Paint vs. Stain for Handmade Furniture – How To Decide

Man's hand applying white paint, and woman's hand applying wood stain.

So, you meticulously planned your handmade furniture, gathered all your supplies, and painstakingly assembled each piece until your project was complete.

Now, for the hard part: deciding whether you want to paint or stain your DIY furniture.

Is paint or stain better for handmade furniture? Generally, stain is better for handmade furniture as it allows the wood’s beauty to remain visible while still adding color. Stain is more affordable and will not chip or peel over time as paint will, though the color options are limited compared to those of paint.

Both paint and stain will add color and serve as the finishing touch to your project.

Though the decision can be tough, learning about the benefits and drawbacks of each will help make the choice an easy one.

Deciding Between Paint and Stain for Handmade Furniture

There is really no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing between paint and stain. The choice is purely personal.

You should, however, be familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of each before finalizing your decision.

Considerations

Generally, it may be best to use paint if:

  • The item consists of more than one type of wood.
  • There are any dents, chips, or mistakes that require wood filler.
  • The item is made of a wood, such as pine, that is prone to blotching when stained.
  • There are lots of intricate details or nooks and crannies that would be difficult to wipe stain into sufficiently.

Stain may be a better choice if:

  • You prefer to highlight the natural grain of the wood.
  • You’d like to avoid visible brush strokes.
  • The item has a light, airy feel to it.
  • The wood is too gorgeous to cover up with paint.

Paint and Stain Similarities

Both paint and stain add color to your furniture and serve as a layer of protection.

Painting and staining wood both require some prep work beforehand. Unfortunately, sanding is mandatory in both cases. 

If you’re like me, you may be groaning out loud at the mere thought of sanding, but to get a smooth finish, this step is non-negotiable.

Sanding isn’t the only prep work involved. Paint will benefit from an underlying coat of primer, and stain will come out more evenly when a conditioner is applied first.

Neither paint nor stain is necessarily permanent. Both paint and stain can be stripped, but this is somewhat labor intensive.

Advantages of Painting Handmade Furniture

Color

Perhaps the best advantage of choosing paint is the broad range of color choices.

You can pick up some paint sample cards at any paint or home improvement store to help you settle on a color. (This part might be even harder than deciding between paint and stain!)

Sheen

With paint, you not only have color options but choices as far as sheen goes too. Most paints come in flat, matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, and high gloss.

Flat and matte paints are great for hiding minor imperfections but have no shine. 

Eggshell and satin have a bit more luster and better stain resistance than the flats and mattes but not nearly as much shine as the semi-gloss and high gloss paints. 

If a shiny, radiant, durable finish is what you’re after, choose a semi-gloss or gloss sheen.

No Finish Needed

While you may need more than one coat of paint to ensure a smooth, uniform appearance, once you finish painting, you’re done. 

You do not have to add multiple coats of varnish or lacquer like you will when using stain. This is true even if your wood was untreated.

(Need help choosing between treated and untreated wood? Find advice here.

Hides Slight Imperfections

Don’t get too excited here. Paint isn’t designed to cover up major mistakes, but it can diminish the appearance of small dings and nicks. 

Even better, if you repaired a damaged area with wood filler, you can sand it smooth, paint over it, and know one will ever know. 

The same can’t be said of stains, which would not hide the presence of wood filler.

Easier to Change or Strip

Whereas stains soak down into the wood’s pores, paint sits on the surface, so stripping paint is usually a bit easier if you ever decide to go that route. 

Of course, you could always just paint over the existing paint. Just be sure to use a primer first, especially if your new paint is lighter in color than the old paint.

Drawbacks

The major disadvantage of painting your handmade furniture is that nearly all of the beautiful grain will be hidden from view. 

Granted, some woods don’t have as much natural grain as others, but it would be a shame to cover up a particularly lovely grain that adds character to the piece.

Paint also tends to make an item appear heavy and somewhat lifeless.

It can be chipped off easily, especially if the furniture is frequently used, and peeling can be a problem, particularly in areas with high humidity.

Advantages of Staining Handmade Furniture

Highlights the Wood’s Natural Beauty

Using stain allows you to add color without concealing the grain of the wood. All of the natural beauty will still be visible.

Penetrates the Wood

Stain settles down into the pores of the wood, which provides a certain degree of protection against moisture. 

Of course, you’ll still want to add a protective layer of sealant such as fast-drying polyurethane, but because the stain deeply penetrates the wood, the color will be long lasting.

No Brush Strokes

Inexperienced painters are often disappointed by the brush strokes left behind on their furniture.

With stain, however, you can use a rag to apply and another rag to wipe off the excess for a smooth final appearance. 

Just One Coat

Only one coat of stain is all that’s required to achieve rich colors. 

You can go back and apply another coat to get a darker shade, but an easier way to achieve the same result is to simply allow the stain to sit on the wood for a longer time before you wipe off the excess.

Less Expensive

Paints, especially those of well-known brands, can be fairly expensive. Stains, on the other hand, are usually much more budget friendly at about a third of the price of premium paints.

Drawbacks

Stain color options are somewhat limited due to the fact that stains, for the most part, are designed to mimic a naturally occurring wood color, like walnut or cherry.

When applied to wood, a stain may not appear exactly the same as the picture on the can. This is because the stain allows the natural wood to show.

For example, a light, honey-colored stain may come out just as you hoped when applied to a very light colored wood, but on a naturally darker wood, the light stain may not make a noticeable difference at all.

Be aware that all woods do not accept stain the same way.

Some woods, like pine, tend to have areas with differing densities, which can cause dark blotches on even the most carefully done job.

Can’t Decide? Use Both Paint and Stain

If you are truly torn in the decision, there is always the option of applying paint and stain to the same piece of furniture. This can produce stunning results.

For instance, if you’ve made a kitchen table, you could stain the legs to match other stained wood in the room, such as cabinets or woodwork.

The top of the table could then be painted in a bright, contrasting color to really make the table “pop.”

Of course, painting the legs and staining the top would work as well. It really depends on the look you’re going for. 

Be aware that painted legs will likely suffer more noticeable damage when banged by the vacuum or your kids’ toy cars racing across the floor.

Related Question:

Can You Paint Over Stain?

You can paint over stain after properly prepping the wood. First, lightly sand off as much of the finish as possible. Next, apply a deglosser to remove any remaining finish. 

Once it has dried, apply a paint primer to prevent stain color from showing through. Wait for it to dry, and you’re all set to paint with your desired color.