Wood Finish vs Wood Stain: A Comparison Guide

Wood Finish Vs Wood Stain

Whether you’re seeking an opulent hue to accentuate mahogany floors or a lustrous shine to add pizzazz to your furniture, deciding between a wood finish and a wood stain can be a daunting task. The nuances of wood finish vs. wood stain are often overlooked, yet they can significantly influence the appearance of your decor. This article will explore the differences between wood finish and wood stain, the different types and how to apply them, as well as the pros and cons of each product so that you are armed with the knowledge to make an informed decision when selecting the perfect wood product for your project!

Differences Between Wood Finish and Wood Stain

When it comes to preserving and beautifying the natural look of wood in your home, it can be hard to decide between using a wood finish or a wood stain. Both products help enhance the color and texture of wood, while also protecting it from everyday wear and tear. In this section, we’ll look at the differences between wood finish and wood stain and outline the varieties of each, how to apply them, and the pros and cons of using each. Whether you are looking for a warm auburn finish for your cabinets or a light sheen for your baseboards, read on to find out how you can use the perfect wood finish or wood stain for your project.

Types of Wood Finish

Wood finishes come in a variety of forms including oil, varnish, lacquer, shellac, polyurethane and wax. Each of these finishes provides a unique look, feel and protection to the wood.

Oil-based Finishes
Oil-based finishes are typically made from natural plant oils, such as linseed or tung oil, and provide a natural, low-luster finish to wood. They penetrate deep into the wood and are easy to re-apply, but they tend to darken over time and do not provide exceptional protection.

Varnish is a clear finish that is usually made up of natural and synthetic resins, oil, and solvents. Depending on the type, it can provide a glossy or matte finish, and it offers great protection for wood. Varnish is also waterproof, so it is a great choice for areas that may see a lot of moisture.

Lacquer is a very popular finish, as it provides a high-gloss, durable finish. It is made from a combination of nitrocellulose and synthetic resins, and it is typically available in either a brush-on or spray form.

Shellac is a natural resin that is made by the lac bug and is popular for its ability to bring out the color and beauty of wood. It is easily applied, but it may be necessary to apply multiple coats to get an even finish. It provides a glossy, impermeable finish that can be re-coated or waxed.

Polyurethane is one of the most popular finishes on the market, as it provides superior protection for wood and has excellent resistance to stains and water damage. The finish is available in both oil- and water-based formulas, and it can be applied with either brush or spray.

Wax is usually used to protect and shine wood. It can be applied over oil, shellac, or even polyurethane finishes and is available in both paste and liquid forms. It provides a beautiful and natural finish, but must be re-applied regularly.

To sum up, when deciding which wood finish to use, it is important to consider the look you are going for and the level of protection you need. Here is a quick rundown of wood finishes:

    • Oil-based Finishes: Natural plant oils, penetrate deep into the wood and are easy to re-apply, but they tend to darken over time and do not provide exceptional protection.
    • Varnish: Clear finish, provide a glossy or matte finish, offers great protection and is waterproof.
    • Lacquer: High-gloss, durable finish, available in a brush-on or spray form.
    • Shellac: Natural resin that brings out the color and beauty of wood, provides a glossy, impermeable finish.

How to Apply Wood Finish

Wood finishes come in many different forms, but generally they are applied in the same manner. Here are the basic steps for applying a wood finish:

      • Start with a clean surface: You will want to make sure that the wood is free from dust, dirt, and grease. Use a lifting solvent to make sure all dirt is removed.
      • Seal any exposed wood: If there are any open pores in the wood, you will want to seal them with a sanding sealer to prevent them from soaking up too much of the wood finish.
      • Apply a coat of wood finish: Apply a thin coat of wood finish to the wood with a brush or cloth. Make sure to use long even strokes and keep the brush/cloth moving.
      • Allow the first coat to dry: Let the first coat of finish dry completely before applying the next coat. Depending on the humidity and temperature, this may take up to 24 hours.
      • Sand between coats: After the first coat has dried, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper. This will help the finish adhere better.
      • Repeat: Apply additional coats of finish as desired. Allow each coat to dry before applying the next one. The more coats you apply, the richer and deeper the finish will look.
      • Apply a final coat of wax: To protect the finish, apply a thin coat of paste wax with a clean cloth. Let the wax dry before buffing it with a soft cloth.

It’s important to remember that wood finishes are designed to be an “all in one” finish, so it’s not necessary to use any other products in conjunction with the finish. For a smoother, richer look, multiple coats and light sanding between coats is recommended. If you follow these steps, you can achieve a beautiful, professional-looking finish.

Types of Wood Stain

When considering wood finish and wood stain, it is important to understand the difference between the two and what type of stain is best suited for a particular project.

Wood stain is a colored finish applied to wood that dramatically darkens or alters the natural color. Stains can be made from a variety of materials, including oil, water, and alcohol-based formulas. When applied to wood, it creates a unique color and pattern that helps to enhance or protect the wood.

