I am so excited to share this blog post with you today! We have been wanting to do a wood/stain study for a long time now and finally decided to stop talking about it and just do it already!
The best wood stains
We decided to try our ten favorite wood stains on five types of wood. We selected wood types that are all commonly used by DIYers and easily available at your local hardware store.
The woods vary in hardness/softness a lot, too. Hardness affects how wood absorbs stain – hard woods tend to accept stain more evenly.
The wood types each also have a different natural color to them. This underlying color tone will obviously effect how the stain color appears on the wood, too.
The wood types that we used are:
We chose a variety of stains – light, dark, grey, white, and natural appearing. They vary widely in tone but that allows you to really get a feel for each one and have options no matter what look or style you are going for.
The stains that we used are:
- Early American by Varathane
- Dark Walnut by Minwax
- Briarsmoke by Varathane
- Puritan Pine by Minwax
- Classic Gray by Minwax
- White Wash by Varathane
- Walrus Oil cutting board oil
- Weathered Oak by Minwax
- Weathered Wood Accelerator by Varathane
- Sun Bleached by Varathane
In general, we buy Minwax stain at Lowes and Varathane stain at The Home Depot.
For each stain, we applied it to the wood with a lint-free cloth and let it sit for about 60 seconds before wiping off any excess.
We did these all at the same time and photographed them each at the same time in the same lighting to get you the truest possible results.
I hope that this will help you see how much the color of a wood stain can vary depending on the type of wood surfaces you are working with!
Once your stain has completely dried, don’t forget to seal it! Here are our tips for sealing stained wood.
Need to fill a project? Here are our favorite wood fillers compared!
Before you stain, learn about pre-stain wood conditioners and if you should use one!
Be sure to watch my video on how to open a can of wood stain.
How different wood stains look on different types of wood
Early American by Varathane
Early American is a stain by Varathane. It is rich brown in color and has a lot of warm undertones.
Early American goes onto wood really thickly and doesn’t take long to soak into wood whatsoever.
Early American is our go-to dark wood stain color. We recently used it for our custom U-shaped desk.
It has a bit or redness and warmth to it, so keep that in mind when planning your project. When paired with a redder wood, like the Oak, it can look pretty red.
Dark Walnut by Minwax
Dark Walnut is a stain by Minwax. It is very dark brown in color and has a lot of black undertones.
I still think that it is gorgeous, it just just a bit darker than our beach-house style home decor trends currently.
Dark Walnut really can make cheap wood look rich and expensive. Just see what it did in this dumpster side table makeover back in the day!
The biggest negative to me with Dark Walnut, or any extremely dark stain, is that it can tend to look striped or streaky if you are staining a wood with a lot of variation in the grain. That can be a cool look, or a problem, depending on what you are going for.
Briarsmoke by Varathane
Briarsmoke is a stain by Varathane. It is brown-gray in color and has a lot of warm undertones.
I really have been feeling Briarsmoke lately – it has this muted grayed out vibe to it that is very trendy at the moment.
However, it doesn’t feel too gray and still maintains the brown woodiness you usually want in a wood stain.
I think that Briarsmoke goes on really easily, but it can kind of hide the wood grain in certain wood types.
Puritan Pine by Minwax
Puritan Pine is a stain by Minwax. It is golden brown in color and has a lot of warm undertones.
Puritan Pine really makes the wood grain on a piece of wood really pop. It has a nice rich color in a medium tone of brown.
Classic Gray by Minwax
Classic Gray is a stain by Minwax. It is gray in color and has a lot of cool undertones.
Classic gray has a really pretty cool gray tone to it (go figure). However, it has a tendency to go on and dry pretty splotchy.
If you choose to use it, you should be careful and consider using wood conditioner first. It can eliminate the tones of some woods, like kind of washing out oak.
White Wash by Varathane
White Wash is a stain by Varathane. It is white in color.
White wash goes onto wood very thickly. It really absorbs into the wood a lot, too. It almost hides the grain of a lot of the types of wood.
If you want a really white look but don’t want to paint, this can be a good option.
Walrus Oil cutting board oil is not actually a stain – it is an oil. However, it is our favorite treatment for wood that we want to maintain a natural look, and just bring out the details a bit more.
Walrus Oil is super easy to apply to your project with rubber gloves and a rag and just slightly darkens the look of the wood.
If you are using high-end wood that you want to highlight the look of, definitely consider Walrus Oil!
