Water-based stain is a safe alternative to oil-based products.

How to Apply Water-Based Stain

by RS Wagner

Whether updating old, tired furniture or adding frugal elegance to new, unfinished furniture, water-based stain adds color and beauty to your home decor. Water-based stains offer easy clean-up with soap and water, and a faster drying time than oil-based counterparts. Water-based stain leaves a clear finish and does not yellow like oil-based products. Because the wood grain rises when using water-based stains, special techniques and treatments must be used to get a professional look. Apply water-based stain with a synthetic or foam brush.


Eliminate dirt, oil and other slight imperfections in the wood by sanding. Rub the surface with a 120- to 180-grit medium-grained sandpaper, in the direction of the grain.

Sand end-grains, or wood cut against the grain, with 240- or 320-grit sandpaper. End-grains are more porous and absorb more stain than other areas; a higher-grit sandpaper will sheer the fibers, causing less stain to soak into the grain.

Finish all sections other than the end-grains with a piece of 220-grit sandpaper. Vacuum up the wood dust particles.

Minimize a raised grain by lightly spraying the wood with water or wiping with a damp, oil-free cloth. Allow the wood to dry thoroughly, then sand again lightly with 220-grit sandpaper. Remove the sanding dust with a vacuum or oil-free cloth.


Thoroughly mix the stain with a paint stick for a few minutes to distribute settled pigments. Dip a foam or synthetic brush into the stain. Wipe off the excess on the inner side of the can.

Test an inconspicuous area with a small amount of stain, then wipe the area with a soft, oil-free cloth. Check for proper color saturation.

Apply a second coat in the test area if the stain isn't dark enough. Allow the stain to dry to see the end color.


Separate the project into sections: sides, drawers, doors and top. Stain each section individually for easier application.

Dip the brush into the can halfway when loading the brush. Keep the brush wet with stain when applying to a wooden surface.

Work each section as quickly as possible so that the stain will not dry leaving streaks or unwelcome darker areas. Keep the wet stain on the wood for less than two minutes at most.

Move the brush in long strokes with the grain. Fill in all areas with as little overlap as possible. Fix any major drips or obvious overlapping immediately with the brush. Don't let the brush dry out.

Rub the section with a soft, oil-free cloth to even out the stain, again moving with the grain. Recoat if necessary after 30 minutes. Allow the stain to dry for two to four hours

Items you will need

  • Sandpaper, 120- to180-grit
  • Sandpaper, 240- to 320-grit
  • Sandpaper, 220-grit
  • Vacuum
  • Oil-free cloth
  • Water-based stain
  • Paint stir stick
  • 3- to 4-inch foam or synthetic paintbrush


  • Apply water-based stains only when the temperature is warmer than 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Pretreat pine, aspen and other softwoods with a diluted clear coat wash to obtain a uniform penetration of the stain. Allow the stain to dry before continuing.
  • Hardwoods such as maple and cherry are considered "closed-pored," meaning stain absorbs at a slower rate than on softwoods.


  • Do not sand between stain layers. This is also known as "buffing."
  • Wear a protective mask, safety glasses and gloves when sanding.

About the Author

RS Wagner began writing professionally in 1997 as a frequent contributor to the "Sun Herald's" column, "What's Cookin'." She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from William Carey University.

Photo Credits

  • Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images