Staining Techniques

as presented by Rex Rothing

There are many different products on the market for staining and finishing wood and several different methods of application. So many choices that an average person could be quite confused in making a decision of which to use and how to apply a finish on a woodworking project. Reading this article should help you to decide which finish and application is best for your project.

      Begin by choosing the wood color your project requires. It is my opinion that clear finishes on natural wood look better than colored stains. A stain is a color change and perhaps a sealer, but not really a finish. Stains can make light woods look darker or a different color but this can sometimes opaque the real beauty of the natural wood.  Stains can be mixed to match an existing wood and stains can be used to make a color more uniform over an area of color variations in the natural wood. In general, I would say, if you want it to look like mahogany, oak, or maple, then it is best to start by using that wood rather than building with maple and then trying to stain it like mahogany. You might save some money by working with less costly woods like pine or poplar, but the time, materials, and effort trying to make the pine look like a more costly wood such as mahogany may not be equal to or much less than just paying for the mahogany to start with. Furthermore, pine stained to look like mahogany will never look like mahogany since the grain is different. Pine looks good as pine, maple as maple, walnut as walnut, so you see a clear finish is the best. However, sometimes a stain becomes necessary for certain projects.

      To stain wood, first test the stain on a sample of the same wood. It is best to start off with a thinned light coat and add little by little until the correct color intensity is achieved. It is much easier to make wood darker than it is to lighten it. You can mix stains of the same brandname and type to achieve different colors. Light stains look best on light woods and darker stains on darker woods. Stains can be applied by spray, brush, or wiped on with a rag. Spraying is not practical for most people. Brushing is good for carved or rough surfaces but rubbing in or wiping on with a rag is most likely the best way to achieve uniform results. Disposable gloves are used to protect the hands from being colored. Follow the directions on the label. In general, you work quickly in one direction with the grain trying not to stop too long or overlap the areas and thus avoiding uneven spots. Gell stains are good because they do not show lap marks. A combination of brushing on and wiping off is often useful for uneven surfaces such as raised panel doors or routed mouldings. Stir the stain often to keep the color uniform. Work quickly to get the stain on evenly and then leave it alone and let it dry completely before applying final finish coats. To prevent a blotchy look on soft woods, a pre-stain sealer or a coat of shellac should be used before staining.

Dying Wood

as presented The RIT Studio

Applying a dye to wood allows the color to penetrate deep into the wood and helps provide a deeper, richer finish while highlighting the grain. The following steps are recommended procedures as defined by the manufacturer.


  • Unfinished wood or wicker

  • Rit Dye, liquid or powder

  • Measuring cup

  • Measuring spoons

  • Microwave safe containers for dye

  • Fine sandpaper (#220)

  • Steel wool

  • Tack cloth

  • Clear polyurethane

  • Foam and bristle brushes

  • Old cloth

  • Paper towels

  • Rubber gloves

  • Plastic drop cloth

  • Jelly jars (optional)

    1. Step-by-Step Guide

    2. Cover work surface with a plastic drop cloth.

    3. Sand unfinished wood lightly and wipe clean with a tack cloth, removing filings and dust. If working with finished wood, strip paint, varnish or wax from the item. Scrape and sand surface until smooth and wipe clean with a tack cloth.

    4. Wearing rubber gloves, shake all dye bottles before pouring into a container. Measure and mix ½ cup liquid dye or 1 box of powder dye with 2 cups very hot water; if using the immersion method, mix same amounts of powder and liquid dye with every 2 quarts water needed, depending upon the size of the project. Stir well. (Unlike fabric, dye-staining wood and wicker does not require salt and vinegar.)

    5. Test dye color on a scrap piece of similar wood or a hidden area of the item. If color is too light, add more dye; if color is too dark, add more water. Dye will appear lighter when dry.

    6. During the wood staining process, keep dye hot to achieve better dye absorption. Cover dye with plastic wrap and heat on high in the microwave for 1 – 2 minutes. DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED. Watch carefully to be sure plastic wrap does not melt.

    7. Dye-stain with one or more of the following methods. For a softer look, wet the wood or wicker and then let it dry for 15 minutes before dyeing.

    8. Brush-On Method:
      Best for dyeing large pieces of wood or wicker. Dip foam, bristle brush or old cloth in dye solution and spread evenly over surface. Depending upon the shape of the piece, all three may be used. Unwanted dye drips can be removed by sanding wood immediately. Let dry and reapply dye, if necessary, to achieve desired shade.

    9. Immersion Method:
      Best for dyeing small wicker or wood pieces and larger baskets. Dip or immerse item in dye bath for 10 – 20 minutes, turning occasionally. If dye bath is shallow, rotate items evenly.

    10. Rustic, weather-beaten look:
      Use two dye colors. Apply the lighter shade to entire wood surface; let dry. Apply darker shade over lighter shade; let dry. Once dry, lightly sand entire piece. Repeat applying dye coats; let dry between coats. When completely dry, rub lightly with fine sandpaper or steel wool to create light and dark areas.

    11. Stencil patterns:
      Tape stencil where design is to appear. Dip stencil brush into dye, then blot on paper towel until nearly dry. Beginning at outside edges, brushing dye toward center of stencil. Wait 1 to 2 minutes until dye is absorbed then remove stencil.

    12. Allow wood or wicker to dry completely.

    13. To seal dye-stained wood, apply one or two coats of polyurethane using a new foam or bristle brush. Lightly rub with steel wool, or use 220 grit fine sandpaper between coats and remove dust and filings with a tack cloth. For wicker, brush on one or two coats of polyurethane. It is not necessary to rub with steel wool between coats.

    14. For clean-up, simply rinse dye from paint brushes with mild soap and water. No strong chemicals are needed. To clean brushes from polyurethane, soak in mineral spirits