Types of wood stains: Staining 101

Staining is one of the most overlooked finishing methods by newbie woodworkers. This is because there is not much information about the basics of staining.

Staining can open many finishing possibilities with remarkable results for someone willing to learn the basics.

I have gathered all the info I could from top finishing gurus like Flexner, Jewitt, and L’Eralio and topped it up with my own experience with stain to explain the basics of staining.

What are the different types of wood stains?

There are different ways that stains can be grouped. Understanding the composition, properties, and how stain interacts can help us predict how a certain stain will perform.

We will classify the stain using the following criteria to make this as easy as possible.

  • Binder – is it water-based, oil-based, varnish, or lacquer
  • Colorant – is it a pigment or a dye?
  • Thickness – is it liquid or gel

Oil vs water-based stains

The other broad classification of stains is based on the type of carrier used in their formulation. Stains can be either oil-based or water-based, each offering distinct characteristics and advantages.

Penetrating oil-based stains

Penetrating oil-based stains are commonly available and easily accessible, making them a popular choice for amateurs. They are affordable, come in various colors, and can be mixed together to create custom shades. However, it is crucial to apply these stains at the proper temperatures. Applying them below 50°F can lead to drying issues, while temperatures above 80°F, especially in high humidity, can cause the stain to “sweat.” Despite these considerations, penetrating oil stains are generally recommended for novice woodworkers due to their ease of use.

Advantages of Oil-Based Stains:

  1. Rich color and depth: Oil-based stains enhance the natural beauty of wood, bringing out its depth and richness.
  2. Durability: Oil-based stains provide a durable finish that can withstand wear and tear, making them suitable for high-traffic areas or outdoor applications.
  3. Longer working time: These stains remain wet and workable for a longer period, allowing for easier application and blending.
  4. Compatibility with a wide range of wood species: Oil-based stains work well with various types of wood, highlighting their unique characteristics and grain patterns.

Disadvantages of Oil-Based Stains:

  1. Strong odor and VOC emissions: Oil-based stains have a stronger odor and release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during application, which can be a concern for those with sensitivities or in poorly ventilated areas.
  2. Longer drying and curing times: Oil-based stains require more time to dry and cure compared to water-based stains, which can extend the overall project timeline.
  3. More difficult cleanup: Cleaning brushes and tools used with oil-based stains typically requires the use of mineral spirits or other solvents, adding to the cleanup process.
  4. Potential for color change over time: Some oil-based stains may darken or amber over time, which can alter the appearance of the wood.

Water-based stains

Water-based stains, on the other hand, offer an alternative to oil-based stains. You can thin most oil paints to create a stain-like consistency by using mineral spirits or turpentine. Similarly, latex paint can be diluted with plain water or distilled water to achieve a stain consistency. Water-based stains are considered environmentally friendly since they do not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in oil-based stains. This makes them a safer option for both the environment and the user.

Advantages of Water-Based Stains:

  1. Environmental friendliness: Water-based stains have lower VOC emissions and are considered more environmentally friendly compared to oil-based stains.
  2. Faster drying time: Water-based stains dry faster than oil-based stains, allowing for quicker project completion.
  3. Easy cleanup: These stains can be cleaned up easily using water and soap, eliminating the need for harsh solvents.
  4. Compatibility with various topcoat finishes: Water-based stains are compatible with both water-based and oil-based topcoat finishes, providing versatility in finishing options.

Disadvantages of Water-Based Stains:

  1. Grain raising: Water-based stains can raise the grain of the wood, requiring additional steps such as pre-wetting and sanding to achieve a smooth surface.
  2. Limited color depth: Water-based stains may not penetrate as deeply into the wood as oil-based stains, resulting in a more uniform and less pronounced color.
  3. Less working time: Water-based stains dry quickly, which means less time for blending or correcting mistakes during application.
  4. Potential for less durability: While water-based stains can provide adequate durability, they may not offer the same level of long-term protection as oil-based stains in high-stress applications.

What is a Dye stain?

Dye stains are coloring substances that are often found in naturally occurring plants in the environment. However, with advancements in science and technology, synthetic dyes are also commonly produced, typically as byproducts of the fractional distillation of crude oil.

types of wood stains products
types of wood stain products

Anyline Dyes

Anyline dyes are not readily available to the public. Aniline dyes must be ordered over the Internet from woodworking supply houses or other finishing supply sources.

The furniture industry relies heavily on these types of dyes the water-soluble type being the preferred favorite amongst professionals. However, when mixed, aniline dyes are 90% water-based, so you must remember, that they too will raise the grain of the wood.

To make a quart, you usually mix a tablespoon or two of dye powder or crystals, 1/4 cup or so of methanol, and then 33/4 cup of water. Aniline dyes come in an amazing variety of colors and unlike penetrating oil stains, aniline dyes will really soak into and color the fibers of the wood – and your flesh!
You definitely have to wear gloves with this stuff.

What is Pigment stain

Pigment stains, on the other hand, differ from dye stains in their coloring mechanism. Unlike dye stains that penetrate the wood, pigment stains sit on the surface and create a layer of color. Pigment stains consist of finely ground solid particles that are dispersed in a liquid carrier, such as water or oil.

Dyes vs Pigment Stains

Dyes and pigment stains are both used to color various materials, including wood. However, they differ in their composition and coloring mechanisms. Understanding the distinctions between dyes and pigment stains is crucial for selecting the most suitable option for your project.

