Staining Wood Made Simple: 10 Easy DIY How to Steps

progression of unfinished wood door to stained wood

Staining Wood Steps to Transform a Front Door: How to Get a Farmhouse Look for less

Staining a wood door is so incredibly easy.

That is if you’re following the right advice. Because if you’re not then odds are good, you’ll end up with a blotchy mess.

Imagine how much less stressful wood stain would be if you knew the best products and the exact steps to follow.

No experience?

No confidence?

No problem!

You don’t need to be a pro. Heck; this could even be your first-time staining wood! Follow this guide for an extremely easy way for beginners who have all the motivation and none of the skills.

Let’s dive in!

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Just a friendly reminder: This tutorial and any opinions or recommendations are genuinely mine, but this is not a substitute for consulting a professional. I also use affiliate links to earn a commission.

DIY Staining a Wood Door How to Steps

how to steps for staining wood

Step 1: Prep 

Prepping any project may not be glamorous, or transformative in any way, but just remember it’s the foundation to how well your project turns out! 

Stripping paint: To begin you’ll need a door that is stripped down to bare wood.

Start by downloading this step-by-step paint stripping guide that gives the paint stripper and one tool that, when used together, produces mind-blowing results.

Before you attempt to stain wood, make sure you follow all of the steps in this paint stripping guide.

Sanding: After stripping comes sanding. This is the part that will make or break how even or blotchy your door looks after staining. Here are my best sanding tips for a swirl-free and smooth surface.

I had not originally planned to stain my door, so I definitely could have done a better job. And I paid for it when it came time to staining!

Cleaning: Finally, I wiped the entire surface with a cloth to remove all of the sanding dust. 

Step 2: Choose a stain type

I tired just about every type of stain on this door. There was the Varathane Premium Fast Drying, Varathane Classic, and lastly Varathane and Minwax Gel Stain. 

Out of all these stain options, I had the best results with gel stain. Moving forward, I will probably only use Gel Stain, with a close runner-up being Varathane’s Premium stain option. 

gel stain aged oak

I had not realized I had grabbed the premium stain when I purchased it. I originally picked it up because I wanted the color antique white; this was the only one in stock. After trying it and noticing how thick it went on, I realized I was using the premium stain version. 

Before you head to the store to grab supplies, read up on the different types of stains to learn which is best for your project (new post LINK  coming soon!)

Step 3: Apply Pre-Wood Conditioner

Using an old rag, I applied a generous layer of pre-stain wood conditioner*. 

It’s generous enough that there is solid coverage over the entire surface but not so much that it’s pooling or dripping. 

This step is incredibly important to a blotch-free stain job, especially when working with soft (aka more affordable) wood types. 

I then allowed this to dry for at least 30 minutes before moving on to staining. 

*Depending on what type of stain you go with, you may not need to condition your wood. 

pre-stain wood conditioner

Step 4: Mix Your Stain

Read the directions on the can because, unlike most other products, stains may need stirring instead of shaking.

Add this to the list of mistakes I made with this door! Out of habit, as I was getting my workstation set up, I started shaking the stain can. Only to realize the directions specifically said to stir. Old habits die hard because I caught myself going to shake the next can immediately after making my first mistake.

When stirring the stain, you’ll want to get right down to the bottom and mix in any particles that have settled at the bottom. I used a paint stir stick for this job.

Step 5: Apply Stain

Start by printing this step-by-step staining wood guide that gives the best technique and 9 BONUS lessons that, when used together, produces mind-blowing results.

What to Apply Stain With

Because the Premium and Classic stains are so thin and runny, I prefer to apply these with an old rag. 

And when applying the gel stain, I had an easier time using a paintbrush. 

Unlike water-based paint that you may be used to, a lot of staining products are oil-based, and to get this out of the brush (or rag), you’ll need a paint thinner or solvent. For this reason, I use old rags and just toss them.

