Best Stains for Handmade Furniture: Advantages of Each Type

Woman using a brush to apply stain to a piece of wood.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just grab the first stain you happen to run across, quickly slap it onto your newly built furniture and be happy with the results? Unfortunately, this isn’t the way it works.

After all the work you put into making a furniture item for your home, the last thing you want to do is use the wrong stain and ruin the appearance of your masterpiece.

What are the best stains for handmade furniture? Oil-based or water-based stains are recommended for most projects. A wood conditioner should be applied prior to staining to minimize blotching. For vertical surfaces, use a gel stain to avoid drips. Varnish stains contain finish, thus negating the need for a sealant.

Stain should highlight the grain of the wood while changing the overall color and appearance.

It can transform an ordinary item into an exceptional one that blends nicely with the rest of your home’s furnishings. 

Selecting a stain doesn’t need to be a guessing game.

Learning about the several options available will help you make an informed choice that will enhance your furniture, not ruin it. 

Types of Stains

In our modern world filled with seemingly endless options, you shouldn’t be surprised that a quick stroll through the stain aisle of your favorite home improvement store presents you with a vast array of choices. 

You’ll see water-based and oil-based stains, various brands and sizes, liquids, gels, sprays, wipes, and even pre-tinted finishes. 

Each option has both advantages and disadvantages and will perform well when paired with the right project.

The question is, which one is right for you? 

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the most commonly used stains to determine the best choice for staining your newly completed furniture.

For quick reference, consult the following chart.

Type of Stain

Features

Apply With

Clean Up With

Water Based Huge range of colors, dries quickly, soft tones, low fumes, great for smaller projects Foam or synthetic brush, rag, or a staining pad – wipe off excess Soap and water
Oil Based Dries slowly, penetrates deeply, rich colors, good for larger projects Cloth, foam or bristle brush, or staining pad – wipe off excess Mineral spirits, turpentine, or paint thinner
Natural No harmful fumes, customizable, can be unpredictable Foam or bristle brush, cloth, or staining pad – wipe off excess Soap and water
Gel  Thicker, fewer drips, less wood prep needed, good for vertical surfaces Cloth Mineral spirits or paint thinner
Varnish or Lacquer Stain Combination of stain and finish, dries hard Natural bristle or foam brush Mineral spirits or paint thinner

Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based stains are the most commonly used for good reason. They are easy to apply and don’t dry too quickly. 

This gives you more time to carefully wipe off excess and any brush strokes.

If you’re looking to achieve a darker color, you can leave the stain on longer before wiping away without having to worry about the surface drying prematurely.

Use a wood conditioner like Miniwax Pre-Stain Conditioner before applying an oil-based stain to ensure a uniform absorption of the stain and to prevent unsightly blotches and streaks. 

Pros:

  • Dries slowly, giving you more time to wipe off excess.
  • Durable.
  • Deeply penetrates the wood for richer colors.
  • Won’t raise the grain.

Cons:

  • Requires proper ventilation.
  • Takes longer to dry completely.
  • Doesn’t come in as many colors as water-based stains do.

Recommended: General Finishes

Though not as well known as big name brands, this stain does an outstanding job and provides even coverage.

For ease of use, durability, and penetrating capacity, this stain is hard to beat.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains are often a popular choice for small projects designed for indoor use. These stains dry quickly, and any spills clean up with just soap and water. 

Water-based stains will result in softer colors because the stain does not penetrate the wood deeply. To achieve darker colors, you’ll need to add more than one coat.

These stains are easier on the environment and your respiratory tract as the binder used is only water, hence the name.

However, the water content can pose a problem. It often raises the grain of the wood.

You can avoid this issue by either causing the grain to rise beforehand with a damp cloth and then sanding it smooth or you can apply a water-based wood conditioner before staining.

After staining, apply a water-based finish to seal and protect the wood.

Pros: 

  • Dries quickly.
  • Soap and water clean up.
  • Wide variety of colors and tones.
  • Softer colors than oil-based stains.
  • Low fumes and odors.

Cons:

  • You need to work quickly due to the fast drying time.
  • Tends to raise the grain of the wood.
  • May be difficult to use on large projects.

Recommended: Saman’s Wood Stain

Available in 42 colors, this stain is said to produce such excellent coverage that there’s no need to condition the wood prior to use. 

If you have any concerns about young children or pets potentially putting their mouths on your furniture, this stain is the wisest choice for safety.

Natural Stains

Perhaps you’ve heard of natural stains made from coffee, tea, tree bark, or berries. These homemade stains will indeed stain wood, though only minimally and often temporarily. 

Other natural stains can be made by mixing vinegar with items such as steel wool or rusty nails. 

These vinegar-based stains react with the tannins in the wood to produce a longer lasting stain than other homemade versions.

Pros:

  • No harsh chemicals.
  • You control the shade.

Cons:

  • May fade quickly in sunlight.
  • Color can be unpredictable.

Gel Stains

Gel stains have a thicker consistency than other stains which means there’s less chance of dripping.

This quality makes it ideal for furniture with a lot of vertical surfaces, like cabinets, but it can be a little messy to work with.

These stains don’t penetrate the wood deeply; rather they settle on the surface.

This not only eliminates the need for wood conditioner but also makes them ideal for woods with uneven densities that are prone to blotching, like pine.

Pros:

  • No dripping.
  • No conditioner needed.
  • Great for difficult-to-stain wood.
  • Ideal for vertical surfaces.
  • Can also be used on metal, veneer, and fiberglass.

Cons:

  • Can be messy.
  • Won’t accentuate the grain as liquid stains will.

Recommended: Minwax Gel Stain

Often described as more like a paint than a stain, this gel stain is fairly easy to apply with a cloth once you adjust to the thickness of the product. 

It provides excellent, uniform coverage, even on difficult-to-stain wood. If your handmade furniture has large, vertical surfaces, this stain is the one to choose.

Varnish or Lacquer Stains

Varnish or lacquer stains are a combination of stain and finish in one product, so you don’t have to add any additional finishing coats.

Although these stains are definitely step savers, they tend to dry really fast, so you must work quickly to wipe off excess before it becomes a permanent part of your project.

Pros:

  • Contains both stain and finish.
  • Dries very quickly.

Cons:

  • Any brush marks will stand out.
  • Can be hard to work with on large areas because of the rapid drying time.

Recommended: Minwax PolyShades

PolyShades come in 21 different colors that won’t cover up the beauty of the wood’s grain.

As a bonus, they can be used on top of existing polyurethane finishes, just in case you aren’t satisfied with your first attempt at staining your project.

Tips for Staining

  • Wear old clothing and gloves – yes, stains will stain your hands!
  • Always sand, stain, and finish in the direction of the grain.
  • Test the stain on a scrap wood piece first.
  • Always stir or shake the stain before using.
  • Stain pads do a terrific job and can be cut to fit any job. Use one side to apply the stain and the other side to wipe it off.
  • Unless you’re using a varnish or lacquer stain, protect your furniture with a top coat of finish, such as my favorite, Minwax Wipe-On Poly.
  • Remember that the longer the stain is left on the wood before wiping, the darker the results will be.