Easy Steps for Staining and Sealing Wood

Although stains and sealers preserve lumber from elements, they are not the same product.

For instance, a sealer is a transparent finish that accentuates the wood’s grain and natural color.

Similarly, the stain shows the lumber’s beauty. But it makes the wood UV rays-resistant, preserving it from drying, cracking, checking, and graying.

The differences between stain and sealer make them suitable for different purposes. Therefore, woodworkers often ask, should you stain or seal wood?

The answer depends on your project requirements and situation. A Stain protects the wood from various elements like excess moisture, UV rays, and rot. 

On the other hand, a sealer’s primary function is to waterproof the lumber and enhance its natural beauty.

In addition, applying both formulas to your project is possible. Therefore, you do not have to pick one or the other.

However, there is much more to consider delivering a successful project. Some factors include formula type, application technique, wood species, and budget.

This article gives detailed information on Easy Steps for Staining and Sealing Wood, choosing the most suitable product, and frequently asked questions.

What Is Wood Staining?

Stained Wooden StructureWood staining refers to coloring the wood’s natural surface.

A stain formula preserves the lumber’s grain while delivering a more appealing hue. In addition, it minimizes the UV rays’ discoloration effect.

You start by cleaning and preparing the surface. Remove dirt, sticky muck, grime, dust, or old paint.

In addition, sand the wood lightly to roughen it and enhance adhesion. Then, apply the formula with a paintbrush.

Remember, wood stain is usually thinner than paint; thus, it might feel different.

Also, apply the formula uniformly without allowing it to pool on the surface: the smoother and even the coating, the more professional the outcome.

Stains are available in different tones. But your choice depends on how dark you want the color to be. 

Solid-color stain is the thickest, whereas a toner stain is the lightest. Further, the lighter the formula’s hue, the more visible the wood grain.

Moreover, woodworkers prefer to use stains to lighten or darken the wood’s natural color.

Stains are oil or water-based ranging from transparent to opaque—the darker and more solid the finish, the better the UV protection.

However, they fade over time, and applying them every two to five years is prudent.

In addition, deck stains on flat workpieces need more reapplications than vertical ones.

Here is a summary of the stain color options:

  • Solid or Opaque Stains have the richest hue and hide the wood grain the most. Further, they last for four to five years.
  • Semi-Opaque Stains hide most of the lumber’s grain beneath the pigment. Reapply them every three to four years.
  • Semi-Transparent Stains let the wood’s natural grain show through while adding the desired color. They last two to three years between applications.

What Is Wood Sealing?

Wood sealing refers to adding a transparent finish to the wood.

Further, it makes the surface waterproof and prevents water from seeping through condensation.

As a result, the lumber does not crack easily.

A wood sealer is essential during the winter seasons. During this season, water gets into untreated lumber’s cracks, where it freezes and expands.

The product works well on virtually any lumber surface, whether bare or stained.

In addition, some sealers darken the wood surface slightly but do not make a significant change.

A wood sealer is perfect if you’d instead protect the surface from moisture and rotting rather than add color.

We have various sealer types for woodwork. They differ depending on their purpose and the material they protect.

  • Penetrating Sealers

Penetrating sealers include Linseed oil, Tung oil, waxes, and Hemp oil, whether natural or synthetic.

Moreover, these formulas are mixed with vinegar and mineral spirits to enhance and bring out the lumber’s luster.

You can hand-rub them or apply them with a roller or brush.

Penetrating sealers soak deep into the wood grain, protecting it against moisture damage and weathering.

In addition, you can apply them without sanding or stripping.

Further, professionals recommend them as a topcoat for most paint, stains, and lumber finishes.

You can also touch up areas experiencing wear and tear without redoing the workpiece.

  • Coating Finishes

Coating sealers deliver a harder finish. They make the lumber more moisture and scratch resistant.

They include Shellac, Varnish, and Lacquer and take longer to dry.

Also, these formulas are more susceptible to cracking and peeling. Thus, it is advisable to follow the correct application directives.

Thankfully, modern lumber sealers last longer than Lacquers and Shellacs. They protect against mildew, bugs, and sun damage.

Pros of Staining and Sealing Wood

Staining and sealing wood primarily protects it from the elements, keeping it looking fresh and lovely.

