Are you new to woodworking or do you just dabble in it some? Maybe you have only ever painted your wood projects. If you love the look of stained wood, but don’t know where to begin, keep reading and I’ll explain how to stain and seal your wood projects.

How To Stain & Protect Your Wood Projects

What is Stain?

Wood stain consists of pigments or dyes that are dissolved in a solvent. Since the colorants are dissolved into the base binding agent, the stain is able to soak into the top layer of the wood. With paint, the colorants are suspended in the binding agent and therefore paint rests on the surface of the wood instead of absorbing into the wood fibers. You’ll also notice stains are typically thinner than paint.

Stains are usually considered more transparent and allow the natural variations of your type of wood to show through. This is why if you take the same stain and use it on cherry hardwood and then repeat the process on pine softwood, you will get a varied result.

There are a few types of stain, but oil-based and water-based are the most popular. If you are worried about toxicity, water-based stain will be your go-to. However, it’s not without its issues. Water-based stain will raise the natural wood grain more and will dry fast. Oil-based stains are probably the most well-known and they give you a bit more time to work your project. Here’s an article you can use to read more on the different types of stain.

How To Stain & Protect Your Wood Projects

Wood has different grains and variations in it, so the stain may not absorb uniformly into the top layer of wood. This is mostly the case with all the softwoods such as pine, fir, cedar; also with maple, which is a hardwood. Basically, the more porous the wood, the more likely you are to have uneven absorption. You can use a pre-stain wood conditioner to prep the wood and allow the stain to penetrate more evenly.

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My Project

How To Stain & Protect Your Wood Projects

I picked up a couple crates from Hobby Lobby. I like their crates because they are more solid and sturdy than ones I’ve seen at other stores and they cost the same at about $10 each. I’m planning to use them for a project in my daughter’s bathroom and want to stain them in my current favorite stain.

I’ve been a bit in love with this Rust-oleum stain called Carbon Gray. It’s super dark when you start applying it, but with the proper application, you can achieve a sort of weathered barn wood look. Love, love, love it!

How To Stain & Protect Your Wood Projects

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

Staining Process

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects


  • Wood project (or scrap piece to test)
  • Stain of your choice
  • Lint-free rags (tack cloths)
  • Disposable gloves
  • Sponge brushes or paint brushes
  • Sandpaper or sanding block
  • Polyurethane
  • Stirrer
  • Flathead screwdriver & hammer/mallet (to open & close your cans)
  • Wood Conditioner (optional)


First, you want to put on your disposable gloves. It’s not fun trying to get oil-based stain off your skins/nails!

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

If you are using a wood conditioner before you stain, you will need to shake up the can before opening it and then use a brush to spread an even coat all over your wood project and allow it to set about 10 minutes and then wipe off any excess.

It’s important to work fast after this as you want to apply your stain within about an hour or two of the wood conditioner. If you don’t do this, the conditioner will have lost it’s effectiveness. If you have a large project, you can break it up into sections. I didn’t use a sealer for this project and typically only use a sealer to prep my wood with larger furniture pieces.

Shake up your stain really well before opening it!

I prefer using sponge brushes, but you can use a regular paint brush too. (If you are using a water-based stain, you can use a nylon brush; if you are using an oil-based stain you’ll want a natural bristle brush.) Dip the tip of your brush in the stain and gently wipe off excess stain on the rim of your can.

My suggestion, especially with darker stains, is that you test it on a scrap piece of wood or on the underside of your project piece first so you can see how it goes on. Just remember that the test scrap needs to be the same type of wood. The carbon gray stain goes on really dark; I was a little freaked out the first time I used it!

As soon as I brush on the stain, I go right over it with my rag to rub the stain in a circular motion and then wipe WITH THE GRAIN to pull off the excess. You don’t have to do this immediately; you can let your stain rest on the wood for a few before you wipe it down with your rag but it’s best to brush it on with the grain. It just depends on how dark you want the stain.

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

The darker you want your stain, the more evenly you will want to coat your project with your brush. Since I wanted mine to look more aged and translucent, I did random brush strokes and used my rag to spread it out more. If you get it a little too dark and can’t lighten it just by wiping it with the cloth, you can wait until it dries and sand it down a bit.

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

For my crates, I just did one coat, but depending on how you want your final piece to look, you may need to do more. If you need additional coats, I recommend letting each coat dry, then lightly sanding the project with a fine grit sandpaper or sanding block and cleaning up any debris before applying the next coat.

Stain typically dries pretty quick, but I usually wait about 24 hrs after my final coat of stain before I put on my finisher. Even though it is ‘stain’, it doesn’t mean your project can’t fade over time or that you can’t scratch off the stain.

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

You will likely want to protect your project with at least two coats of polyurethane, or another protective top coat product. Here’s an article you can read for more info. about different finishers. Be sure to remove all dust and debris before applying this top coat.

Seal Your Project

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

Polyurethane is basically a liquid that dries to form a type of plastic coating to protect your project. It’s available in different finishes like satin or gloss and you can get an oil-based or water-based version.

The water-based is easier to work with and clean-up; it also maintains the stain color and dries faster. However, it’s not quite as durable as oil-based poly, which can withstand heat or chemicals typically found in wood polish or cleaners. The oil-based may give a slight color enhancement to your project too.

Rule of thumb, if you use a water-based stain, you will need a water-based top coat and same goes with the oil-based versions. Remember to select the proper brush for application. A foam brush will work for either, which is why I prefer them.

The Finishing Process

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects 5

Don’t shake your can of polyurethane, pry the lid up and use a stirrer to mix it well. Shaking it can create air bubbles which you want to minimize as you apply it to your project. You can also minimize bubbles in your application by doing thinner coats. Most bubbles will settle on their own, but you can lightly wipe over it with a clean rag if needed.

Before your second coat of poly, let the first coat dry completely and then use a fine grit sandpaper or sanding block to lightly sand the project, again cleaning up any dust afterward. Then apply the second coat. Repeat this process if you feel you need any additional coats, but I don’t recommend doing more than 4. Don’t sand it after the final coat dries.

If you’d like a printable version for this process, you can get it from my FREE projects library!

And that’s it!

How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

It can be a time consuming process depending on the size of your project and how many coats of stain and poly you want, but I love the look of the finished project.

Think of all the different shades of stain you can choose from and combine that with all the wood projects you could do and the possibilities are endless!

What is the first project you plan to stain?

Until next time,

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How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects
How To Stain and Seal Your Wood Projects

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