after staining do you need to seal wood

After Staining Wood Do You Have To Seal It?

In Tips by Jamie P.

You just decided to start your first woodworking or furniture makeover project and you have so many questions. I get it, I was there and I have learned through many mistakes, trust me when I say many. But today you decided you wanted to stain a piece of wood, whether it be a full tabletop surface or just a small drawer I think I can help.

After staining wood do you have to seal it?

Yes, when staining wood you must apply a sealer to protect the stained surface. The stain will highlight the grain in the wood but it will not protect it, meaning it is extremely susceptible to damages from liquids, foods, human touch, and other sharp objects. 

After many projects where I have used wood stain, I have learned that letting it dry is critical for a more durable finish. However, there is more to it than just letting it dry. You must properly use the stain product, apply a liberal amount then wipe all of it off, and I mean all of it. Leaving stain puddles will cause tackiness in your stain and it will never properly dry. Stain is meant to “stain” the wood, it’s not like paint that sits over the top and dries, it will soak into the wood and then slowly dry waiting for a sealer to protect it.

How Long To Let Stain Dry Before Applying a Clear Coat?

It’s important to let your stain dry according to the product’s recommendations, the reason is if you don’t let your stain dry you risk wiping or pulling up the stain during your clear coat application. If you are brushing or wiping on your clear coat you increase your risk of streaking the wood stain, I prefer spraying a clear coat to be safe. Anyway, if you don’t let it dry according to the recommended times you are at a higher risk of seeing streak or blotchiness in your stained piece.

I wanted to provide a detailed chart that includes the recommended stain dry times for each popular staining product. I have used these products before and they all have worked well but with stain, it’s all about getting the color to match when applying it to the type of wood you are staining.

Remember these are recommended times and that you must consider the temperatures, ventilation, and humidity, during use.

Stain Type Minwax Wood Finish Penetrating Stain Varathane Classic Penetrating Wood Stain Minwax Gel Stain Varathane Gel Stain
Recoat Time 4-6 Hours 2 Hours 8-10 Hours Minimum 2 Hours
Dry Times 8 Hours 8 Hours for Oil-Based

24 Hours for Water-Based

24 Hours 6-8 Hours +

(In my experience 24 hours)

So, How Long After Staining Can You Apply A Clear Coat?

After looking at the dry time of your stain product you can determine when you can apply a clear coat over the stained surface. The most common wait time after staining to apply a clear coat is 8 hours, waiting overnight is a great measurement. I will touch my stained surface and check to feel any tackiness, if still tacky I like to give it some more time.

You might be thinking, no way you have to wait 8 hours… And you are right you don’t have to and I don’t always wait that long. Even after an hour or 2, I might grab some lacquer and spray a super thin layer. This dries in 30 mins or less to touch making you finish your piece a bit quicker.

However, just because you think it’s dry your piece actually now needs to cure longer. I like to do this when I want to finish up a project and get it out of the garage and into my basement to sit for some time. You might think lacquer doesn’t need to cure, and no not typically, but from my experience of spraying it over wet stain we need to let the stain dry underneath and harden up completely. I found this more evident when using gel stain, I had to let the piece sit for a couple of weeks until it hardened up.

How Many Coats of Clear Coat Should I Apply Over Stained Wood?

You should apply a minimum of 3 coats of sealer over a stained piece of wood. Most clear coat products recommend 3 coats for ultra-durability, any less you risk damages to the surface beneath. I like to apply 3-5 coats depending on what type of wood and what project I am working on.

When applying a clear coat finish always apply in thin coats, it takes much less time and if you make a mistake between coats there is less sanding needed to fix it. Sometimes my last coat I will apply a bit thicker to ensure the durability I want to achieve. Between coats, you can use a high grit sanding paper, such as 220 up to 600. I like to use a sanding sponge during these times to make sure I am sanding completely even across the surface to avoid scratching it up.

DO NOT SAND THE STAINED WOOD, only sand between coats of clear coat. Sanding the stained surface directly will remove the stain and cause serious surface damages that you (and other people) will have no issues seeing.

What’s The Best Clear Coat To Apply Over Stained Wood?

Choosing the best possible clear coat finish for your stained project will be dependant on a few factors:

Ease of Use The Project Itself Indoors or Outdoors Stain and Wood Color
Some clear coat finishes can be brushed or wiped on with a lint-free rag. Others can be sprayed with a paint sprayer or a spray can. What option is easier for you? High traffic projects, such as dining tables, will need an extra durable clear coat. Smaller projects with little traffic do not need the same treatment. Will your stained surface be left in the house or out in the wild? If outside your clear coat will need waterproofing capabilities and protection from UV rays. Depending on the color stain and wood you are using, certain clear coats are fully clear while others have a yellow/amber tint. Be wary and choose based on preferences.

