Staining Wood Pallets

Transforming old and worn wood pallets into beautiful works of art is an incredibly rewarding DIY project. With the right staining techniques, you can give new life to salvaged pallet wood and turn it into eye-catching furniture, accent walls, outdoor décor and more.

Staining pallet wood enhances the natural wood grain, adding vibrant color. But there’s an art to achieving an flawless stained finish. Proper preparation, choosing the right stain type, applying it correctly, and sealing it properly are all key steps.

Staining Wood Pallets

This comprehensive guide will walk you through the A to Z of staining wood pallets. You’ll learn how to:

  • Prepare the wood through sanding and cleaning
  • Pick the ideal stain type and color for your project
  • Apply stains evenly using brushes, rags or other tools
  • Allow for proper drying time between coats
  • Finish it off with a protective sealant topcoat
  • Avoid common mistakes that can ruin the final look

You can stain pallet wood like a pro with the techniques outlined here. So let’s get started!

Preparation: Sanding and Cleaning the Wood

The preparation stage is crucial for ensuring the stained pallet wood turns out exactly how you envisioned. Taking the time to sand and clean the wood properly will allow the stain to penetrate evenly and fully reveal the depth and richness of the natural wood grain.

Why Sanding is So Important

Sanding serves several important purposes:

  • It smooths rough edges and slivers – Pallet wood can be rough and covered in splinters. Thorough sanding ensures your hands remain sliver-free when handling the finished piece.
  • It removes surface debris – Old pallets often have dirt, grime, or paint stuck to their surface that must be sanded away before staining.
  • It opens the wood pores – Sanding opens up the wood grain so the stain can properly penetrate the pallet wood’s deeper pores.
  • It creates an evenly absorbent surface – Uneven sanding means the stain will be absorbed at different rates across the wood, creating an uneven blotchy finish.

Sanding Process for Pallet Wood

You’ll need to work your way up through finer grit sandpaper:

  • Start with a coarse 60-80 grit to remove splinters and larger debris.
  • Progress to 100-120 grit to smooth away remaining rough spots.
  • Finish with 150-220 grit to sand the surface for stain absorption finely.

Always sand with the direction of the wood grain, using smooth even strokes. Be extra thorough where pallet wood boards meet to prevent gaps or ridges.

Cleaning After Sanding

Once sanded, wipe away all dust with either a dry tack cloth or a damp rag before staining:

  • A tack cloth uses a sticky coating to remove fine dust without leaving residue.
  • A damp rag helps grab dust from crevices. Let wood dry fully before staining.

Proper sanding and cleaning allows for the ideal stain application. The wood pores are open, the texture is smooth, and the surface is contaminant-free.

Choosing the Right Type of Stain

With the prep work complete, it’s time to select your stain. There are a few major options, each with their advantages and best uses:

Oil-Based Stains

The most popular option for staining wood pallets is an oil-based stain. These penetrate deeply into the wood grain to create a vibrant enriched color.


  • Deep penetration for accentuated wood grain
  • Water-repellent and long-lasting
  • Available in wide range of opacities and colors
  • Ideal for outdoor projects

Oil-based stains are highly versatile. You can use them to create transparent, semi-transparent or solid color finishes. They contain pigments suspended in a polyurethane or linseed oil base.

Gel Stains

Gel stains have a thicker, gel-like consistency that adheres well to vertical surfaces.


  • Won’t drip or sag on vertical surfaces
  • Provides intense, uniform pigmentation
  • Excellent for staining intricately detailed pallets

The thicker formula allows you to precisely control application and achieve consistent coverage on carvings, edges, grooves and other fine details.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains use water as the carrier for pigments instead of oil.

Drawbacks for pallet wood:

  • Raise grain more than oil-based
  • Less penetration into wood pores
  • Less durable and weather-resistant

Water-based stains are best avoided for most pallet wood projects, especially outdoors. The water can roughen the wood grain and the lighter pigmentation lacks richness. Exceptions are for quick simple projects or staining over previously sealed pallet wood.

Application Techniques: Brush vs. Rag

Once you’ve selected your stain type, next comes the application. You’ll get different results using a brush vs. a rag or foam applicator.

Applying Stain with a Brush

Using a high-quality natural bristle staining brush provides greater control and efficiency.

Tips for brushing on stain:

  • Select a tapered brush approximately 2-3 inches wide
  • Work in smooth strokes following the wood grain
  • Maintain a wet edge to prevent lap marks
  • Stain board by board to avoid drips
  • Watch for streaks and puddles caused by overbrushing

Take care not to let stain pool or overwhelm the wood’s pores. Brush gently to spread the stain evenly into the grain.

Staining with a Rag or Foam Applicator

 Stain pallet wood using a clean cotton rag or foam applicator for a hand-rubbed look.

Benefits of rag staining:

  • Able to work stain into tight crevices
  • Creates subtle varied effects within the wood
  • No streaking compared to brush bristles
  • Provides a casual, artisan-crafted appearance

Gently wipe the stain over the surface using smooth circular motions until it’s evenly distributed. Avoid excessive rubbing which can burnish the wood.