Applying Stain

Going with the direction of the wood grain, and using long strokes, apply a generous amount of stain and leave it on the surface for the directed amount of time. 

I work in small sections to avoid getting caught in a pickle. This way, when it’s time to wipe the stain away, I can do so at the desired time. 

These easy-to-follow instructions helped me to avoid a blotchy mess. I highly recommend using this e-guide for best results!

staining wood e-guide

Click here to get your How to Stain Wood E-Guide and the Limited time offer of 9 BONUS lessons!

staining wood e-guide bonus lessons

I’m not always a rule follower in DIY projects, but staining is an exception to my usual! Stain is potent stuff, and changes happen quickly, so stick to what the directions say! 

Especially with the Premium stain; this is much harder to remove if you leave it on your wood surface any longer than recommended.

Tip: If you do a tester of stain on your wood project, do so in an area you can not see because it’s sooo hard to cover this swatch later on.

I made this mistake by testing an area on the lower portion of my door, and it was a nightmare to blend this spot to try and get things to look seamless. See the image below as an example of what not to do when testing stain color!

On the left is my door before applying any stain. On the right is my door after applying Golden Oak to the perimeter, and a tester spot on the lower, center portion.

natural wood front door
testing stain color on a wood door

Step 6: Wipe Away Stain

After the amount of time passed per the stain’s directions, I use a clean rag and wipe the entire surface. 

Once again, the key is working in the direction of the wood grain and using long strokes. The key to this technique is even pressure, and those nice long strokes. 

Step 7: Use Steel Wool

I let the stain dry overnight and then gently sanded the surface with steel wool using the grade “fine”. The look of the door after sanding with steel wool was slightly (ever so slightly) different than what it would have been if I used sandpaper. 

To me, the surface looked aged after doing so. It wasn’t as shiny, but instead had a really pretty buffed surface look. Below is a comparison of the door before and after using steel wool. 

staining a wood door - medium colored stain
wood door after sanding with fine grade steel wool

Step 8: Recoat Stain

In my case, several of the stain colors I originally selected turned out to be either too yellow or too red for my liking. These blunders allowed me to experiment with recoating and staining over stain.

With each new stain color I tried, I followed the same process as above by applying the stain using a paintbrush:

  • applying the stain in long strokes in the direction of the wood grain
  • waiting for 3-5 minutes
  • gently wiping away any excess stain
  • allowing the stain to dry and sanding between coats

Below is what the progression of stain looked like on my door. Starting with bare wood, to Golden Oak in classic stain, to XXX gel stain, and then finally Aged Oak gel stain.

staining an exterior farmhouse wood door

Step 9: Apply a Protective Finish

Ugh, the bane of my existence! But since this exterior door is totally exposed to the elements, it needs a good protective coat. 

I went with a water-based matte poly and applied it using fine-grit steel wool. This article about waterproofing wood from The Spruce helped me decide why this is the best choice.

  • start by dipping your steel wool into the poly
  • dab it on the side of the can so it doesn’t drip everywhere
  • then, going with the wood grain, apply the poly using very long strokes

Do not let the steel wool dry out. So, starting with a good amount of poly on the steel wool is key. Not so wet that it pools and not so little that you run out before you reach the end of that stroke.

Step 10: Finishing Touches

Lastly, once you’re happy with your results, you can re-attach any hardware.

Also, since my door had glass, I needed to remove the stain from the glass panes. I did so by using my retractable razor blade, holding it at a 45-degree angle, and scraping away the layers of dried stain.

I needed to change the blade a few times, so I recommend having extra on hand. It dulls fast! And you want to avoid applying more pressure because this could scratch the glass.

Lastly, I used glass cleaner to make the panes look as good as new.

