What’s the Difference Between Stain and Finish?

In the world of woodworking, understanding the difference between stain and finish is crucial for achieving the desired look and longevity of your projects. While both play essential roles in enhancing and protecting wood, they serve different purposes. In this post, we will break down the key distinctions between stain and finish, helping you master the art of woodworking with ease. Let’s dive into the debate of stain vs finish.

1. What is Stain?

Stain is a type of liquid product that is applied to wood to alter its color and highlight its natural grain. Unlike paint, which sits on the surface, stain penetrates the wood, soaking into the fibers to create a rich, deep color. Stains are available in various types, including oil-based, water-based, and gel stains, each offering different benefits and application methods.

Oil-based stains are known for their durability and rich color penetration, making them a popular choice for high-traffic areas. Water-based stains, on the other hand, are eco-friendlier, dry faster, and have easier cleanup. Gel stains are thicker and less likely to blotch, making them ideal for woods with uneven grain.

Understanding the chemistry behind stains can also help in making an informed decision. Stains typically consist of three components: pigment, solvent, and binder. The pigment provides the color, the solvent (like water or oil) allows the stain to be applied smoothly, and the binder helps the pigment adhere to the wood fibers. Depending on the formulation, stains can penetrate deeply into the wood or remain closer to the surface, offering different visual effects.

2. What is Finish?

Finish, also known as top coat, is a protective layer applied over the stain to seal and protect the wood from damage. Finishes can be clear or tinted, adding shine and enhancing the wood’s natural beauty. Common types of finishes include varnish, polyurethane, shellac, and lacquer, each offering different levels of protection and sheen.

Varnish provides a durable, water-resistant finish suitable for both indoor and outdoor projects. Polyurethane is another tough finish, available in oil-based and water-based formulas, offering excellent protection against wear and tear. Shellac, made from natural resins, provides a warm, amber tone and is easy to repair. Lacquer dries quickly and provides a high-gloss finish, making it ideal for furniture and cabinetry.

Delving deeper into finishes, it’s important to understand their chemical makeup and how they interact with the wood. Finishes generally contain a combination of resins, solvents, and additives. Resins like alkyd, acrylic, or polyurethane form the hard, protective layer on the wood surface. Solvents help in the application process, allowing the finish to spread evenly and penetrate the wood. Additives can include UV inhibitors, flattening agents, or driers that enhance the performance and application properties of the finish.

3. How They Work Together

Stain and finish work hand-in-hand to enhance and protect wood surfaces. The stain is applied first to achieve the desired color and bring out the wood’s natural grain. Once the stain has dried, the finish is applied to seal the wood, providing a protective barrier against moisture, UV rays, and physical wear.

The key to a successful wood project lies in the proper application of both stain and finish. Ensure the wood is clean and well-prepared before applying the stain, allowing it to penetrate evenly. After the stain has dried completely, apply the finish in thin, even coats, allowing each coat to dry thoroughly before applying the next. Lightly sanding between coats can help achieve a smooth, professional look.

Proper preparation is essential for achieving a high-quality finish. This involves sanding the wood to a smooth surface and removing any dust or debris. Sanding opens up the wood’s pores, allowing the stain to penetrate more evenly. Depending on the type of wood and the desired finish, you may need to use a wood conditioner or pre-stain sealer to prevent blotching and ensure consistent color absorption.

When applying the stain, use a brush, cloth, or sponge to work the stain into the wood, following the grain. Allow the stain to sit for a few minutes, then wipe off any excess with a clean cloth. This step is crucial to avoid a blotchy or uneven appearance. The drying time for stain can vary depending on the type and brand, so always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Once the stain is fully dry, you can begin applying the finish. The finish not only protects the wood but also enhances the stain’s color and depth. Apply the finish using a brush, roller, or spray, depending on the type of finish and the size of the project. Thin, even coats are key to preventing drips and achieving a smooth surface. Allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next, and lightly sand between coats with fine-grit sandpaper to remove any imperfections.

4. Choosing the Right Products

Selecting the right stain and finish for your project is crucial for achieving the best results. Consider the type of wood, the desired color, and the level of protection needed. Here are some factors to keep in mind when choosing stain and finish products:

  • Wood Type: Different woods absorb stain differently. For example, softwoods like pine and fir tend to absorb stain unevenly, while hardwoods like oak and maple provide a more consistent finish. Test the stain on a small, inconspicuous area of the wood to see how it will look before applying it to the entire surface.
  • Desired Color: Stains come in a wide range of colors, from light, natural tones to deep, rich hues. Choose a stain that complements the wood and matches your design vision. Keep in mind that the final color will also be influenced by the type of finish you apply.
  • Level of Protection: Consider the environment in which the wood will be used. For indoor projects, a water-based finish may be sufficient, while outdoor projects may require a more durable, water-resistant finish like varnish or polyurethane.
  • Application Method: Some stains and finishes are easier to apply than others. For beginners, water-based products are generally more forgiving and easier to clean up. Oil-based products, while more durable, can be more challenging to work with and require solvents for cleanup.
  • Drying Time: If you’re working on a tight schedule, consider the drying times of the products you choose. Water-based stains and finishes typically dry faster than oil-based ones, allowing you to complete your project more quickly.