Allowing Adequate Drying Time

Applying too many coats of stain without allowing proper drying time between layers is a common pitfall. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommended drying times.

  • Thinner stains may dry within 30-60 minutes.
  • Gel stains take longer, around 4-6 hours.

Test dryness by gently touching the wood. If any stain comes off on your fingers, it needs more time.

Why Proper Dry Time is Crucial

Rushing the recoat time can create a gummy, tacky finish and prevent the stain from bonding correctly. Effects include:

  • The stain feeling sticky or slimy
  • Showing brush marks from overlapping coats
  • Peeling or flaking off the wood surface

Be patient. Waiting until fully dry gives the wood time to absorb each layer of pigment and develop the proper color richness.

Multiple Coats for Extra Color Depth

Applying 2-3 thin coats of stain helps build richer, darker color compared to a single thick coat. But allow ample dry time between layers:

  • 1-2 hours for thin oil stains
  • 6-8 hours for gel stains

The first coat deeply penetrates the wood while subsequent coats enhance the tone and uniformity. But more than 3 coats on pallet wood can seem artificial and painted-on.

Sealing Stained Wood Pallets

The final step is applying a clear protective topcoat over the stained pallet wood. This seals in the stain and provides a smooth durable finish.

Polyurethane as a Top Coat

An oil-based or water-based polyurethane is the best choice for a rugged topcoat able to withstand outdoor weathering.

Benefits of polyurethane:

  • Excellent abrasion and chemical resistance
  • Helps minimize swelling and warping
  • Maintains the wood’s natural appearance
  • Available in various sheens from satin to high gloss

Apply 2-3 thin coats just like staining, allowing full drying between layers. Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper before the final coat.

Using Marine Varnish Outdoors

Marine-grade varnish is extremely water-repellent for pallet wood projects exposed to sun and rain like patio furniture or deck accent walls.

The resins in marine varnish produce an exceptionally hard, durable finish that protects against UV rays and moisture. Spar varnish is ideal for vertical surfaces like railings or fences while topside varnish works well for tabletops and benches.

Avoiding Common Staining Mistakes

Staining pallet wood does involve some nuances. Being aware of potential pitfalls will help ensure your project is a success:

Always Test Stain on Scrap Wood

The type, age, and source of pallet wood can impact how it accepts stain. Before staining your actual project wood, test the stain on scraps from the same pallet to see how the color develops. Look for blotchiness and make sure you like the tone. Testing first prevents surprises later.

Deal with Iron Stains on Pallet Wood

Pallet wood often develops blackish-gray iron stains when iron containing nails react with the wood’s tannins. While unsightly, iron stains don’t negatively impact the wood’s strength or integrity.

To help reduce their appearance:

  • Use an oxalic acid based wood bleach to lighten them.
  • Apply a dark walnut or ebony stain – these opaque shades will hide iron stains.
  • Sand down badly stained areas and avoid using them as feature surfaces.

While stubborn, a little creativity in both prep and stain color selection can minimize iron staining eyesores.

Don’t Stain Bone Dry Wood

For the stain to properly penetrate, pallet wood should have a moisture content between 10-15%. Wood that is bone dry may resist absorbing the stain evenly.

Lightly wipe pallet boards with water before staining using a spray bottle or damp rag. Allow to dry until no longer wet but left slightly damp. This rehydrates the wood for ideal staining results.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you successfully stain pallet wood without sanding it first?

It’s possible but not ideal. Sanding opens the wood grain and removes barriers to stain penetration. Skipping sanding risks the color appearing uneven, faded or blotchy.

Do you need to apply a topcoat like polyurethane after staining pallet wood?

While not strictly required, a polyurethane or varnish topcoat is recommended to protect the stain and wood. Unsealed stain is vulnerable to scratching, fading and water damage.

What are some creative ways to use stained pallet wood?

  • Make custom wall art, headboards or accent walls from pallet boards
  • Craft furniture like beds, tables, shelves, benches and chairs
  • Stain pallets funky colors for planters, mailboxes, signs and other decorative items

Can you stain wood pallets a gray weathered look?

Yes! Use a gray opaque or weathered stain to hide wood grain and create an aged driftwood appearance. Lightly sand first for a distressed finish.

What’s the best way to stain pallet wood black?

Start with a dark walnut or ebony penetrating stain for deep black color. Apply multiple coats for increased darkness. Finish with a gloss polyurethane topcoat for vivid black sheen.


With the right preparation, materials and techniques, you can stain pallet wood effectively to create gorgeous artistic works for your home and yard.

  • Thoroughly sand and clean the pallet wood first
  • Choose an oil-based penetrating or gel stain
  • Use a brush or rag applicator and apply multiple thin coats
  • Allow ample drying time between coats
  • Finish with a polyurethane or marine varnish topcoat

Now that you’re armed with expert pallet staining tips, it’s time to grab a pile of pallets and start your next creative DIY project!