Mixing Stain and Polyurethane: Step-by-Step Guide

Can you mix stain and polyurethane? This question never goes away as most readers still feels there are “holes” to file as far as the question is related.

So, let’s answer it once and for all!

Although wood staining delivers a shiny appearance and exposes the wood grain, to most homeowners, woodworkers and others, staining alone is not enough.

In a bid to forgo the time consuming process of staining and the finishing with a poly product.

Most people would jump at a chance to mix these two amazing formulas and have the application in one go.

It begs the question; can you mix stain and polyurethane.

It is possible to mix stain with polyurethane and deliver your desired final finish. The strategy also reduces the application time while improving the product’s protection against stained lumber.

The only requirement is to ensure that you use the same base when mixing—for instance, oil-based polyurethane with oil-based stain.

Read through this guide for essential considerations when Mixing Stain and Polyurethane, the proper mixing procedure, and whether you should combine them for your project.

What Is Stain

A stain is a chemical changing or enhancing the wood’s original shade.

It comprises colorants dissolved or suspended in a solvent such as alcohol, petroleum distillate, water, or finishing ingredients like varnish, lacquer, polyurethane, and shellac.

Image of newly stained deckStained or colored finishes do not soak deep into the lumber pores.

They also decay and may varnish over time.

On the other hand, dyes and pigments in the stains permeate deep into the wood to highlight the grain and change the color or enhance existing tones.

Pigments feature larger particles and are temporarily suspended in the vehicle to settle out later.

Further, dyes are molecules dissolving into the solvent.

Transparent stains refer to formulas that predominantly include dye, while solid ones are products with more pigment and are more opaque.

Usually, dyes can stain fine-grained lumber, such as cherry and maple, whereas pigments don’t.

In addition, hardwoods have smaller pores for pigments to deposit into, making them perfect for the product.

Moreover, most pigment-based formulas have a small binder quantity to aid adhesion.

Linseed oil is the standard binder in most wood stains. It is a non-toxic drying oil and is suitable as a preservative for any lumber finish or paint.

Wood stains give the wood some protection level from harmful environmental elements.

However, most woodworkers use them for cosmetic rather than protective reasons.

Also, natural alternatives to synthetic formulas include coffee and vinegar or coffee and water combinations.

Nevertheless, we have different stain types in the market. Each product gives the wood a unique appearance. They include:

  • Oil-Baed Stains

Oil-based stains are popular among woodworkers and are often the first choice for staining furniture and other wood applications.

The formula uses a linseed oil binder or a varnish and linseed oil mixture. Hence, it is simple to use since you can remove any excess before it dries.

Also, it allows you to work on relatively demanding and large applications conveniently.

Solvents for the product include mineral spirits and paint thinners. They allow you to clean the stained wood surface and formula applicants.

  • Water-Based Stains

The manufacturer replaces organic thinner in these products with water.

Thus, they do not pollute the environment and do not harm or aggravate your skin during application.

Water-based stains are easier to clean than varnish and oil-based ones.

In addition, they dry faster and accommodate projects with a shorter timeline.

  • Gel Stains

These stains feature a high viscosity and do not flow. Thus, they are slightly easier to apply as they do not drip or run on the surface.

However, the formula has a lower penetrating ability than other stain types.

Also, since gel stains are oil-based, you need mineral spirits to thin or remove them.

Gel stains have a similar thickness to mayonnaise and are easy to recognize.

Moreover, although the product is messy to apply, it is an excellent option for tackling difficult wood finishing situations like blotching on pine.

  • Varnish Stains

These stains resemble their oil-based counterparts, only that they use polyurethane as a binder.

Besides, they give a more complex finish than ordinary stains. Therefore, you can expect a more lasting finish. 

Unlike oil-based stains, varnish formulas do not need wiping to prevent peeling or chipping. So, brush the formula on the surface and let it dry naturally.

  • Lacquer Stains

Lacquer products use solvents and ultra-fast drying binders like kenotes and xylene. Further, professionals choose this formula as you can apply it in fifteen or fewer minutes.

Various ketones and xylene products emit an intense bitter odor, making them distinguishable.

In addition, volatile solvents vaporize so quickly and leave a smell.