Here are more benefits to the process.

  • Enhances the Lumber’s Color

This benefit is perhaps the most important to homeowners.

Furthermore, staining and refinishing can easily change the hardwood’s color and appearance. 

Thus, a sealer comes in handy to enhance the desired hue.

Sealers also give the lumber a three-dimensional look that you cannot achieve with a stain finish.

Stains and sealers deliver diverse color options, accommodating various project requirements.

  • Highlights the Beauty of the Wood

Choosing the correct stain and sealer helps enhance the lumber’s natural beauty.

Further, staining the surface enhances a wood deck and flooring as it does not peel or fail like paint.

In addition, the chemicals in wood sealers prevent the hardwood from reacting with the topcoat.

  • Builds a Solid Base for the Finish

Untreated wood soaks formulas unevenly, leading to incomplete coverage.

Even worse, this soaking effect can damage hardwood floors and increase the formula needed for the project.

Sealing wood delivers a barrier between the finish and the wood’s surface.

This barrier protects the lumber from damage and increases the lifespan of the finish.

Furthermore, the less finish you use, the fewer resources you need to deliver the desired outcome.

  • Stains the Wood Grain

Quality stains penetrate the grain and make it waterproof. They prevent water from soaking into the material and causing wood rot.

Moreover, you can add a topcoat to protect wood siding, doors, and window frames.

How to Stain Wood

Staining lumber is pretty easy if you prepare the surface properly.

Further, some wood types get splotchy after staining. Thus, consider using a wood conditioner before adding the finish.

Also, apply the stain using uniform strokes and keep wiping away the excess.

Below is the recommended application method.

Sand and Condition the Wood

Here’s what to do in sanding step:

  • Step One: Sand the Wood With a Lower-Grit Sandpaper

Sand the lumber using 120-grit paper, following the wood grain. Then, wipe off the debris using a clean towel.

The exercise helps remove wood imperfections to facilitate a smooth finish.

Dampen the towel to remove all the sawdust if desired. But you can still let the wood dry naturally.

Fill holes and dents in the lumber using a suitable filler. Ensure it matches the wood’s color for a uniform finish.

  • Step Two: Sand With a Higher-Grit Sandpaper

Switch to 220-grit paper to even the surface. Also, do a second round to ensure complete coverage.

Rub the entire wood and use a clean rag to remove extra sawdust.

In addition, sand along the wood grain direction for a professional finish.

  • Step Three: Condition the Wood

Apply a thin conditioner layer, following the grain’s direction.

Start by soaking a natural bristle brush, sponge, or rag into the formula and apply even strokes.

Next, cover the entire workpiece and let it dry.

  • Step Four: Let the Conditioner Dry

Give the wood conditioner ten to 15 minutes to soak into the wood. Then, wipe off the excess.

Always use a towel or clean rag to wipe the surface. Also, use small strokes and follow the wood grain direction.

Read the manufacturer’s directives for the exact drying duration. And follow their guidelines to get the best result.

  • Step Five: Set a Timer for the Wood Conditioner

Let the formula dry for thirty minutes and stain the surface within two hours.

Set a time to remind you. Otherwise, staying too long before applying the stain will compromise the outcome.

Apply the Stain

The steps involve in stain application include:

  • Step One: Sand and Clean the Wood

Sand the workpiece with 220-grit or higher paper and follow the wood grain direction.

Then, use a clean rag to remove the sawdust.

Please avoid using sandpaper lesser than 220-grit. You may scratch the wood and ruin the final finish.

  • Step Two: Prepare and Apply the Stain

Apply the stain using a brush or rag.

But first, stir the stain using a plastic or wooden stirring accessory. Then, dip the brush or rag into the formula and spread it on the surface.

Work across the workpiece in sections and follow the wood grain.

Apply the formula in thin and even coats.

Further, use long strokes to rub or brush the stain, depending on your chosen applicant.

Do not stress about getting a neat outcome because you’ll be wiping most of it. Also, please avoid major splatters and streaks on the lumber.

Lastly, continue using slow but long strokes to even out the stain’s hue.

  • Step Four: Let the First Coat Dry

Wait for five to 15 minutes, then wipe the excess formula, depending on your desired color.

