Wood Stains 101: 9 Different Types of Wood Stains Explained

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/02/23 • 

Staining wood is coloring without covering or obscuring the grain and figure. When wood is properly stained, the visual effect of the grain is enhanced. There are different types of stains depending on the colorant used (pigment or dye), the amount of colorant, the binder used (varnish, lacquer, or water-base), and the thickness of a stain (liquid or gel).

When choosing the best stain type, there is no wrong or right option. However, understanding the different types of stains and their properties can help you decide which will perform better for your desired results.

1. Pigment-Based Stains

Pigment stains consist of ground earth or colored synthetic particles, a binder, and a thinner. Ores, minerals, metallic oxides, and synthetic color pigments are grounded to fine particles and mixed with binders like linseed oil, varnish, or water to become spreadable.

The pigments do not dissolve in liquids and will usually settle on the bottom of a container and have to be properly stirred before application. Once dry, pigments form a thin paint-like coating on the surface of the wood. Whereas other types of stain enhance the grain, pigment stains are opaque, so they hide the pattern of the wood.

Because of their opaque nature, pigment-based stains are used for glazing, graining, and other finishing techniques where the beauty of wood is not emphasized. Pigment stains work by lodging themselves in the pores of the wood. The larger the pores, the darker and more opaque the pigment stains will color the wood.

Porous woods like oak and ash will display dramatically lighter and darker areas when pigment stains are used. However, pigment stains will appear more evenly when used on woods like birch, mahogany, and walnut. For dense woods, staining them with pigment stains is harder because there’s very little texture on the wood to accept the pigment.

2. Dye Stains

Dye stains are different from pigment stains in two major ways. First, dye stains dissolve in solvents and do not need a binder to stain wood. Because dye stains have smaller particles, wood fibers easily absorb and hold them. Dye stains are derived from plants, insects, animals, and petroleum.

Dyes can be grouped by the solvent in which they dissolve best.

Water-based dye stains are great for creating a uniform wood appearance. They are also best used on wood furniture, cabinets, and other wood projects where you’re using a brush or cloth to apply the stain.

Alcohol and non-grain-raising dyes do a great job of enhancing the grain of the wood. Alcohol-soluble dyes are used for repairs and touch-ups by dissolving them in lacquer or shellac and brushing them to damaged areas. Non-grain-raising dyes are best sprayed onto the wood. If not sprayed, add a retarder to the solution to extend the drying time.

Oil-soluble dyes are usually used with oil-based and varnish-based stains. They are transparent and also non-grain raising. The drying time of oil-soluble dyes will depend on the solvent used. Dyes that use mineral spirits will dry slower, while those that use toluene or xylene will dry considerably faster but are more toxic.

3. Oil-Based Stains

The most common stains for most consumers are oil-based and water-based stains. Oil-based stains use oil as the binder or solvent and can either be a pigment-based, dye, or both. Most premixed oil-based stains, both pigment, and dye. This is why you need to treat splotchy wood with a pre-stain conditioner to stain the wood evenly.

Linseed oil is the most common binder used with oil-based stains. This makes oil-based stains easier to apply since you have more time to spread the stain for an even-perfect appearance. Oil-based stains are also the best for beginner wood finishers because of their forgiving nature.

4. Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains use a water-based binder and can also be a pigment-based, dye, or both. Water-based stains are fast drying and easier to clean up than oil-based stains. They are also resistant to mold and mildew and have low volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Because they are quick drying, water-based stains are best for smaller projects.

Water-based stains, unlike oil-based stains, do not penetrate deeper into the wood fibers, which results in softer colors. They also raise the grain, which makes the wood rougher to touch after the stain dries.

Because of their versatility, water-based stains are great for antique furniture restoration. They can also be mixed up to achieve different or desired colors.

5. Gel Stains

A gel stain is any thickened stain. Gel stains are thick and stay at the surface of the wood for easier spreading and to reduce splatter. Most gel stains are pigment-based and not dye stains. They sit on the surface of the wood instead of soaking, which reduces blotching, which is much more common with traditional oil-based stains.

Gel stains are great when used for naturally blotchy types of woods such as pine, cherry, maple, and birch. When using gel stains, you don’t have to use a wood conditioner or pre-stain conditioner before staining. A gel stain can also be applied on top of other wood finishes because most use a varnish binder.

6. Varnish Stains

A varnish stain is a pigment-based dye, or both, that uses varnish as a binder or polyurethane varnish. Varnish stains dry hard, which eliminates the need to wipe the excess as you would with oil-based stains. The varnish stain also dries into a harder film, eliminating the need for a top protective coat.

The major problem with varnish stains is they dry faster, which makes them harder to apply. If you’re not careful enough when applying varnish stains with a brush, you might leave visible brush marks.

7. Lacquer Stains

A lacquer stain is any pigment-based, dye, or both with a fast-drying alkyd varnish or lacquer binder. Lacquer stains are very fast drying and are often sprayed and wiped off very quickly, usually by a second person. Because of their fast-drying nature, lacquer stains are not advisable for beginners.

Use a second person to wipe off the excess lacquer stain for larger projects as one sprays it. Also, apply the stain in a well-ventilated area because of the solvents used in lacquer stains.

8. Chemical Stains

This is any chemical that colors wood by reacting with the chemicals naturally present in the wood. Chemical stains were used before the development of synthetic dyes. Some of the chemicals used to stain wood include lye, ammonia (fuming), copper sulfate, potassium dichromate, ferrous sulfate, nitric acid, and potassium permanganate.

However, chemical stains are more dangerous to use because they can cause burns when in contact with your skin or affect your health if you breathe them. They are also difficult to use, and you can stain the wood too dark.

Because synthetic dyes can imitate the colors of chemical stains, they are the ones that are commonly used these days without the risks of chemical stains. However, some chemicals, such as potassium dichromate, are still used to stain wood, which is usually used in marquetry.

9. Non-Grain Raising (NGR) Stains

Non-grain-raising stains, NGR, have a dye dissolved in a glycol-ether solvent and often thinned with acetone. NGR stains are available only in liquid form and do not have a binder. They are very fast drying and are sprayed and left to dry. Non-grain-raising dyes are fairly toxic; you should spray them in a well-ventilated room.

NGR stains are available in different colors, from darker to very bright colors. When used on wood, they do not raise the grain, so you’ll achieve a flat, even finish. However, they are expensive and fairly toxic when sold in non-concentrated form.


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