Have you ever walked into a store or online shop with the intention of buying a simple varnish or paint for finishing your wood projects and spend there at least an hour trying to decide what to choose?
Have you ever left empty handed because you could not decide which one will be the best to suit the purpose? I know exactly how confusing it can be trying to choose the best adequate product for your needs where there is so many you can choose from.
That’s why I’ve decided to put together this guide on how to stain wood.
What is a Wood Stain?
A wood stain is a colorant (pigment or dye) and a binder mixed together with lots of thinner for easy wipe off of excess stain. The stain leaves some color in or on the wood. A stain also can be simply dye and thinner with no binder at all.
A pigment is ground earth or colored artificial particles imitating earth. Because it’s got its weight it settles to the bottom of the can and has to be stirred into suspension before use. A pigment can’t penetrate into the wood, however, a number of its particles stay in pores or larger scratches after wiping off. In this case, lighter color can be achieved by finer sanding because less pigment can be implanted.
A dye is a chemical colorant dissolved in a liquid (different liquids are used for different dyes), therefore, dye penetrates simultaneously with the liquid and doesn’t settle out. You can darken the wood with as many coats as you wish without covering up the wood or creating any build.
All dyes, whether dissolved in a solvent or including an additional binder, fade in bright light, i.e. sunlight or fluorescent light.
All types of stain can differ in color depth depending on the proportion of colorant (pigment, dye or chemical) to liquid (oil, thinner, varnish, solvent, etc.). The higher the ratio of colorant to liquid, the darker the stain colors the wood.
It’s quite easy to alter the ratio in any stain by adding pigment, dye or thinner. Some people say that by leaving a stain on the surface longer before wiping off the excess can make wood darker. Their explanation is that the stain penetrates deeper. This is not the case. The reason that wood goes darker is that more thinner evaporates increasing the ratio of colorant to liquid.
Types of Stain
There are several types of wood stain used. The most common are:
- Oil stain – thins and cleans up with mineral spirits
- Water-based stain – thins and cleans up with water
- Gel stain – it’s thixotropic, like mayonnaise – it’s thick in the can, but can be spread and wiped off easily
- Dye stain it’s a colorant dissolved in a liquid
- A combination of stain and finish – doesn’t color as effectively and is streaked with brush marks if brushed and not wiped off
- Lacquer stain – it’s a very fast drying stain used usually by professionals who spray it and wipe it quickly; typically applied by two people
The main differences in stains are:
- The ease of application. Oil stains are the easiest to apply because they are the slowest to dry therefore you have plenty of time to wipe off the excess. The rest of the stains dry quickly so you have to work fast or on smaller areas at a time. Choose an oil stain to apply underneath any finish except water-based, and in any other cases where you don’t need any of the special characteristics offered by other stains.
- The drying time. Lacquer stains and dye stains dissolved in a solvent (not water) can be coated over within minutes. Water-based stains need about an hour before you can apply another coat. Gel stains and dyes dissolved in water need four to six hours before another coat can be applied. Oil stains should be allowed to dry overnight. But always it’s best to check on the can for instructions.
- The grain definition. All stains give a good grain definition if the excess is wiped off because more colorant is left in the grain. Dye stains generate slightly less definition than pigment stains.
- The color control. Dye stains provide the best of color control – i.e. getting the color darker without covering the wood itself. Dye is transparent and because of that, you can apply as many coats as you wish and still see the wood’s figure. Pigment hides.
What is wood conditioning and why do I need to do it? The reason behind conditioning or washcoating the wood is to prevent blotching i.e. uneven coloring caused by differences in wood density. A wash coat or wood conditioner is simply any finish thinned to about 10 percent so it doesn’t fully “seal” the wood.
Bear in mind that you have to use this technique for only softwood e.i. pine or tight-grained hardwoods like maple. Since using pallets, you don’t really know what kind of wood they are made of I’d say is safer to do it every time.
You can make your own conditioner by diluting any varnish with paint thinner (1:2 ratio). Remember to let it dry fully before applying the stain – at least six hours but better overnight. That’s the key to getting the wood conditioner to work.
How to Apply a Wood Stain?
The main rule for applying the stains is to apply a wet coat and wipe off the excess before the stain dries. If you’re using one of the faster-drying stains, you may need to divide your project into smaller sections or have someone else wipe as you apply to get good results.
It’s much faster to wipe the stain onto the wood with a cloth, wearing gloves instead of brushing it. The fact I completely forgot about whilst doing my sandbox project :-)
Why Would I Need to Use a Wood Stain?
There are 3 main reasons why you would want to use a wood stain. First is to make a cheaper, less interesting wood look like a more expensive one such as walnut or mahogany. Second is that you want to match the color of something you already have. And the last one is to change the color of the wood to create a decor you have in mind.
What Can I Use for Pallet Projects??
You can use whatever you want :) It really depends on the final effects you desire. Just remember to put a finish coat on top of a stain. If you want to change the color of the wood completely and don’t mind covering its appearance you can use paint.
For indoors projects, regular wall paint is fine, for outside I’d choose oil or latex paint which is going to protect wood from UV radiation.
I’d say that is one more reason you’d like to use some kind of a protective layer on the wood. This and water. I mean it really depends on which part of the world you live you’d want to add protection against sun or rain or both.
To do that you can use just paint or some kind of water sealer e.i. yacht sealer. It’s super waterproof and great for protecting from UV radiation. It will also allow the wood within the sealant to evaporate in order to avoid splitting, rotting, and warping.
This will give you peace of mind that your creations are well protected from all elements.
If you have any other thoughts or experiences on wood staining especially regarding pallet projects you’re more than welcome to leave a comment below or drop me a line via email :)
Kasia is an owner of Wooden Pallet Projects Toolbox. She’s a DIY and upcycling enthusiast. If she’s not painting, sanding or drilling she’s writing about power tools or tips for DIY and pallet projects that make the creative process easier and more fun!