Lacquer is not a binding agent in these stains. Instead, the manufacturer includes a short-oil varnish that dries very fast.

  • Metalized Dye Stain

These stains are also referred to as metal complex dye formulas. They are non-grain-raising products and easily dissolve in fast-evaporating solvents.

Metal dye stains deliver rich color and are excellent for bare woods. In addition, they use glycol mixed with ethanol, methanol, or retarders as solvents.

You can purchase the stain in a concentrated form or diluted with water, alcohol, or any other lacquer thinner. 

What Is Polyurethane

Image of polyurethane finished floor, know what to do What to Do When Polyurethane Won’t DryPolyurethane is a transparent thin liquid coating brushed or sprayed on surfaces.

It is primarily protective and does not accentuate the wood grain or impart a golden hue.

The finish is often compared with shellacs, lacquers, and varnishes.

But the unifying factor in the product is essentially plastic.

In addition, shellac comes from organic products like insects, whereas polyurethane comes from a factory-made polymer coating.

Polyurethane is most suitable for interior applications. Furthermore, it can deliver a hard and clear shell, showing through the lower surface.

The plastic product starts as a solution and later dries into a solid. Also, it comes in both oil-based and water-based forms, with finishes ranging from glossy to satin.

The finish is extremely tough varnish and features tightly connected resin molecule chains. Therefore, you get a water, solvent, and abrasion-resistant surface.

Polyurethane types include:

  • Oil-Based Polyurethane

This polyurethane type utilizes various petroleum and mineral solvents as vehicles. Also, unlike oil-based paints, which are rare to find, the coating is widely available.

Oil-based polyurethane comes in both spray and brush formats. It creates a hard protective shell on the surface. 

But you will notice a slightly yellow hue, especially with many coatings.

The finish dyes slowly as one layer needs about two hours to dry to the touch.

In addition, additional coats require at least six hours to cure, depending on room conditions and the product type.

Oil-based polyurethane features a sharp, pronounced odor, and many woodworkers find it objectionable. However, the odor goes away after the finish cures.

The formula needs paint thinner or mineral spirits for cleanup. It is also self-leveling and becomes smooth on horizontal surfaces.

Consider spraying the product to facilitate even and professional results.

In addition, it is a suitable choice for wood floors, railings, countertops, and cabinets where durability is critical.

However, only use the product in a well-ventilated space and ensure that you will not occupy the home during curing.

  • Water-Based Polyurethane

This finish uses water instead of solvents as the base carrying polyurethane solids.

But it can still form a hard protective coating with more applications.

Fortunately, you can apply more coats as the product dries quickly.

Also, please note that it begins milky-white and then becomes clear as it dries.

Therefore, you cannot impart any color to the surface.

Water-based polyurethane does not have any odor, and you only need soap and warm water for cleanup.

Lastly, use this formula if you have an aversion to dealing with odorous and messy solvents.

Moreover, it works best when you do not want a hard shell appearance.

How Much Stain Do You Mix With Polyurethane? 

We do not have a standard volume for mixing wood stain and polyurethane.

However, the most accepted ratio is fifty percent polyurethane and fifty percent stain. 

Depending on the desired consistency, you can also use a 25:75 stain to polyurethane.

But remember that higher or lesser is a complete waste of time and resources. 

The wood stain acts as the polyurethane thinner. Hence, the more the stain, the thinner the mixture will appear.

On the other hand, a mixture with more polyurethane will feature a thicker consistency. Hence, you will deliver a glossier surface.

How to Mix Stain With Polyurethane

The mixing procedure is relatively straightforward. Follow the tips below for a successful outcome.

  • Cover the Work Area With a Tarp

Start by covering the surface where you’ll be mixing the two formulas.

Use a suitable drop cloth or plastic sheeting as the wood stain can spill on the surface and discolor it.

Similarly, polyurethane can spill during stirring and cause undesirable spots on the worktop and floor.

Therefore, cover the surface and deliver a buffer to gather accidental spills. Also, you will protect the work area from unwanted staining.

  • Prepare the Stain

Stir the stain in its container to deliver a uniform consistency.

Besides, the formula contains colorants and pigments suspended in a vehicle or solvent, requiring you to mix them properly before application.