Polyurethane

There are so many brands and different types of polyurethane you can purchase in today’s market. The most common polyurethane products are:

Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane

Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane

 General Finishes High Performance

Minwax Wipe-On Poly

See Latest Price See Latest Price See Latest Price See Latest Price

Polyurethane is an extremely popular option for woodworking finishes because it provides great durability and is relatively affordable comparing to other options. It isn’t the top option for furniture painting topcoats because it is known to yellow as it dries and cures. This is only an issue for light-colored paints and is still a great option when staining furniture. On wood the ambering tint is light but it’s still there.

I have used it a number of times and it creates a great finish on stained projects, it is easy to apply with a brush or a rag, and it can be used on all projects being big or small in high traffic areas.

Dry times for polyurethane can be quick within 1-2 hours for touch with re-coating to happen at this time. However, full dry times are recommended to be 24 hours or more. Always read the specific product description and instructions for proper use.

Lacquer

I use lacquer all the time, why? Well, it’s just simple. I grab a few spray cans at an affordable price and I can apply 3-5 coats in the same day. Lacquer dries in 30 mins or less, this makes re-applying super quick with a light sanding you’re good to go.

The negative side of lacquer is how toxic and strong its odor is. I plan to avoid regular use from now on, I don’t think it’s best for my lungs. I do wear my respirator with proper organic vapors to make sure I am safe, plus I open up my garage door too.

I use Watco Lacquer and haven’t tried others yet. It works great on stained wood surfaces, I use it on furniture drawers because it’s only a small surface and it makes it a quick process. I can’t compare it to other lacquer products but it is a popular and easy to get option. I wouldn’t use lacquer on tabletop surfaces because it is not as durable as some poly products I have compared it to. This is likely due to the thin layers of lacquer I apply when comparing to poly products.

I recommend lacquer products on smaller surfaces when using a spray can, if you have the proper equipment for spraying lacquer then you can try larger items. It is easy to use, it just needs to be sprayed evenly. It is;t recommended for outdoor use so keep it inside the house! You could see yellowing or ambering after application, but unlikely it will be noticeable on stained wood.

Polycrylic

I like using Minwax Polycrylic for many furniture projects. Really it’s a great topcoat to use over paint because it keeps its clear color well, especially compared to other clear coats. Over stain, you have nothing to worry about either, it’s clear as can be for a clear coat finish.

This option is extremely popular when dealing with light and tinted stains because of its known ability to remain crystal clear. Most popular is grey stain, it is light and you don’t want any yellowing so people try to avoid polyurethane in this situation. Using Polycrylic is the best option here to keep the grey stain looking grey.

Poly is easy to apply using a brush or even a lint-free rag, I also sprayed poly a few times and it worked amazingly with my Wagner Paint Gun.


Staining Wood FAQs

Isn’t staining the same as sealing?

No, staining is not the same as sealing. Staining is meant to change the color of the wood by penetrating it and highlighting the natural grain of the wood. Sealing is much different, sealing means to apply a protective coat that seals in either stain or paint from getting damaged from liquids, human touch, or sharp objects.

 Can you apply polyurethane and other finishes over tacky stain?

When waiting for a stain to dry it might feel tacky to touch, this means it isn’t ready for a clear coat finish. You can apply polyurethane over the tacky stain but it might take double the time for everything to dry/cure afterward. The best way to prevent stain from getting tacky is to work in proper temperatures, humidity, with decent ventilation. Also, make sure to wipe the stain off correctly, leaving a lot of stain on wood will cause it to become tacky and taking days or longer to feel dry.

If you are having issues with stain and made a mistake it is best you check out 8 Effective Ways On How To Fix A Bad Stain Job On Wood. This article can help if you did happen to make a serious mistake!


So In Conclusion, Do You Have to Put a Clear Coat Over Stain?

After everything I have gone through I hope you understand that you must put a clear coat over stain to properly protect it from natural wear and tear. Stain can dry and look like its ready for everyday life, but it will not last long at all.

Stain is not durable at all, if you don’t want to apply more than one product try using an All-In-One stain and Poly by Minwax. It has both formulas in one and is a great choice for beginners.

I truly hope you found this article helpful and informative on the subject, if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me on my email furnitureflippa@gmail.com and I would love to help you. You can also find me flipping furniture on my YouTube channel here.