other stains are notoriously thin and tend to run during the application, the thickness of gel stains helps them properly sit on the wood. 

When Should You Use a Gel Wood Stain?

You should use a gel wood stain for vertical wood applications, like staining wooden chairs. Because this type of stain doesn’t run like other varieties and tends to sit, leaks are avoided. However, it doesn’t penetrate as deeply and takes some time to dry. 

Pros

  • Thick consistency: Leaks and runs are avoided when using gel stains. They are also helpful for vertical applications. 
  • Even finish: Their consistency makes control easier, allowing you to achieve a more even finish. 

Cons 

  • Dries slowly: Like oil-based stains, these might take time to dry. Thus, you may not want to use them for a quick project. 
  • Does not penetrate deeply: Like water-based stains, they can fade, remove, or degrade easier and faster than other stains because they don’t penetrate deeply. 

Tips for Using Gel Wood Stains

  • Use a rag or foam brush for application. Usually, brushes are used for applying stains, but for gel, use a rag. Apply the stain in circular motions for the best results. 

7. Varnish Wood Stain/Polyurethane Varnish

In general, wood stains don’t bond well to wood; thus, binders are added to improve adherence. For varnish or polyurethane stains, the binder used is varnish.

Varnish wood stains are similar to oil-based wood stains. They have the same pros, cons, and tips for applying. 

However, varnish stains dry faster and harder, whereas oil evaporates and leaves a soft coat. Therefore, a varnish stain’s distinctive feature is a hard coat. 

When Should You Use a Varnish Wood Stain?

You should use a varnish wood stain for stained exterior furniture. It can act as a finishing coat that adds luster to a pre-stained item. Furthermore, it is durable and would do well against the elements. 

Pros

  • No need to wipe excess product: Because the product dries quickly, you don’t need to remove any excess stain. However, it would be better to do so to avoid splotches and achieve an even coat.
  • No need for finishing: Because of its hard finish, varnish stains don’t need top coats or other finishings. 
  • Can be used as a finishing coat: On the other hand, it may even work as a finish coat. It adds luster and aesthetics to already stained woodwork. 
  • Durable: Because of its finish and other properties, you can expect the stain to be quite resilient to acid, chemicals, heat, and other elements. 

Cons 

  • Dries quickly: Unlike oil-based stains, varnish stains dry quickly; thus, you won’t need to remove excess stains. However, that also means there’s less room for adjustment and error. 
  • Difficult to apply: Its quick-dry ability and hard finish make it challenging to use.

8. Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer wood stains earn their name because they use pigmented lacquer. Such pigments are made by mixing lacquer with xylene and ketones, which are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

When Should You Use a Lacquer Wood Stain?

You should use a lacquer wood stain for a quick refinishing job of interior furniture and when there is adequate ventilation. It can also be used as a topcoat for stained woodwork. However, these types of stains are not suited for exterior furniture and woodwork.

Pros

  • Dries quickly: Lacquer wood stains are time-efficient, like water-based or varnish stains. They can dry rapidly because of the kind of binders mixed with them. 
  • Penetrates well: Lacquer wood stains do an excellent job penetrating the wood.

Cons 

  • Dries quickly: Similar to other quick-drying stains, a downside of saved time is less time for correcting mistakes, wiping spills or excess, etc. 
  • Air bubbles: There is a risk of incurring air bubbles when temperatures during application are not ideal. 

Tips for Using Lacquer Wood Stains

  • Ensure ventilation. Lacquer stain components, especially VOCs, are not only strong-smelling but may also be harmful. Protect yourself by wearing proper equipment and ensuring ventilation. 

Have a partner or assistant. Other people can help clean mistakes or wipe excess while you are working. This would help circumvent the problem of botched quality due to the quick-drying stain.

Jedediah Arnold

Jedediah has been working with epoxy resin for a couple of years. When he started, he wanted to share everything he learned as he learned it which continues.

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