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A Comprehensive Guide to Wood Stain Color Charts

| February 22, 2024 | By

Makers and manufacturers love to use wood and lumber for their projects. It’s sustainable, lightweight, and durable—plus, the grain’s organic appearance makes it an aesthetically pleasing raw construction material. After completion, a number of woodworking projects will require the application of wood stain to preserve the wood and bring out its unique natural features.

Stain should protect the final project while making the wood look its best. So many variations of wood exist, which is why there are so many stains to choose from. Before applying a stain, the challenge is finding the right stain that fits the specifications and design requirements of your project. Apart from durability and performance, you also want your final product to look good.

Below, FinishWorks provides a sample of a wood stain color chart and some expert advice for figuring out your perfect finish.


Picking the Right Stain Color

Narrowing down wood stain options begins with assessing the condition and quality of the wood you’re working on. Take note of the following characteristics, as they will affect the final result:

  • The natural color of the wood
  • The species of wood
  • The porosity or density of the wood
  • The overall condition of the wood (e.g., aged, weathered, sanded, etc.)

Picking the right stain also depends on what look you’re aiming to achieve with your wood finish. With a wood stain, pigment particles carry the color, so the ability of the stain to penetrate the wood grain will ultimately dictate the final appearance.

You also want to consider the purpose of the final project. For example, will it be frequently exposed to high heat, UV light, or moisture? Then the stain you choose should enhance the look of the wood surface, preserve the wood’s quality, and avoid frequent reapplication. 


Pros and Cons of Using Wood Stain for Projects

Stains can’t be employed for all wood projects. 

If you’re opting for stain, you’ll want to accentuate the surface wood pattern and highlight the grain details while protecting it from exposure. But as with any wood coating, there are advantages and disadvantages to using it for your project:



The obvious reason to opt for wood stain is to protect the integrity of the wood surface against the elements. A good stain creates a barrier to stop moisture from penetrating the wood, preventing rot and decay.

Because wood species are so diverse, stains are available in a wide range of colors. With so many design options, you can customize the wood’s appearance to fit your desired look. Stains help to enhance and bring out the natural wood grain instead of concealing it like paint would. Stain is also relatively easy to apply using basic tools, such as a bristle brush, foam brush, or even a simple cloth rag.



When it comes to wood stain, the variability of wood types can make selecting the right stain option a bit tricky. 

Also, the consistency of stain is usually thin and nonviscous. As a result, it’s ineffective for filling holes, gaps, or other blemishes in the wood’s surface. Because this finish tends to enhance the grain pattern and color, stains may bring out these imperfections in the wood’s appearance. 


Types of Wood Stains

Oil-Based Wood Stain

  • Typically composed of a linseed oil binder
  • Cleanup requires mineral spirits
  • Slower drying time
  • Tends to penetrate deeper
  • May require the use of a respirator mask for large-scale projects


Water-Based Wood Stain

  • Uses water as a binder
  • Easier to clean up or thin with water
  • Fast-drying
  • Tends not to penetrate as deep as oils, giving a softer finish
  • Often raises the grain of the wood


Gel Wood Stain

  • Cleanup requires mineral spirits
  • Requires less preparation compared to oil- and water-based stains
  • Thicker and more viscous than its counterparts
  • Good for wood that’s prone to blotching


Varnish or Lacquer

  • Generally clear and forms a film over the wood surface
  • Not stains so much as different protective finish options
  • Typically adds sheen or results in a glossy finish


Advice for Applying and Matching Wood Stain

Choosing the wrong stain or finish type can potentially ruin a project, so it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. A wood stain color chart can help you narrow down your choices, but ultimately the result will rely on several factors. You also want to avoid common mistakes such as sanding too much, sanding too little, not allowing for the stain to fully dry, or failing to mix the pigment thoroughly. The wrong stain or improper stain application may lead to the following imperfections:

  • Dark blotches in more porous areas
  • Runs and bleeding
  • Pools and laps
  • Sealing in of contaminants

So how do you know if you’ve found the right finish? Below are some professional tips for picking the perfect wood stain:


Finding a Color Match

If you have a very specific vision in mind for the color of your stain, many suppliers offer “stain matching” services to get as close to your desired look as possible. These services typically involve using sample swatches or a wood stain color chart to compare and contrast options. The Premier Color Collection from FinishWorks is an example of a color selection program that provides you with the tools to choose the perfect color for your project.

Those looking to maintain the original or natural color of the wood can default to a “natural” or “translucent” stain. These neutral options are suitable for most wood used in commercial furniture, for example.


Accommodating for Wood Color Variations

The vast variety of wood that exists means a whole lot of stains to choose from—and it’s not just the species of wood that dictates which stain you use. When we talk about the “condition” of the wood, we’re referring to the physical state of the project’s surface. Is it adequately sanded or pre-treated? Is the wood weathered, worn, warped, or discolored? These characteristics can further complicate our choice of wood finish because unwanted variations in wood patterns can be difficult to correct—particularly with stain. Some superficial flaws, like gray splotches, can be easily sanded down, while others may need touch-up or repair treatment prior to staining.


Understanding Undertones

All wood has undertones, and these underlying colors will influence your color palette. Natural wood usually has warm undertones, such as yellow, orange, or red, but finished wood can also have cool undertones, which are more gray or blue. Your stain choice must accommodate these undertones for the right finished look. You can use a color chart for wood stains to help determine which undertones suit your desired palette.


Testing Out Your Wood Finish

If you’re looking to experiment with a stain option before committing, try applying it on a small piece of largely unexposed wood (on the back, in a corner, etc.). Be sure to allow the stain to fully dry before finalizing your choice, as stains can change slightly in appearance after oxidation. Of course, not all pieces stain the same, so if you’re planning on using the same stain for various projects, test it out on each surface first.


Where to Find the Finest Finishes

Numerous factors play into the final look of a stained wood finish. Ideally, your stain should preserve the wood while making it look its best, so be sure to take all the factors we discussed into account when making your decision. You can consult the professionals at FinishWorks for assistance with extensive staining projects and customizing your project using a wood stain color chart.

By combining trend-setting finish design with outstanding color consistency, FinishWorks remains the leading manufacturer and distributor of industrial wood and metal coatings. We take pride in finishing your project right and aim to provide you with only the best finishing products. To stay up-to-date on the latest design trends and other innovations in coatings, we encourage you to subscribe to our blog.