How to Stain Plywood

Staining plywood is a popular method for enhancing its appearance by adding color, depth, and character to the wood surface. To stain plywood you must apply a translucent or semi-transparent pigment to the plywood, allowing the natural grain and texture to shine through while achieving the desired hue.

To Stain Plywood, Which Plywood is Best?

Plywood made from oak, birch, or maple, is ideal for staining due to its fine grain and durability. Baltic birch plywood is another excellent choice, known for its smooth and uniform surface. Avoid using softwood plywood like pine, as its prominent grain and resin content can make staining less predictable.

What Do I Need to Stain Plywood?

Materials and Tools to Stain Plywood

You will need plywood sheets, wood stain in the desired color, paintbrushes or foam brushes, clean rags or cloth, sandpaper (of various grits), wood conditioner (for some woods), a drop cloth or plastic sheeting to protect your work area, and a well-ventilated space.

Safety equipment to Stain Plywood

Stains often contain chemicals that can release harmful fumes. Wearing safety equipment such as gloves, safety goggles, and a respirator mask (if working indoors or in poorly ventilated spaces) is essential to protect your skin, eyes, and lungs and create a safe area to work in.

Preparing to Stain Plywood

Inspection and Cleaning to Stain Plywood

Carefully inspect it for defects like knots, cracks, or splinters. To clean the plywood surface, start by removing any dirt and debris using a vacuum or a soft brush. Follow this with a damp cloth to wipe away the remaining residue. Give it time to dry before applying the next step.


Sanding helps remove imperfections, evens out the wood’s surface, and opens up the grain for better stain absorption. Begin with coarse-grit sandpaper to remove any imperfections. Finish up with fine-grit sandpaper to make the surface smooth. Remember to sand in the same direction as the wood grain to avoid scratches.

Choosing the Stain

Oil-based, water-based, and gel stains each offer differences in color, drying time, and ease of application. Consider the wood’s natural color, the desired finish tone, and the project’s location (indoor or outdoor). Test the stain on a scrap piece of plywood before applying it to your project.

Applying the Stain

Pre-Stain Conditioner (If Applicable)

Pre-stain conditioner is essential for plywood prone to blotching, like pine or cherry. It is applied before staining to promote even absorption of the stain. This conditioner prevents uneven staining by sealing the wood’s surface and minimizing variations in stain absorption. It ensures a consistent color tone across the plywood.

Test Staining

Testing the stain helps you preview that the final color meets your expectations. Apply the stain to a small section of the plywood, following the same procedure you intend to use for the entire project. Give it time to dry, and check that the color works for you. Adjust the stain or technique as needed.

Staining Techniques

Apply it using a brush, wiping it on with a clean cloth, or using a sprayer. Ensure you work in the direction of the wood grain and maintain a consistent application rate for a uniform finish. Brushing provides more control while wiping allows for a lighter application.

Multiple Coats

Applying multiple coats of stain enhances the depth of color and durability of the finish. Allow for drying time between coats. Sand lightly between coats to ensure good adhesion, and wipe away any dust before applying the next layer of stain.

Finishing and Sealing

Clear Coat or Varnish

Polyurethane, lacquer, and shellac are common options, each offering varying degrees of protection and shine. Applying a clear coat or varnish creates a durable, moisture-resistant barrier over the stain. When selecting a clear finish, consider the project’s location and desired level of sheen.

Sanding Between Coats

To sand between coats, use fine-grit sandpaper (usually 220 grit) and lightly sand the surface in the direction of the wood grain. Be sure to wipe away any dust with a clean cloth before applying the next coat of clear finish.

Caring for Stained Plywood

Use a damp cloth to remove any dust. Regularly inspect the surface for signs of wear, such as scratches or fading, and use a touch-up stain or a fresh clear coat. These steps will help preserve the plywood’s appearance and protection.

Common Issues When Staining Plywood

If there is blotchiness, use a pre-stain conditioner for even absorption. For uneven color, ensure proper sanding and re-stain as needed. Streaks can be avoided by applying stains evenly with the wood grain. Always test on a scrap piece first, allowing enough drying time between coats.