Also, since these particles do not dissolve in the solvent, the heavier ones settle can’s bottom.

Thus, it is advisable to stir the product to distribute the pigments and facilitate a richer and fuller color.

  • Prepare the Polyurethane

Polyurethane, like wood stains, needs gentle stirring to deliver a custom color and consistency. Otherwise, you’ll create bubbles and spill the formula all over. 

Use a stirring stick and work in a well-ventilated workspace.

Further, work on top of the plastic sheeting and drop cloth to keep spillages from muddying the tabletop and floor.

  • Add the Stain and Polyurethane Together

Pour the solutions into a glass jar after stirring. Ensure that you work with an equal part of the polyurethane and wood stain.

Also, work with a clean and empty container with a lid. The covering is necessary when you do not intend to use all the mixture immediately.

Next, use a larger container to accommodate the polyurethane and stain without overflowing.

  • Mix Them Up Until the Color is Even

The next step involves gently stirring the mixture until you get an even color and consistency.

But remember that polyurethane is thicker than wood stain. So, mix them until you get a uniform finish.

Consider tipping the container or bucket to the side when working with a small polyurethane and wood stain amount. This way, you facilitate better mixing.

There is no standard way to tell when the mixture is ready. Hence, eyeball it and utilize your better judgment to tell if it mixes well.

Nonetheless, you may have to stir it patiently and gently for a few minutes to deliver a professional result.

  • Cover and Mark the Container for Storage Purposes

Cover and mark the container if you intend to store the mixture for future use.

It helps for easier identification. And again, it is upon you to determine the kind of marking that works best.

Lastly, thoroughly stir the mixture before use after storage.

In addition, consider stirring it from time to time during application to maintain the desired color and consistency.

What Kind of Polyurethane Can You Mix With Stain?

Mixing an oil stain with oil-based polyurethane to deliver a perfect mixture is possible.

However, ensure that the solutions have the same base. For example, both must be oil-based for a consistent blend.

Moreover, oil and water never mix. Water-based polyurethane will have adhesion problems when you mix or apply it over an oil-based stain.

By reading the product label, you can always tell whether the formula is water- or oil-based. So, it is hard to make mistakes.

However, mixing gel stain with polyurethane is not common in woodworking. Thus, consider going for oil-based products when experimenting.

It is easy to mix water-based stains with water-based polyurethane. You won’t pose any risk of emitting toxic fumes into the atmosphere. 

In addition, the mixture dries with a clear finish, allowing you to enhance the wood’s natural hue.

Finally, you can apply an oil-based stain on a water-based polyurethane finish. However, the previous finish must be completely dry.

Precautions When Mixing Polyurethane and Stain

Please avoid mixing water-based wood stain with oil-based polyurethane. Thus, ensure that the two products are compatible for a successful product.

Similarly, do not mix oil-based stains with water-based polyurethane finishes. It will also lead to incompatibility problems.

Moreover, different wood stains feature varying chemical compositions, and mixing them can deliver incompatibility issues. So, avoid mixing several stain types.

Only mix one part of stain with one part of polyurethane or 75% polyurethane with 25% stain for a successful result.

Also, work with similar grain patterns and avoid applying too much polyurethane.

Hence, evaluate the wood type before you start to confirm that you will deliver a successful outcome.

For instance, rare woods such as rosewood, maple, mahogany, and aged pine are not suitable for this project as they are most valuable in their natural tone.

Consider using a water-based polyurethane to preserve the lumber’s natural hue. Besides, the formula gives a neutral or clear finish after drying.

However, it can leave grain on the surface, requiring you to be extra cautious.

Below are other considerations when mixing wood stain with polyurethane and applying them on wooden surfaces.

  • Prepare the surface to remove any dust, residual wax, pollutants, or existing grain.
  • Inspect the wood for splinters, screws, and holes.

Then, use putty to fill the holes, sand down the splinters, and remove protruding screws and nails.

  • Work in the wood grain direction when sanding the surface. Also, use a lint-free rag to wipe away dust and dirt.
  • Use overlapping brush strokes when applying the formula. Then, consider using thin and multiple coats instead of one thick one.
  • Wrap the brush with a saran accessory between coats to keep it from drying out.
  • Wipe the excess formula with a clean, lint-free cloth between satin coats.