Further, the longer you leave the finish on the lumber, the darker the final hue.

Use a clean cloth to remove the excess stain. But rub the surface lightly and follow the grain.

In addition, do not let the finish stay longer than 15 minutes. It is better to wipe it sooner rather than later.

You can always add subsequent coats for a darker look. But it’s challenging to dilute a dark stain to make it lighter.

Also, pay attention to splotchy and darker areas. And be thorough until you get a thin, uniform stain coat.

  • Step Five: Add More Stain Coats

Give the stain four hours before adding subsequent layers. Also, position the wood flat in a well-ventilated space as it dries.

Apply another stain coat if you want a darker surface. Then, wait for five to 15 minutes before wiping the excess.

Repeat this stage until you get the desired look.

Finish the Wood with a Sealant

Here are the steps:

  • Step One: Get the Correct Formula and Prepare It

Seal the stain finish to enhance its longevity and appearance.

However, although you do not have to seal the surface, the process is highly advisable if you want a durable project.

Protective coats like polyurethane are the best and widely available online and in hardware stores.

Use a plastic or wooden stick to stir the formula gently. Also, use slow and gentle motions till you get a uniform consistency.

In addition, these formulas come in various sheens, from high gloss to matte.

Please do not shake the can to prevent unwanted bubbles.

  • Step Two: Apply the Sealer

Use a natural bristle paintbrush to apply the formula. Also, follow the wood grain’s direction.

Next, cover the workpiece evenly using thin layers.

Test the sealant on scrap wood or an inconspicuous part of the workpiece. This way, you confirm if it delivers the desired outcome.

  • Step Three: Let the Sealer Dry

Give the sealant three to four hours before sanding and adding more coats.

Use 220-grit sandpaper and sand gently to avoid ruining the finish. Then, wipe the surface with a cloth.

  • Step Four: Apply More Sealer Coats

Apply a second sealant coat and let it dry thoroughly.

Further, repeat the above application process and give the surface four hours to dry.

If this is your last coat, wait 48 hours before using the workpiece.

Here’s a Video On How to Stain Wood:

How to Choose a Stain and Conditioner

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Step One: Choose Compatible Formulas

Ensure the wood stain and conditioner are compatible, meaning they should have the same base.

For instance, get an oil-based wood conditioner and sealant when working with an oil-based stain such as Varathane.

Similarly, use a water-based conditioner for a water-based stain. This way, you will guarantee a smooth finish.

  • Step Two: Pick a Stain and Conditioner That Enhances the Lumber’s Color

Consider an oil-based stain and conditioner, as they are easy to apply.

Besides, they penetrate the lumber deeply and deliver an excellent depth and lovely color.

However, the finish does not protect the wood from the elements. Therefore, add a sealant for a durable project.

Further, use water-based formulas for an eco-friendly option.

These stains are easy to clean and are more resistant to mold and mildew. Also, they retain their color for long periods.

A wood conditioner is mandatory when using water-based stains. These stains raise the wood grain and compromise a smooth finish.

Therefore, you need to fill the pores before using the product.

  • Step Four: Opt for Gel Stains to Get a Rich Color

Gel stains do not penetrate the wood. Instead, they rest on the surface, bringing out the lumber’s markings.

They are perfect for wood types that become blotchy after staining, like pine, cherry, maple, and birch.

In addition, gel stains work better on vertical workpieces like kitchen cabinets and doors. Here, they do not splatter or run.

Finally, please be careful when using the formula on crevices. It gathers in these spots and is challenging to remove.

  • Step Five: Test the Stain

Test the stain on scrap wood and evaluate the outcome.

Find a small lumber piece that is the same as the workpiece. Then, dab the stain and see how dark or light it becomes.

This way, you can see how the formula affects the wood before applying it to the project.

Lastly, darker woods like oak are harder to stain than lighter ones like pine.

How to Seal Wood

Unlike painting, sealing wood highlights its beautiful grain. Furthermore, the exercise works best for new lumber and hardwood surfaces.

We have three standard sealants: Shellac, Lacquer, and Polyurethane. And you can choose either depending on your prowess and project expectations.

But first, prepare the surface by sanding it to guarantee a professional finish. Then, apply the desired formula.

Here are some application tips.