Necessary Tools and Supplies to DIY Stain Wood

supplies needed for staining wood
  • Paintbrush
  • Clean and lint free rags
  • Random Orbital Sander + Sandpaper (120 grit)
  • Steel wool (fine grade)
  • Pre-wood conditioner
  • Wood stain (premium, classic, or gel)
  • Top Coat (optional)
  • Razor blade scraper (only if working with a door that has glass)
  • Misc: paper trash bag, old blankets or sheets to protect under your work area, gloves
staining wood steps e-guide

Download your How to Stain Wood E-Guide and the Limited time offer of 9 BONUS lessons which includes checklists, visual guides, custom stain mixing tips, and so much more!

Additional Tips and Tricks to Avoid Blotchy Stain on Wood

Try one or more of these additional techniques to reduce blotchy stain spots:

  1. Seal the wood. Applying a thin layer of wood sealer before staining can help prevent the stain from being absorbed too quickly and unevenly.
  2. Use a sanding sealer. Sanding sealers create a smooth surface and help prevent blotches by partially sealing the wood pores.
  3. Wet the wood. Before applying the stain, dampen the wood with a cloth or sponge. This can help control the rate of absorption, reducing the likelihood of blotches.
  4. Apply a wash coat. Thin the stain with the appropriate solvent and apply a wash coat to the wood. This helps to create a barrier, preventing the stain from being absorbed too deeply.
  5. Work in small sections. Stain small sections at a time to ensure you can maintain control over the application and achieve an even finish.
  6. Use gel stain. Because of its thicker consistency, it sits on the surface allowing for more controlled absorption.
  7. Read and follow the instructions for each product used in the staining process. Different stains may require different techniques and application methods.
  8. Allow the stain to dry completely before applying additional coats or a topcoat. Rushing the process can lead to uneven results.

Remember that wood types vary greatly in how they accept stains; some woods are more prone to blotching than others. 

Testing your chosen techniques and staining on a scrap piece of the same wood is the best approach for achieving the desired results the first time around!

Staining Wood FAQ’s

The Stain Color of My Door

This door is a “custom color,” and I say that sarcastically because what actually happened is it took me 4+ times to get to a color I liked. I wanted a light to medium stain with an aged look, but due to the high variation of wood grains on this door, I had to go darker to get this to look more uniform. 

But that’s how it goes with staining. In my experience, staining wood as more of an art than a science.

different stain types for wood

I started by applying a layer of Antique White, Golden Oak, and Early American in a traditional stain. 

But the Golden Oak was too yellow, and the Early American was soaking into some areas more than others and looking quite blotchy. So, then I moved on to Gel Stain. 

The first gel stain I tried was XXX, but unfortunately, it dried too red for my liking. But the really good news was that with the finish was much richer and even. 

This gel stain on my wood door was gorgeous, and I almost just said this was good enough, but I’m so picky (and curious) that I had to try one more color!

gel stained exterior wood door

So, knowing that Gel Stain was better, I tried Minwax Aged Oak Gel Stain, and ta-da! That’s the color combo I used on my door. 

medium colored farmhouse wood stained door

Fixing an uneven stain application

Try this: sand the wood lightly using a medium grit to remove excess stain, particularly over the darker area, and then reapply. Go lighter over the blotchy areas and heavier on the lighter spots.

You can also try leaving the stain on longer in the lighter areas or applying additional coats to the light spots so they darken to match the blotchy spots.

Staining Over Stained Wood

It’s important to properly prep your surface by sanding and applying a wood conditioner.

Yes, sanding is still necessary! You’re not sanding down to bare wood, but you are roughing up the surface to allow it to accept new stain. I used 120 grit between one of the coats, and steel wool between another. No rhythm or reason to my method 🙂 I like to try different things!

I followed the exact 10 steps outlined above and had the best results using a Gel Stain compared to original stain, when staining over existing finishes.

Staining Over Painted Wood

Yes, but keep in mind doing so will not produce the same results as staining bare wood. The final color is influenced by the original paint color and the type of wood underneath. Again, Gel stain is the better choice if you are trying to cover paint.

Hey Friend!

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furniture flipping // diy projects // home renovations // modern farmhouse decorating ideas