Coloring Mechanism: Dye vs. Pigment Stain

Dyes work by filling up the spaces within the wood, becoming fully absorbed. They do not require a separate binder to hold the color in place. In contrast, pigment stains consist of finely ground particles that sit on the surface of the wood and are held in place by a binder. The coloring mechanism of dyes leads to a more penetrating and vibrant color, while pigment stains tend to provide a more opaque and surface-level coloring effect.

Permanence and Lightfastness: Dyes and Pigment Stains Compared

One crucial aspect to consider when choosing between dyes and pigment stains is their permanence and lightfastness. Dyes are generally more prone to fading over time, particularly when exposed to sunlight. Pigment stains, on the other hand, offer greater lightfastness and durability, resulting in colors that retain their vibrancy for a longer period.

Application and Absorption: Dyes vs. Pigment Stains

Dyes are typically applied by wiping or brushing onto the wood surface. Due to their ability to be absorbed fully, dyes penetrate deeply into the wood fibers, resulting in a more uniform and natural appearance. Pigment stains, however, are typically applied by brushing or spraying, and the color sits on the wood’s surface, providing a more controlled and customizable coloring effect.

Versatility and Transparency: Dyes vs. Pigment Stains

Dyes offer a wider range of color options and can be easily mixed to create custom shades. They also tend to provide a more transparent coloring effect, allowing the wood’s natural grain to show through. Pigment stains, on the other hand, come in a limited range of pre-mixed colors and offer a more opaque finish, concealing the wood grain to some extent.

Choosing Between Dyes and Pigment Stains for Your Project

When deciding between dyes and pigment stains, consider the desired color intensity, permanence, transparency, and application method for your project. If you prioritize vibrant and penetrating colors with a natural appearance, dyes may be the preferred option. Alternatively, if you seek more controlled coloring, durability, and coverage, pigment stains may be the better choice. Evaluate your project’s requirements and select the type of coloring agent that best suits your needs.

Stain classification based on thickness

Stain classification based on thickness or thinness refers to the viscosity and application method of stains. While many aspects of this classification have already been covered in previous sections, we will now focus on any stains that have not been mentioned yet.

Gel Stains

Gel stains have a thick consistency similar to gelatin or pudding. They are formulated to cling to vertical surfaces and provide better control during application. Gel stains are commonly used for woodwork with intricate details or vertical surfaces, such as cabinets or doors. They are especially effective in preventing drips and ensuring even coverage on porous or uneven surfaces.

Gel stains

Advantages of Gel Stains:

  • Easy to control and apply on vertical surfaces.
  • Ideal for achieving uniform color on porous or uneven wood.
  • Less prone to drips and runs during application.

Spray Stains

Spray stains are formulated for application with a spray gun or aerosol can, creating a fine mist of color. Lacquer stains are a type of spray stain known for their fast-drying properties, making them popular among professional finishers. They can be applied in approximately 30 minutes when using proper spraying equipment. Lacquer stains have a strong odor due to the solvents used, such as xylene and ketones. The quick-drying nature of lacquer stains requires precise application, often involving a two-person process of applying and wiping off excess stain. These stains are recommended for experienced users and are ideal for spray applications where time between staining and finishing needs to be minimized. Additionally, lacquer stains can be mixed with lacquer for glazing purposes, providing versatility and customization options.

Advantages of Spray Stains:

  • Fast and efficient application, especially for large areas.
  • Provides a smooth and even finish.
  • Allows for precise control over coverage and color intensity.

Pre-Stain Conditioners

Pre-stain conditioners are not stains themselves, but they are used in conjunction with stains to achieve more even coloration on blotchy or highly absorbent woods, such as pine or cherry. These conditioners are usually clear or lightly pigmented liquids that are applied to the wood before staining. They help to reduce the uneven absorption of the stain, resulting in a more uniform and consistent color.

Advantages of Pre-Stain Conditioners:

  • Helps to achieve a more even color on blotchy or highly absorbent woods.
  • Reduces the chances of uneven staining or splotchiness.
  • Enhances the final appearance of the stained wood.

What are the different colors of wood stains?

Choosing a wood stain color can be tricky. There are so many options out there, and it seems like each one is geared toward different styles of furniture.

Don’t worry—it doesn’t have to be so difficult! Here are some tips to guide you through selecting your perfect stain color. The most important thing to keep in mind when deciding on a stain color is that all wood reacts differently to different colors.

Make sure you know what type of wood you are staining before making any decisions about how dark or light you want your finished product to look. If you aren’t sure, check with a scrap of wood as a tester.

If you like the outcome you can proceed. Applying light colors and building up with additional layers is always advised.

Stain compatibility with other finishes

Stain compatibility with other finishes is an important consideration when planning a woodworking project. Different types of stains may have varying compatibility with topcoat finishes, such as varnishes, lacquers, or polyurethane. It is crucial to ensure that the chosen stain is compatible with the desired topcoat for a successful and durable finish. Here are topics we have covered concerning stain compatibility you can read any of them in detail.

Wrapping up

Wood stains fall into one of two categories: dye or pigment. Dye stains allow the wood to retain some of its natural look and, in general, are more durable.

Dyes can still be further divided into more types with respect to their binders or thickness. When choosing a dye it’s important to know how long the dye will take to dry.

Knowing how long it takes a stain to dry will help you know how much flexibility you can afford in terms of wiping off excess stains.