  • Step One: Sand the Wood

Sand the surface until it is smooth. You can use a hand or an electric sander to remove rough areas and imperfections.

Start with rough sandpaper, say 100 to 120-grit for rough surfaces. Then, progress to a finer-grit paper to reduce visible irregularities.

The next step is to run over the surface with 400-grit sandpaper.

Sand along the wood grain, following the lumber lines back and forth. It helps avoid leaving swirly marks.

  • Step Two: Wipe the Surface

Remove sawdust from the wood using a dry tack cloth. 

Also, wipe the surface several times to avoid having wood particles in the final finish.

A tack cloth is a special sticky rag that removes dust from wood surfaces and eliminates particles resisting ordinary towels.

Further, please avoid using water on bare wood. It alters the wood’s grain, making it rougher.

  • Step Three: Stain the Wood

Stain the surface to alter the color or highlight the wood grain. Also, apply the stain before adding the sealant to ensure better penetration.

Next, wipe or brush the formula on the lumber, then let it dry for the recommended duration.

Usually, the manufacturer gives relevant instructions on the product label.

  • Step Four: Use a Stain-Sealant Combination

Consider a stain and sealant combination to complete the job quickly.

The formula allows you to pigment the surface while creating a moisture-resistant workpiece.

Besides, it is a quick-finish alternative for large surfaces and limited time.

For instance, most woodworkers use this combination when sealing decks.

  • Step Five: Appy the Chosen Sealer

Sealer 1: Shellac

Use Shellac to seal indoor wood as it works better on interior furniture.

Besides, the finish is not waterproof but delivers a lovely finish. It also prevents the wood from drying.

Shellac is available in various colors. Therefore, it seals the wood and colors it simultaneously.

Below is the best way to apply the formula.

  • Get the Correct Tools

Usually, a clean brush, rag, or sponge does the job.

You can get any of the above from your local hardware store, big box, or home improvement shop.

Further, the formula is hard to clean, and you will have to throw the accessory away after use.

So, do not buy an expensive tool. Use a paintbrush when working on tight corners and detailed surfaces.

Alternatively, get a rag or sponge for more extensive workpieces.

  • Apply the Shellac

Use straight lines across the wood when applying the formula. Also, saturate the brush, rag, or sponge as much as possible during the process.

Moreover, maintain a wet edge when applying each band. This way, subsequent moves smooth out the previous ones.

Start with one end and work across to the other. Move quickly to keep the formula from drying during application.

  • Let the Finish Dry

Please avoid touching Shellac during drying. Otherwise, you’ll interfere with the drying process and ruin the finish.

In addition, do not use steel wool or sand the product between band applications.

Shellac melts into itself as you apply subsequent layers. Therefore, it efficiently delivers a smooth finish.

However, the product is alcohol-based and has a strong smell.

But this odor dissipates after the finish drying. So, it is not something to stress you.

Finally, wear a respirator and work in a well-ventilated area to avoid safety hazards.

Sealer 2: Polyurethane

Choose a polyurethane type that works for your wood. 

Thankfully, we have various polyurethane types, including water-based, oil-based, and other mixes.

So, you will get a suitable product for your work.

Moreover, each formula has different qualities. Therefore, consider the wood’s location and the project’s future maintenance strategy.

For example, oil-based polyurethane withstands outdoor elements. Thus, it is more suitable for exterior applications.

Conversely, water-based products do not last long outdoors. But they dry quicker than their counterparts and are easier to clean.

Also, consider the desired color between matte and glossy.

NB: Polyurethane is excellent for waterproofing lumber. Further, it is easy to apply and lasts longer.

  • Get the Correct Tools

Use a rag or brush to apply the formula.

Also, polyurethane is self-leveling, meaning it spreads out without your help. Therefore, do not worry too much about getting an even surface.

Use the extra formula for the end grain, as it is the most absorbent wood part.

  • Apply the Polyurethane

Cover the surface with a smooth layer. Further, use long strokes with a clean rag or brush for a uniform finish.

Work from end to end and keep polyurethane distribution equal and smooth.

  • Sand Between Polyurethane Coats

Use 400-grit sandpaper for sanding the finish. But please avoid using force lest you ruin the job.

Next, wipe the lumber with a clean towel to remove the sanding dust.