The following are the most commonly used types of wood stains:

      • Oil-based stains – These types of stains are oil-based, meaning that they are composed of drying oils such as linseed, tung, and safflower oil. Oil-based stains provide the most uniform color and, when applied correctly, are durable and water-resistant. They are ideal for use on furniture, cabinets, and doors.
      • Water-based stains – Water-based stains are usually more expensive than oil-based stains and require more time to dry. They provide a more transparent finish and often penetrate deeper into the wood. They’re typically used on wood that is more porous or has difficult-to-reach areas.
      • Foam-based stains – These types of stains are a combination of oil and water-based stains. They are applied by brushing, sponging, or spraying and are generally less expensive. They tend to provide a unique, natural finish that is often difficult to achieve with other types of stains.
      • Gel stains – Gel stains are thicker than other types of stains and provide uniform coverage and longer-lasting protection. They work well with wood surfaces that are difficult to stain and are great for highlighting wood grain with vibrant colors.
      • Wipe-on stains – Wipe-on stains are designed to be easily applied with a lint-free cloth, making them ideal for larger surfaces such as furniture and cabinetry. These stains require fewer coats of stain and provide uniform coverage.

The type of wood stain chosen for a project depends on the overall look and desired outcome. For example, an oil-based stain is preferable for areas with high exposure to water or high traffic, while a wipe-on stain is best for larger surfaces and those that require a uniform coverage. It is important to test the stain on a small area before beginning the entire project to ensure that the final result is as desired.

How to Apply Wood Stain

Applying wood stain is easy but requires great attention to detail. Here is a step-by-step guide to making sure your wood piece is evenly stained and beautiful.

      • Make sure the piece of wood is completely clean and free of dust, dirt and debris. You may need to sand the wood if it is not smooth.
      • If the piece requires a primer, apply the primer thinly and evenly. Let it dry completely.
      • Select the right type of wood stain for your project. For instance, oil-based stains tend to penetrate deeper into the wood.
      • Prepare the wood stain according to the manufacturer’s instructions, if necessary.
      • Pour the wood stain onto a cloth or paintbrush. Begin applying the wood stain on the wood piece in the direction of the grain.
      • Apply the wood stain smoothly and evenly. Don’t forget to stain the edges, corners and edges as well.
      • Allow the wood stain to set for a few minutes before adding a second coat.
      • If you are adding a topcoat, do so after the wood stain has dried completely.
      • Clean up any mess with a clean cloth or rag immediately after you are done.

When you are done, your wood piece should be evenly and properly stained. Keep in mind that you may need to apply multiple coats of wood stain to get the desired effect.

With proper application, wood stain can make a big difference in the overall look of your project.

Pros and Cons of Wood Finish vs. Wood Stain

Wood finish and wood stain each offer a different finish, level of protection, and duration of effect. When it comes to selecting the right option for your project, it’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Advantages of Wood Finish

      • Provides a protective layer that guards against scratches and dents
      • Helps to protect the wood from moisture and wear and tear
      • Offers a smoother, more even finish
      • The finish is longer-lasting and easier to repair than wood stain

Disadvantages of Wood Finish

      • It’s more expensive than wood stain
      • It has a tendency to yellow over time
      • The finish may crack, chip, or flake with wear and tear
      • It may need to be reapplied more often than wood stain

Advantages of Wood Stain

      • Affordable compared to wood finish
      • Offers a wide variety of color and shade options for a customized look
      • Allows for a more rustic, natural-looking finish
      • Longer-lasting than wood finishes, which is ideal for outdoor projects

Disadvantages of Wood Stain

      • The finish doesn’t last as long as wood finish
      • It’s harder to repair than wood finish
      • Can be difficult to apply evenly
      • It may not protect the wood as much as a wood finish

When it comes to deciding which type of finish is right for your project, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each option carefully. While wood finish offers a protective layer and a smoother finish, it may require more frequent reapplication. On the other hand, wood stain is less expensive and allows for more customization, but it’s not as durable or protective as wood finish. Consider your project needs, budget, and desired look before making a decision.


Devin B

Hi everyone! My name is Devin and I'm the author of this website about tips for woodturning and wood finishing. I'm an avid woodworker and have been doing it for over a decade. I'm constantly learning new techniques and experimenting with new materials and finishes.

I started my journey in woodworking when I was a teenager, making furniture for my bedroom and small projects for my family. As I got older, my interest in woodturning and wood finishing grew. I took classes on the subject and read books on the topic.

I'm passionate about woodturning and wood finishing because it allows me to express my creativity in a tangible way. I love the satisfaction of seeing a piece of wood that I have transformed from a block of raw material into a beautiful finished product.

I hope you find the tips and advice on this website helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me. I'm always happy to help out and share my experiences. Thanks for visiting my website!