How to Stain - Easy as 1, 2, 3

We are at the FINISH line!

Learning how to stain wood can be very intimidating, for many it becomes the hardest part of woodworking.

There are so many things to know, so many products to choose from and so many different techniques for staining wood.

It's very easy to become overwhelmed, but.... doesn't have to be that way.

While we all want to be considered great craftsman or craftswomen - don't add unnecessary pressure to this process.

Just follow these simple steps and with some practice, a little bit of faith and confidence in yourself; you'll be just fine.

It won't be long before you show someone else how to stain!

How to Stain Starts with the the Wood You Use

Hardwoods such as walnut, oak, cherry, and mahogany stain well with almost any type of stain.

Soft woods like pine and cedar are more difficult to stain, and take patience and an understanding that the results may vary.

Poplar, which is a cheap hardwood, is more like a softwood when it comes to staining - more challenging.

To learn more about hardwoods and softwoods and their stain-ability, work-ability, and in general what the best woods are for making picture frames  - according to me -  go to the:

Best Woods for Picture Frames page!

Preparing Wood for Stain

Always test sample pieces beforehand to get the best results.

Just one last reminder – before we talk about how to stain - make sure you've spent enough time and attention on sanding.

Stain and finish do not cover up sanding flaws, they reveal them. 

OK, here we go with prep:

using a tack cloth, wipe down the entire frame. Make sure to get all of the dust left behind from sanding off the frame. You may have to do this a couple of times. It's worth the effort.

– It's a good idea to use blue painters tape to tape off the back edge of the frame before you finish the front. This will prevent stain from running under the frame and leaving dried blotches on the back.

– It helps a lot if you can prop the frame up while you're staining the face. There are a few different products out there to help you do that like painters blocks or the creative Bench Cookies designed by Rockler's.

We have created a spinning table with adjustable arms. With this homemade table we can handle just about any size frame with ease. If your interested in plans to make your own, let me know.

How to Stain

Now that we covered the prep work, its time to talk bout how to stain.

We recommend you start with the face of the frame first, until you get more comfortable. That will help you avoid the blotchy mess that can appear on the other side of the frame from run over (or should I say run under!).

Even if you use painters tape on the back, it's not hard for stain to find its way under, causing you problems when you're ready to stain the other side.

You can use any type of stain you like or prefer. Just keep in mind that:

1) oil-based stains take longer to dry, adding a couple of days or more to your process. Humidity also affects the dry time of oil-based products - slowing it down even further.

2) Water-based stains dry very quickly but have the potential, because of the water, to raise the grain on your frame causing a bumpy rough surface (which you then need to sand off).

Be sure to read the instructions on whatever type of stain you use to get the best results.

We really like working with gel stains by General Finishes; which by the way are oil-based.

They're easy to apply, offer nice colors and create deep rich coloring.

Click on the picture to go to Amazon to see the many choices and read more about them.

The steps below are based on using gel stains, but are very similar to using liquid stains. Always read and follow the application directions.

How to Apply Stain

- Using a foam brush, or a clean rag, apply the stain on the inside edges of the frame and work your way around the edges and top of each rail.

– When using gel stains the longer you leave the gel on the wood the darker the color will be. Wipe it off immediately for a lighter shade or let it set for at least 5 minutes before wiping off the excess for a darker shade.

- Using a clean rag, remove the excess gel stain starting at one corner of the frame and working your way around. You don't have to press down hard just a nice even pressure and motion until all of the excess is gone.

Pay close attention to the corners where the gel pools and tends to build up. Work your rag into the corners with your finger and get the excess out while it is still wet. Once the gel hardens it's difficult to get it out of the corners.

– After the proper amount of dry time, apply a second coat (or as many coats as you want) and repeat the process. More coats = darker color.

Once you are happy with face of the frame you can begin work on the back of your picture frame.

– Turn the frame over (be sure protect the face of the frame by laying a cloth or old T-shirt between the frame and whatever it rests upon).

Remove the painters tape and wipe it down with a tack cloth.

– Repeat the staining process you used on the face of the frame. Be sure to wipe off any excess from the edges that were already stained.

When you are happy with both sides of the frame and it has dried properly, you can begin applying the finishing coat or as it is called the top coat.

You now know how to stain - and you also know - you can do it!!

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Updated November 18, 2022