  • Apply Multiple Coats

Polyurethane needs many coats to deliver a satisfactory finish.

However, let every layer dry thoroughly before adding the nest. Also, sand the surface to smooth out uneven areas.

Keep an eye out for polyurethane drips. Smooth them with a rag or brush to prevent a bumpy finish.

Finally, drying time varies between various polyurethane types. Hence, read the manufacturer’s instructions for a better result.

Sealer 3: Lacquer

Lacquer is incredibly durable. But only pick it when you have some woodworking experience.

Besides, the formula is not forgiving, and mistakes can cost the entire project.

Lacquer requires spray gun application to deliver a professional finish. Thus, please buy or hire one.

Then, check out the tips below.

  • Take Safety Measures

Work in a well-ventilated workspace, and do not spray the formula near sparks. In addition, please wear a respirator, as the lacquer is highly toxic.

Also, ensure the formula does not spark when using a fan for ventilation.

  • Apply Thin Lacquer Coats

Pull the spray gun trigger close to the workpiece. Then, move the gun over the wood.

Overlap the previous spray path by 50 percent and release the trigger after moving beyond the edge.

Move the accessor back and forth to avoid build-ups in specific spots. This way, you avoid drips, runs, and the ‘orange peel effect.

  • Apply Three or Four Lacquer Layers

Wait for the finish to dry thoroughly before adding coats.

Each layer needs around 30 minutes to cure. Then, apply the next finish in the same fashion.

Finally, ensure the gun keeps moving to deliver a uniform surface.

Here’s How to Seal Wood:

When to Use Stain or Sealer

Using a stain or sealer depends on the project requirements.

However, location is a primary factor because interior projects need more beauty, whereas outdoor ones need durability.

But in some cases, both products are equally important.

Below are factors to consider when choosing between a stain and sealer.

  • Old or New Furniture

Old workpieces work better with a stain as it adds more pigment to the surface. Besides, the finish hides some wood blemishes and enhances its natural look.

Conversely, it is better to seal new wood. The surface has a pronounced wood grain and needs a transparent finish.

However, you can still stain the new workpiece for added durability.

In addition, the stain comes in handy if you want to match or complement the surrounding items.

  • Indoor or Outdoor Applications

It is advisable to use a stain for outdoor applications. It has more protective qualities than a sealer.

The finish protects the surface from UV rays, moisture, and sun damage.

As a result, the wood’s color and structure remain intact for longer.

Alternatively, use a sealer for indoor applications with lower moisture or sun exposure. The product also accentuates the workpiece’s beauty.

However, consider a stain-sealant combination for both projects. You will deliver a lovely and durable surface.

How Long Does It Take Stain and Sealer to Dry

Most stains and sealers dry within 24 and 48 hours. Afterward, it is safe to add additional coats or a topcoat.

Moreover, consider two to four hours for multiple stain coats. But remember, the piece needs additional curing time after subsequent layers.

Product specifications vary across manufacturers. Therefore, check the product label for accurate timelines.

Below is a brief description of various brands.

  • Varathane Oil-Based Wood Stain. The stain needs two to four hours before you can add another layer.

However, give water-based polyurethane eight drying hours and oil-based versions 24 hours before resuming regular use.

  • Varathane Water-Based Wood Stain. The stain is ready for a recoat after two hours and needs three hours before sealing.
  • Varathane Gel Stain. Please allow two hours between coats and four to eight before a topcoat.
  • Minwax Oil-Based Wood Stain. The manufacturer recommends four to six hours for the best result.
  • Minwax Water-Based Wood Stain. This formula dries in one hour, and you can recoat it in 23 hours.
  • Minwax Gel Stain. You can reapply the stain after eight to ten hours but wait 24 hours before use.
  • General Finishes Gel Stain. These stains are dry in 12 to 24 hours. But the water-based version needs need 72 hours to cure.

Staining wood is a test of logistics and patience. Consider the weather and humidity levels as they significantly affect the drying time.

In addition, choose the most favorable season and work area when planning the project.

Is Stain and Sealer In One Any Good?

Stain and sealer in one is an excellent strategy to protect your wood.

Further, you will kill two birds with one stone. The formula features both stain protection attributes and a sealer’s beautifying qualities.

