If you’ve decided you want the natural grain to show through, you have some options.

1.  Leave the wood natural and simply apply a topcoat of varnish (lacquer / polyeurthane / shellac) – discussed in our .


2.  Stain the wood a different color.

This brings up the question of what kind of stain to use.
The most confusing question is, “Should I use an oil based, or a water based stain?”

Let’s look at the pro’s and con’s of both.

Drying Time

Oil Based - SLOW
Water Based - FAST

If you are extremely impatient, and in a super hurry, you may want to opt for the water based.  Don’t even attempt to top coat an oil based stain until the next day.  I’ve tried to rush it before, and the results are really disappointing.  Oil takes time to soak in and dry.

There is a 2 in 1 product that combines an oil stain and polyurethane.  (called PolyShades by minwax.)  It is still an oil, and therefore slower drying, but faster than waiting for the oil to dry before adding the topcoat.  I don’t personally use it as I like to be in control of my topcoat surface, but it is an option…


Even Coat
Oil Based – Slower drying, thus MORE EVEN finish.
Water Based – Faster drying, so LESS EVEN finish.

This is often the clincher for me.  There is nothing worse than staining a large kitchen table, and at the end you see a spot you missed.  You stain that small spot you missed,  only to find that you have now double coated over a section that was near the section you missed!  And now, your staining job is blotchy and uneven, and it’s visible.  This can be so frustrating.  Although, If you are super meticulous in your work, you may not have this problem like me.  :)

I love when my work has a nice even stain – no matter how many times I have run the oil rag over my project.  Therefore, I almost always opt for an oil-based stain.


Oil Based – More Durable, lasts longer
Water Based – Less Durable.  May need refinishing sooner.

I rarely leave my projects with JUST a stain on them, and no topcoat.  But, if I were staining an outside project like redwood – I know the oil based is going to last a lot longer in the elements.


To apply the stain, you can go with staining pads, a soft cloth, or a brush.  In that I almost always opt for an oil based stain, and I like it to really soak into the wood, I usually prefer a simple, soft cloth.  Dip the rag in your stain, then rub the cloth in small circles over the wood to make sure it is really being absorbed.  Once I’ve rubbed it in circles, I will very lightly go the direction of the grain with my rag.  Yes, my hands get really dirty.  Wear gloves if you have them!


Clean-up clean_up
Oil Based - HARDER to cleanup.
Water Based – EASY to cleanup.

Cleaning up oil based stain requires ‘mineral spirits’ or ‘paint thinner’.  If you’ve used a nice brush to apply the stain, plan to rinse the brush 3-5 times in mineral spirits to remove all the oily stain.

Cleaning up water based stain is simple.  Soap and warm water.

Other Factors

Both smell (although, neither is too extreme).
Both will end up all over your hands and in your nails if you don’t wear gloves.
Both can be applied with a staining pad or a soft rag or brush.


I prefer an oil based stain.  That’s saying something because, I am not a patient person.  It’s hard for me to leave the project overnight before a topcoat.  I’ve learned I prefer the finish on my oil based stains, and therefore it’s worth it to me.

It’s richer and warmer in color.
Also, The oil based stains seem to have a better color selection.
But, that’s just my personal opinion.  :)

Brands of Stain
If you are shopping solely at a big box store – you will find a large selection of minwax products.  These are a good quality stain.  I use them for a lot of my projects.

Although, if I were staining cabinets or a fine piece of custom furniture, I would opt for the “Old Masters” brand.  It will cost you a little more, and you won’t find it at Home Depot or Lowe’s.  You find it in woodworking stores like Woodcraft or online.  It really seeps into the wood.  It doesn’t just coat over the wood.  It does a really nice job of letting the natural grain shine through without ‘raising the grain.’  The other reason I really like it is it doesn’t get the “Sludge” build-up in the bottom of the can.  I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve reached near the bottom of my can of minwax stain to discover I now have a much darker stain going on…due to all the thick content that obviously settled and didn’t get stirred up before using.

Wood Conditioner
I’ve seen a lot of hype lately about using a wood conditioner first before staining.  I’ve tried it.  I don’t find it necessary or even beneficial.  In fact, I found that it prevented the oil from seeping in as much.  Which, is probably the point of the wood conditioner.  But, it affected the overall look.  I say skip the wood conditioner…

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