Wood staining: How merchants can recommend the best options for timber-based design schemes

Published Thursday 04th September 2014

There's no substitute for the richness of stained wood, but as both amateur and professional woodworkers know - the process can be particularly intricate due to the varied properties of different types of timber. 

In this guide, we'll help you navigate the pitfalls of wood staining and offer some of our top tips on helping your customers select the best colours and lumber to fit their design schemes. 

Understanding Substrates 

The substrate of wood simply refers to the layers of its surface. Your customer’s timber will have a range of different properties and when it comes to staining, these will affect the way it absorbs the stain, how it will look when complete and the type of treatment that will be necessary prior to staining and afterwards.

When it comes to choosing the right colour, things can get tricky and how the overall finish turns out will be influenced by a wide range of factors. However, when confronted by a customer looking for advice on colour choice, a good starting point is to investigate the type of timber that'll be used.


Softwoods: There're several types of softwood that can often absorb stains too quickly or unevenly, most notably pine, fur and poplar. In cases like this, you'll want to apply a light coat of wood sealer and allow this to dry before proceeding.

To ensure the colour choice is correct, be sure to test your stain out on a hidden area before going ahead with the entire piece.

Dark woods: When it comes to dark woods like teak, sapele or types like oak, whose grain figure tends to stand out, you should opt for lighter stains. These tend to emphasise the natural colour of the wood, rather than radically transforming it.

Lighter woods: Expect the likes of birch to experience a significant colour change when stained. While this can work wonders in accentuating the vibrancy of an interior design project, beginners can often be over-adventurous when it comes to their colour choices.

One key tip is to consider matching the surface of your timber with the natural shades of darker woods or use more vigorous colours in the course of the project.

To stain or not to stain: Whether or not you choose to stain is a personal choice, but some woods typically look better when left with their natural colouring. When it comes to the likes of cherry, maple, mahogany, rosewood and even aged pine - we'd recommend serious consideration before going ahead. As a rule of thumb, if you're unsure whether staining would improve the look of your timber - simply steer clear.

Finishing Touches: In some cases, applying finish to the wood will darken its colour - bringing out the natural highlight of the grain. As such, it's well worth applying finish to an inconspicuous zone to check if you like the way it looks without staining.

Choosing a Stain

There's a wealth of stains on offer and some are even combined with sealers to hasten the staining process, however, some are better than others and it's well worth expending some effort in the planning stages to prevent disasters down the line.

The first step is to consider the finish that'll be used. While most finishes and stains will play nice together, if you're using polyurethane varnish - you may encounter problems with certain stains.

When it comes to staining, your choices are many and varied, but some of the most popular options include:

Pigmented Oil Stains: These are typically non-penetrating (which means they won't work their way deep down into the substrate's inner layers) and are made up of a mix of pigments and solvents. While they offer great value on the cost front, they can often mask the grain pattern of woods that aren't especially open or prominent.

Penetrating Oil Stains: Probably the most popular option among beginners, these mix solvents with dyes and are very easy to apply. However, in many cases it can be difficult to ensure even penetration of the substrate and are best reserved for softwoods like pine, or cases where you only want to slightly darken a close-grained hardwood.

Varnish Stains: These mix dyes with varnish and are great for the non-visible parts of your project. They're cheap and once applied, you won't need to finish your wood any further.

Organic Stains: We'd advise only the most experienced woodworks to use these stains. They're crafted from organic bases, such as tobacco, roots, berries and even tea - and can be used to treat pine and other types of timber.

And You?

We've only scratched the top of the staining iceberg in this guide, but if you've got any top tips or combinations that've worked well in the past - we'd love to hear about them. So be sure to give us a shout on Twitter and let us know what you think.

And if you're looking for advice on helping your customers with any aspect of their interiors projects, be sure to get in touch with International Timber today.

Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons