- Wood stain adds rich color to all sorts of wood, bringing out natural grain, altering its color to recreate a different type of wood, and refreshing the appearance of older materials that have faded with time and exposure to the elements
- Use care when deciding whether to use an oil-based wood stain or a water-based stain.
- Both have their pros and cons, and one will usually be more suitable for a given project.
- Varathane Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain is our choice for the best wood stain because dries in just one hour and usually requires just one coat.
Wood stain is the quickest and easiest way to dramatically change the appearance of a piece of furniture, a deck, flooring, or any other wooden surface that needs some restoration or a whole new look. When you choose the right wood stain, it’s easy and satisfying to work with, and you get results that last for years, if not indefinitely.
How do you choose the right wood stain, though? First, know that wood stain is a product that changes the color of a wood, like its name suggests. It’s not a varnish or lacquer meant to seal or protect wood without changing the color. A good stain will add protection against fading and can make wood more resistant to water and rot, but it won’t protect the surface from scratches or gouges, so consider a top coat material once the staining is done and dried.
Oil-based wood stain is slow to dry, but once it is fully set, it lasts longer than water-based stains. Oil wood stains sink deeper into the wood and create a rich color, and they add a moderate hydrophobic effect to the wood, too. For most exterior stain projects, oil-based stains are the way to go (the exception being wood that is naturally resistant to rot, like redwood or cedar).
Water-based wood stains are ideal for indoor projects, as they give off less VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and have less odor, and because they dry much faster than oil-based stains. Water-based stain is less durable than oil stains, but they also clean up easier, a plus if you spill any while working in your home.
Those are the basics on how to choose a wood stain. As for a few great stains to consider, here are brands I and thousands of other satisfied strainers have long trusted.
Final notes: Remember to sand well, wipe away all the dust you create, and spot test the wood stain on a scrap of wood or somewhere that won’t show, because staining wood is permanent!
Here are the best wood stains you can buy in 2019:
- Best wood stain overall: Varathane Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain
- Best solid wood stain: BEHR Premium Solid Color Waterproofing Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer
- Best gel wood stain: Minwax Gel Stain
- Best water-based wood stain: SamaN Interior Water Based Stain
- Best eco-friendly wood stain: PureColor Eco-Friendly EvenGrain Stain
Keep scrolling to check out our top picks.
The best overall
- The Home Depot
Varathane Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain is an oil-based wood stain but it gives off minimal odor and dries quickly, so it’s suitable for indoor use.
Most oil-based wood stains take hours to dry and give off a terrible odor in a confined space. Also, said odor is an indicator of compounds you really don’t want in your lungs. Thus, many oil stains have been relegated to exterior use or to projects like flooring when the home is going to be clear of people for some time anyway.
Varathane Fast Dry Interior Wood Stain goes on smoothly, spreading with ease and offering great coverage. One quart can cover up to 275 square feet of surface if you’re only doing a single coat, and for most applications, one proper coat of this stuff is enough. Being oil based, it penetrates deep into the wood, ensuring a rich, even color. Thanks to its semi-transparency, it creates that rich new color but still shows off the grain of the wood.
This is a perfect stain for projects ranging from furniture restoration to trim enhancement, but it’s even durable enough for use on flooring, and make a great choice for smaller flooring projects where you don’t want to have to vacate the home during then drying and off-gassing.
I’ve used Varathane stains on shelves and an end table and found it remarkably easy to work with, both using a rag and a paint brush. Based on the 1,680-plus reviews posted on Home Depot’s website and the 4.2-star overall rating shoppers have given it, I’d say many people agree with me.
Pros: Extra fast drying for oil-based stain, smooth and even coverage, low odor
Cons: Lighter woods will require multiple coats contrary to brand claim
The best solid stain
- The Home Depot
BEHR Premium Solid Color Waterproofing Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer solves two problems at once, bringing rich, lasting color to exterior wood and sealing it against water and weather for years to come.
Every homeowner has household tales of woe, and one of mine involves wood stain. We had just added a patio area after completing an extension to our lovely Glendale, CA home and my wife and I both loved the rich grain of the wood our contractor had chosen for the flooring. To our dismay, the next day we realized his painter had used a solid stain on the wood, all but completely concealing the grain and changing the color to a much darker brown.
As much as I missed the lovely grain I knew was just below my feet, I have to admit that for the remaining three years that we lived in that home, that outdoor wood flooring stayed in perfect condition, not a hint of fading, cracking, or discoloration anywhere despite hours of sun, occasional lashing rain, and loads of windblown debris.
Solid wood stain is so called because it creates a solid, opaque finish. Rather than complementing the color of and the grain of the wood you’re staining, it completely changes the color and hides the grain, but as it sinks into the surface, some of the texture of the wood will still be visible. So the wood on your deck, shingles, door, or trim will still look like, y’know, wood.
BEHR Premium Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain and Sealer is made using an acrylic solution, so once applied and dried, it seals in wood, protecting it from rain, snow, moisture in general, and preventing rot. This stain is a perfect choice for decks or porches made from a wood like pine that, left untreated, will eventually fall apart with exposure to the elements.
It’s a decent price, though hardly a steal, but a good, thick coat of the stuff should last at least four or five years in most conditions. If you use a sprayer, it’s super easy to apply, but even with brushes or rollers, it’s still a user-friendly stain.
With more than 375 reviews posted on HomeDepot.com, BEHR Premium Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain and Sealer has a solid 4.3-star averaged rating.
And a writer from ConsumerSearch called BEHR Premium Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain and Sealer excellent at “resisting mildew, cracking, color change, and more.”
Pros: Seals and protects wood, resists fading and cracking, multiple application options
Cons: Slight orange hue comes out on certain woods, hides wood grain
Buy a gallon of BEHR Premium Solid Color Waterproofing Wood Stain and Sealer from HomeDepot.com for $38.98
The best gel stain
Minwax Gel Stain resists drips and is easy to control, making it perfect for detailed applications, such as to antique furniture or for use on doors or trim you can’t remove prior to staining.
To count the number of times I’ve dripped one wood stain onto wood of another color entirely, I’d need a few extra fingers. Fortunately, most of the time I spotted the spill and quickly wiped the stuff up, leaving no lasting trace of my sloppiness. There are a few spots in a few residences around the country, however, where a white oak floor has a little patch of mahogany, or a walnut bookshelf has a suspicious spot of cherrywood. Oh well.
To avoid those drips that can ruin a perfectly good floor, shelf, or any other wooden whatnot that’s not on the slate to be stained, use Minwax Gel Stain. This thick non-drip stain adheres well to your rag, sponge, or brush, letting you complete careful, detailed staining projects with minimal risk of the stain getting where it shouldn’t.
This is the perfect stain for use on doors you don’t want to pop off the hinges and take outside or for built-in features like door trim, shelving, window benches, and so forth.
Now, you will have to pay for that ease of use and lack of mess. A quart of Minwax Gel Stain is almost triple the price of many other stains. But beyond its lack of mess, it’s also highly versatile. This stain can be applied to materials like metal or fiberglass, adhering much like paint and creating a faux wood finish. Yet when applied to real wood, it sinks in fast and lets the natural grain show.
With nearly 500 reviews posted on Amazon at the time of this writing, Minwax Gel Stain has a rich 4.4-star overall rating.
A writer from WoodMagazine said you called gel stains “goof-proof” and perfect for the novice, saying you could use “Minwax products for all of your staining work” to save yourself from messes and mistakes.
Pros: Non-drip minimal mess formula, can be used on fiberglass and metal, easy to use and clean
Cons: Not suitable for larger projects like flooring or walls, expensive
The best water-based stain
SamaN Interior Water Based Stain is easy to handle, spreading on smoothly without leaving overlapping marks.
Once you apply wood stain, there’s really no going back. So if you apply too much stain, creating uneven dark patches, your project is in a spot of trouble. Short of committing to the darkness, so to speak, or doing some serious sanding, there’s no repair to be made.
SamaN Interior Water Based Stain helps prevent that all-too-common wood staining problem by minimizing overlap marks. The stain blends evenly with itself, so when one pass of your rag, sponge, or brush overlaps with a previous application, the finish will still look even as long as you wipe away the excess stain in a timely manner.
SamaN stains are easy to clean up, washing away from most surfaces with soap and water, again provided you’re prompt in the cleaning. This water-based stain is safe for use indoors and around pets and kids, as it dries quickly and has only a moderate odor.
Also, it comes in an astounding variety of colors. Of the 40-plus options at your disposal, there are standards like Walnut and Mahogany as well as more out-there colors like Lime, Navy, or Raspberry.
With well over a hundred reviews posted on Amazon, SamaN Interior Water Based Stain has a solid 4.4-star overall rating.
Pros: Does not create uneven overlap marks, single coat needed in most cases, great color variety
Cons: Expensive and small quantities per bottle
The best eco-friendly stain
PureColor Eco-Friendly EvenGrain Stain is nontoxic and nonflammable, and it gives off almost no odor or VOCs whatsoever.
If you care about the health and safety of your family and pets and about protecting Mother Earth, then good for you, sir or madam, you get it. And you’ll probably want to get PureColor Eco-Friendly EvenGrain Stain, by the way, because this stuff is made using about as safe a formula as possible in the wood stain category. It’s nontoxic, it’s not flammable, and it’s almost odor-free.
This stain releases almost no VOCs, making it safe for use indoors even in close quarters shared by people of all ages and by pets. As for how the stain actually performs, it’s largely transparent, revealing and enhancing existing wood grain with minimal grain rise, and penetrating deep enough into the wood to create a rich new coloration.
For a stain this safe that’s actually of decent quality, of course, you’re going to pay a good deal. At about $25 a quart, this isn’t the right stain to use for refinishing a deck or staining the panels in your Victorian-style office. But for breathing new life into that dining room table top or basement bar, this is a fine stain around which you can actually breathe as it dries.
Several dozen people have reviewed PureColor Eco-Friendly EvenGrain Stain on Amazon and they have given the stuff a fine 4.3-star review overall at the time of this writing.
Pros: Almost odor free, recyclable packaging, nontoxic and nonflammable
Cons: Expensive for the category
What else we considered
- Getty Images
The five stains featured above are all exceptional products, I can personally vouch for most of them, and I made sure to cross-reference the experts on the rest. But they are hardly your only options, and depending on the staining project at hand, another brand may well be a better choice. So here are a few more to consider, and an explanation of why they are on the B-team.
- Ready Seal Mahogany Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer ($33 to $158): If you have a large exterior project, a five-gallon bucket of Ready Seal Mahogany Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer is a fine choice, as it not only adds color to the wood but also seals it against weather and UV damage. But you might need two applications for a rich finish.
- Krylon Semi-Transparent Spray Wood Stain ($7.31): I have used Krylon Semi-Transparent Spray Wood Stain in the past, and the ease of use you get with a spray paint style stain is pretty great. You will need to use a brush or rag to even out your coverage, but the spray function makes initial application easy. It also essentially mandates outdoor use, though, as it’s hard not to get the stain on other surfaces and as you need plenty of ventilation around this stuff.
- Katzco Furniture Repair Kit Wood Markers ($8.99): I also considered Katzco Furniture Repair Kit Wood Markers, which are amazing for fixing little scratches and gouges, and can even be used for a very small staining project (like dollhouse furniture small, I mean), but ultimately concluded they can’t quite be called true wood stain, handy as these touch-up pens are.