Weathered Oak by Minwax
Weathered Oak is a stain by Minwax. It is light gray in color and has a lot of white undertones.
I really, really love the look of Weathered Oak. It is not over powering – the grain of the wood really still shows through.
However, it adds just the right amount of interest, highlights, and contrast to the wood. It also doesn’t make a huge impact on certain types of wood, like whitewood and pine.
Weathered Wood Accelerator by Varathane
Weathered Wood Accelerator is a stain by Varathane. It is gray in color and has a lot of blue or purple undertones.
Weathered wood accelerator is meant to give wood an aged look. It grays and fades the wood to make it look like it’s sat outside and faded in the sun a bit.
This can be a good look, especially for a rustic style. However, in our experience, it can sometimes look purple on white wood.
We suggest doing a test swatch before staining your whole project.
Sunbleached by Varathane
Sun Bleached is a stain by Varathane. It is a very light gray in color and has a lot of tan undertones.
I love the beachy look that sun bleached gives wood. It’s not as grey as driftwood, but it still feels light bright and coastal.
Our favorite light wood stain
Our favorite light wood stain is Weathered Oak. This stain really brings out the natural beauty of wood that you apply it to – even lowly pine.
Our favorite dark wood stain
My favorite dark wood stain is Early American. It has a nice rich chocolate brown color, but is not so dark that the underlying grain and details of the wood are obscured and hidden.
Our favorite gray wood stain
My favorite gray wood stain is Sun Bleached. I love the light, beachy gray tone that it gives to wood – it almost feels like a driftwood color to ne.
Our favorite natural wood stain
Our favorite natural wood stain is not a stain at all but an oil – Walrus Oil. Walrus oil is a food safe cutting board oil that does a gorgeous job of bringing out the natural beauty in a piece of wood.
We don’t recommend Walrus Oil for plywood, pine, or whitewood, but if you spend the money on a fine piece of wood, consider Walrus Oil for letting it shine.
Ten wood stains on pine
Pine is a favorite wood of many beginning woodworkers because it is cheap and plentiful. It’s a soft wood, and sometimes it can be hard to stain without it getting splotchy. You might want to consider a wood conditioner before staining a big project.
Pine has a lot of grain and can have a lot of knots in it.
I love the looks of Puritan Pine and Weathered Oak on the pine – I think they bring out the grain while still adding interesting color to the wood.
Ten wood stains on poplar
We love working with poplar because it is a really budget-friendly hardwood. The graining is much more delicate than pine, and it tends to have green undertones.
Sean loves how poplar looks with just Walrus Oil. It brings out just enough definition while still letting the natural wood shine through.
Ten wood stains on white wood
What even is white wood? It’s a bit of a mystery. White wood is the cheapest possible wood that they sell at Lowes. White wood is light, soft and straight grained.
White wood has a tendency to look striped, so keep that in mind if you pick a more pigmented stain color. For that reason, I prefer the Puritan Pine or Weathered Oak stain colors on white wood.
Ten wood stains on plywood
We build a TON of projects out of plywood, so I thought that it was important to include plywood in our experiment.
Plywood is a soft wood with very light graining and a slightly yellow undertone. It takes all of the stains pretty well.
They are hard to compare because the looks are so very different, but I think that my favorite is Sun Bleached for it’s light and beachy vibe.
Ten wood stains on oak
I was actually very excited to sample stains on oak. It is not a wood that we ever work with – mainly because it is the most expensive type of wood sold at our local hardware store.
But, wow, y’all. The grain on the oak is simply GORGEOUS. It is a really high quality, hard wood. I am now interested in trying to work with it on some projects!
Don’t these swatches look like flooring samples? That’s because oak is often used for hardwood floors.
My favorite stain on the oak is Weathered Oak. It really brings out the natural beauty and grain in the wood. That might be a good tip – if the stain has the name of a type of wood in it, it might look fabulous on that species of wood!
Wow! I hope that this post is helpful to you. I know that we are going to be referring back to our samples often when deciding which stain color to use on each of our woodworking or home improvement projects!
Looking for help with paint colors? Be sure to check out my favorite blue gray paint colors for your home!
Hello, I’m Morgan, half of the creative force behind CharlestonCrafted.com! With a passion for DIY that dates back to 2012, I’ve transformed three homes and now I’m dedicated to helping others craft their dream spaces. Let’s turn your house into a home together!