At Bespoke Finish, we offer a curated selection of high-quality stains and finishes to suit any woodworking project. Whether you’re refinishing a piece of furniture, building a deck, or crafting a custom piece, we have the products you need to achieve professional results.

5. Common Mistakes to Avoid

When working with stain and finish, it’s essential to avoid common mistakes that can compromise the final outcome. Here are a few tips to help you achieve the best results:

  • Skipping Surface Preparation: Properly preparing the wood surface is crucial. Sand the wood thoroughly and remove any dust or debris before applying stain or finish. Failure to do so can result in uneven stain absorption and a rough finish.
  • Applying Stain Too Thickly: Apply stain in thin, even coats to avoid blotching and uneven color absorption. Wipe off any excess stain promptly to ensure a smooth finish. Thick coats can lead to a sticky surface and extended drying times.
  • Not Allowing Adequate Drying Time: Allow each coat of stain and finish to dry completely before applying the next. Rushing this process can result in a sticky or uneven surface. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended drying times to ensure optimal results.
  • Ignoring Manufacturer Instructions: Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for both stain and finish products. These guidelines provide essential information on application methods, drying times, and safety precautions. Ignoring these instructions can lead to subpar results and even damage to your project.
  • Overlooking Safety Precautions: Many stains and finishes contain chemicals that can be harmful if not handled properly. Ensure adequate ventilation when working with these products, and use protective gear such as gloves and masks. Dispose of any rags or materials soaked in stain or finish safely to prevent fire hazards.
  • Failing to Test the Stain: Always test the stain on a small, hidden area of the wood before applying it to the entire surface. This helps you see how the wood will absorb the stain and allows you to make any necessary adjustments to your technique or product choice.
  • Skipping the Sanding Between Coats: Sanding between coats of finish is crucial for a smooth, professional look. Use fine-grit sandpaper to lightly sand the surface between each coat, removing any imperfections and ensuring proper adhesion of subsequent layers.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can achieve a beautiful, durable finish that enhances the natural beauty of the wood and stands the test of time.

6. Advanced Tips and Techniques

For those looking to take their woodworking skills to the next level, here are some advanced tips and techniques for working with stain and finish:

  • Using a Wood Conditioner: Applying a wood conditioner before staining can help achieve a more even color, especially on softwoods like pine. The conditioner seals the wood’s pores, preventing blotchy or uneven stain absorption.
  • Blending Stains: To create a custom color, blend different stains. Test your mixture on a scrap piece of wood to ensure you achieve the desired shade. Blending stains can offer a unique, tailored look that isn’t available with pre-mixed options.
  • Layering Finishes for Depth: Experiment with layering different types of finishes to create depth and dimension. For example, you can apply a shellac base coat followed by a polyurethane topcoat for a combination of warmth and durability.
  • Using Tinted Finishes: Tinted finishes can add subtle color while still allowing the wood’s natural grain to show through. This technique is particularly useful for achieving a uniform look on woods with varying grain patterns.
  • Creating Distressed or Aged Finishes: For a rustic or vintage look, consider distressing the wood before applying stain and finish. Techniques such as sanding edges, using a wire brush, or adding dents and scratches can give the wood an aged appearance. Follow up with a dark stain and a protective finish to complete the look.
  • French Polishing: This traditional technique involves applying numerous thin coats of shellac using a pad lubricated with oil. The result is a high-gloss, glass-like finish that is both beautiful and durable. French polishing requires patience and practice but can yield stunning results.

These advanced techniques can add a unique touch to your woodworking projects, allowing you to create custom, high-quality finishes that stand out.


Understanding the difference between stain and finish is essential for any woodworking enthusiast. While stain adds color and highlights the wood’s natural grain, finish protects the wood and enhances its appearance. By choosing the right products and following proper application techniques, you can achieve beautiful, long-lasting results.

At Bespoke Finish, we are dedicated to providing high-quality stains and finishes to help you achieve your woodworking goals. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced woodworker, our curated selection of products and expert advice can guide you through every step of your project.

Ready to take your woodworking projects to the next level? Explore our range of stains and finishes at Bespoke Finish and discover the perfect products for your next masterpiece.