7 Types of Wood Stain

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The final stage of woodwork is to apply a finish. We often use “stain” as a finish to the surface of the wood. Wood stain comprises pigments that we may dissolve or suspend in a “vehicle” which would typically be a solvent like water or alcohol

There are several different kinds of wood stains. The most common variations are either oil-based or water-based. There are also gel stain, Metalized Dye Stain and Lacquer stains that have quick-drying additives.  The main purpose of all these stains is that they are designed to add color to the wood, the particular type you choose will depend mostly on the type of wood you use and how it will be used (indoors, outdoors, etc). 

We use pigments and dyes to add color to stains. According to the size of the dye molecules, you may get transparent or opaque pigment, or it could vary to different levels of opacity and transparency. Dyes and pigments may also be mixed with a “binder,” which helps them adhere to the wood. A typical binder is linseed oil.

We choose transparent or opaque stains according to how we want the wood grain to appear. In this post, we take a close look at different types of wood stains that you can use to finish your wood.

Types of Wood Stain

Here are seven types of wood stain which are the most commonly used in woodworking projects:

Oil-based Wood Stain

Oil-based wood stain is the most prevalent type of stain. We prefer it because of its penetration power and durability. The oil in this stain is typically a mixture of linseed oil and varnish, with some added solvent like petroleum distillate. It may also contain a binder in the form of a resin, which helps the stain adhere to the wood.

Some manufacturers may add a thickening agent to control the penetration of the stain. Choose your oil-based stain in line with its compatibility with the wood that you are staining. You can find information about the suitability of a wood stain on the packaging. Oil-based stains take two to three hours to dry, but it is better to wait a minimum of three hours before adding another coat.

Water-Based Stain

Water Based Wood Stain

With water-based stains, we use water instead of an organic thinner. The dyes that we use here are also water-soluble. These dyes are color-fast when dissolved in water. It is also environmental-friendly due to the absence of volatile organic compounds. You can use water-based stains to make the wood grain “pop” up.

You need to be quick in applying this type of stain due to its quick-drying properties. With water-based stain, make sure to prepare the surface properly, and it should be wet when you apply the stain. Applying this stain to wood is a time-consuming process. The stain doesn’t penetrate deeply below the surface, so you may not get adequate protection using a water-based stain.

Gel Stain

Interior Wood Gel Stain

This type of stain has a jelly-like consistency. Gel stain contains added pigment and may have thickening powders added to them. Woodworkers may also add liquid resins, mineral spirits, and additional dyes to create the required consistency and color. The penetrating power of gel stain is low due to its high viscosity level.

Gel stains will not flow or leach into different areas because of their thick consistency. Even if applied to wood surfaces positioned vertically, it will not drip like other wood stains. Gel stains get evenly spread on non-porous and porous wood. It makes it a very versatile type of stain we can apply it to several wood types.

Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer stains enjoy wide popularity among professional woodworkers due to the speed that they can apply them. When we talk about lacquer on any type of surface, we usually refer to a clear, transparent coating. This type of wood stain dries quickly due to the presence of volatile organic substances called xylene and ketones.

A lacquer stain can dry in as little as fifteen minutes. It has a strong, pungent odor, so you should keep the area well-ventilated and use appropriate breathing protection. Lacquer stains tend to develop air bubbles. You can add some lacquer thinner to resolve this issue. Using a lacquer stain is a quick and easy solution for finishing wood surfaces.

Water-Soluble Dye Stain

Like water-based stains, this type of stain also uses water as a key ingredient. The difference here is that the stain itself comes in powder form, and you add water to make up the stain. Although metal complex dyes have taken over in many cases today, water-soluble stains enjoy wide popularity due to their richness and varied colors.

Mixing water-soluble dye stain is quite a simple process. You add water to the powder, and if you can vary the color by changing the quantity of powder added to the mixture. Water-soluble dye stain imparts a tint to the wood but retains its natural charm. A drawback of this stain is that the pigments are prone to fading if exposed to the sun’s UV rays.

Metalized Dye Stain

These stains work best while on bare wood surfaces. We also call metalized dye stains grain raising stains (NGRS). Metalized dye stains have been around since the 1950s, but they were called “metal complex stains” way back then. These stains are ready to use, and we mix them with organic chemicals like glycol ether, methanol, ethanol, and a retarder.

We get these stains in concentrated form and then add lacquer thinner, alcohol, or water to thin them. Metalized dye stain dries almost instantly, so it needs to be sprayed onto the surface. You can add a retarder if you feel that it is drying too fast.

Varnish Wood Stain

Varnish wood stain shares a similarity with oil-based stains. But the binder in varnish wood stain is a varnish-like polyurethane varnish. This type of stain hardens o drying and imparts a consistent texture and color to the wood’s surface. You can use petroleum distillates as a thinner for varnish wood stains.

The advantage of using varnish wood stain is that you don’t have to add layer upon layer of the stain to provide an adequate coating. A single coat of varnish wood stain will provide sufficient protection on the wood’s surface. However, if you note that the wood’s surface looks splotchy once the varnish dries, you may need to add another coat or two.


Looking back on the different types of wood stain we have highlighted here, we see that each one has unique properties. We attempted to focus on the advantages and disadvantages of each type of stain to indicate where each one could be best used.

In the course of your woodworking projects, you are bound to reach a point where you need to use wood stain. In such an eventuality, you need to be aware of the essential background of these finishes. You will have to decide which wood stain would be best suited for your purposes.

We hope that the information provided here will be able to guide you towards making the correct decision. That way, you can create some stunning finishes in your woodworking projects.