Lastly, ‘Stain and Sealer in One’ seals the lumber from external factors such as water, cracks, and UV rays.

It also adds the desired pigment to the surface.

Frequently Asked Questions

The questions include:

  • Do I Have to Seal Wood After Staining?

Untreated and unfinished wood has poor durability, lasting about five to ten years. Then, it decays.

Before the lumber rots, it will start to dry, warp, and crack from humidity changes and UV exposure.

Also, although a stain makes the wood darker and defines the grain, it does not give sufficient protection against harsh environmental elements.

Fortunately, a sealer coat on the stain closes the lumber pores, blocking some UV, slowing moisture takeup, and delaying deterioration.

As a result, the woodwork will have a considerably longer life.

In addition, reapplying the sealer every few years guarantees a fresh-looking surface for longer.

A sealer protects the material from wear and impact, especially in high-traffic areas.

For instance, use three to four polyurethane coats on stained wooden floors. The topcoat lifts and enhances the lumber’s color.

Moreover, it prevents scratching and scuffing, and premature wear and tear.

Sealing a stain finish improves the surface’s aesthetics. Further, the stained lumber may appear flat and lifeless without the topcoat.

The sealer also makes the color pop more, intensifying the wood’s grain and color.

A sealing formula protects the stain finish from damage by spills and marks. 

Remember, the wood pores remain open even after staining. Therefore, spills rapidly soak into the lumber, leaving stain marks that are hard to remove.

Lastly, the sealer waterproofs the surface and lets liquid spills sit on the topcoat. Thus, you can wipe them without damaging the project.

  • Can I Seal the Wood Before the Stain Dries?

Please do not seal a stain finish before it dries. Otherwise, you will compromise the sealer’s adhesion.

Further, a sealer will only close the pores and hinder further drying if the stain base coat is wet.

Thus, both the stain and filler will not dry.

Also, you will have to remove the stain and sealer, sand the lumber, and start the process again.

  • What Happens If I Don’t Seal Stained Wood?

The answer depends on where you use the item.

For instance, say the object hangs inside the house on a wall: Expect it to warp, split, and fade over time due to humidity and UV light. But the impact will not be dramatic.

On the other hand, a workpiece exposed to water, spillage, or high foot traffic deteriorates faster.

In addition, scratches, dents, wear, and stains will make the wood look old.

Although you may like the distressed appearance, be ready to replace the object more frequently.

  • Are There Downsides to Sealing Wood?

Sealing wood is expensive and takes time to apply. Therefore, set aside enough time and resources for the job.

Some sealers like varnish and polyurethane can yellow over time. 

Fortunately, you can prevent discoloration by applying thin coats and sanding before each layer.

Ignoring the recommended application techniques leaves noticeable flaws.

Also, the formulas are more complicated to handle than others. Thus, ensure you get the correct procedures or a professional to help.

Finally, a sealer accentuates blemishes on the lumber, especially with poor surface preparation. Worse still, excessive coats can leave a cloudy look.

Nonetheless, the above drawbacks should not discourage you. Besides, seal the wood, especially if it is an outdoor piece or experiences heavy or regular use.

So, consider and factor in potential pitfalls when planning your next woodworking project.


Deck sealing protects lumber from cracking, moisture, splitting, mildew, and rot while maintaining its color and grain.

On the other hand, deck staining protects the wood but delivers a more uniform wood pigment. Thus, you can use it to match or compliment surrounding structures.

In addition, more solid stains minimize the UV rays effect and sun damage, enhancing the project’s longevity.

However, knowing which product to use is not always straightforward. Therefore, check out the above discussion on:

Should You Stain or Seal Wood?

Stains and sealers protect wood pieces. Thus, either formula is better than nothing.

Moreover, various scenarios have different demands. For instance, it is better to use a pigmented stain on outdoor wood for added longevity.

But a sealer is best for beautifying interior projects without threat from the elements.

Generally, these maintenance products prevent premature wood failure. Therefore, get one, if not both, for your workpieces.

Image of a woodworker wearing hearing protectors for woodworking

Tyron Otieno

Tyron is an avid woodworker and writer. He founded this website to help other woodworkers, whether hobbyists or professionals by sharing his knowledge and experiencie after a decade of woodworking.

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