Pros and Cons of Mixing Stain and Polyurethane 

Mixing wood stain and polyurethane is a common practice. Besides, it has multiple benefits for your project.


  • It Gives More Color Options.

 Stain and polyurethane products are popular products in woodworking. However, since wood stains have a limited color range, you can mix the formulas to deliver more variety.

  • It Reduces Application Time 

Usually, it is advisable to apply a stain and allow it to dry before coating it with a polyurethane sealant.

Therefore, mixing the products helps reduce the steps needed in the application process, saving time and effort.

  • It Delivers a Stronger and More Protective Topcoat

The wood stain and polyurethane mixture is more potent than individual stain or polyurethane. Hence, it offers more protection.

  • It Enhances the Wood’s Natural Beauty

This mixture accentuates the wood’s natural grain and exposes its pattern. So, the wood appears more lovely.


  • Mixing stains on dried polyurethane cause the finish to peel away.
  • Poor mixing of polyurethane and stain ratio can cause product failure.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some of the most asked questions are:

  • What Kind of Stain Can I Mix With Polyurethane?

We have numerous stain types, and it is prudent to know your viable options when mixing them with polyurethane. 

For example, oil-based wood stains are relatively easier to mix as they have linseed oil.

They dry slower, allowing you to remove excess formula in time.

On the other hand, water-based stains consist of a water-based finish to bind the stain.

Therefore, you can remove them with water instead of a solvent or organic thinner.

In addition, they are easier to clean than their counterparts, are non-toxic, and dry much faster.

Gel stains only work with polyurethane finishes. Besides, they stick on other finishes like lacquer, varnish, or shellac and cannot mix with them.

Users also apply the formula over polyurethane as it does not feature penetrating attributes.

Lastly, a gel product acts as an opaque paint, allowing you to alter the wood’s color without stripping. Further, you will not expose the grain patterns.

  • Should I Sand Between Stain And Polyurethane?

You do not have to sand between stain and polyurethane. In addition, you will still deliver successful results after skipping the sanding part.

However, it is prudent to sand the stained wood with liquid sandpaper mildly. This way, you facilitate a flawless surface.

  • Does Stain Dry Over Polyurethane?

Stains dry over polyurethane, but it is not a fruitful act. Also, you’ll have to add another polyurethane coat to hold the staining layer.

Otherwise, the finish will peel away after some days.

Conversely, please avoid putting stains over polyurethane. Do the opposite, and you’ll only need an additional coat when the color is not dark enough.

  • Do I Need to Mix Oil-Based Stain Need to be Mixed?

It is advisable to stir oil-based formulas with a flat stir stick.

Also, remember that pigment particles are heavier than the solvent and tend to settle at the container’s bottom.

Therefore, the process helps to distribute the pigment in the liquid. Moreover, you will ensure a uniform color across the product.

  • How Do I Prevent Grain Raising?

Knowing how to prevent grain raising is advisable if you do not like the wood’s textured feel is advisable. 

But the high grain is not an issue when applying numerous lacquer layers. The lacquer adheres to the surface and delivers a smoother surface.

Remember the following points when avoiding grain on your surface.

  • Please avoid leaving the pigment coating on the wood for too long. The color darkens the longer the mixture stays on the surface.
  • Refrain from mixing oil-based and water-based formulas. They are incompatible.
  • Test the coat or color you want on an inconspicuous area. And ensure that the final pigment matches or complements the wood’s natural shades.
  • Do not use oil-based paint with white or light hues as they turn amber over time.


Since polyurethane and stain are transparent, mixing them can deliver a glossier finish and enhance the wood’s natural beauty.

In addition, the exercise facilitates a convenient application and quick finish time. So, let’s explore the subject:

Can You Mix Stain and Polyurethane?

Stain products have color limitations, especially when you want a custom color.

Therefore, consider mixing them with polyurethane to expand this range and meet your personal preferences. So…

Yes. You can mix stain with polyurethane as it allows you to attain the desired finish color.

Mixing stain and poly is a common practice among woodworkers.

Whenever you mix stain and polyurethane, you end up with an enhanced protection for your surface as well as a reduced application time.

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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