Wood Stains for Interior Doors

Interior doors can make a dramatic statement in any home. The right wood stain can enhance the natural beauty of the wood, while protecting it from damage. With so many options on the market, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of different types of wood stains to get the perfect finish. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know to choose, prepare for, and apply wood stains for interior doors.

wood stains for interior doors

Types of Wood Stains

There are three main categories of wood stains to consider for interior doors and other wood projects:

Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based stains are extremely popular for their rich, deep coloration and durable finish. The pigments are suspended in an oil carrier like tung oil or a varnish base. When the stain cures, it creates a protective film on the wood’s surface.


  • Provides very rich, deep color
  • Long-lasting protection
  • Enhances wood grain


  • Longer dry time than other stains
  • Strong odor requires ventilation
  • More difficult to apply evenly

Popular Brands: Minwax Wood Finish Stain, Varathane Premium Wood Stain

Gel Stains

Gel stains have a thicker, gel-like consistency that makes them easy to control and provides an ultra smooth finish. The gel formula avoids lap marks, blotchiness, and drips.


  • Thick consistency prevents drips and runs
  • Easy to achieve even, smooth application
  • Resists blotchiness on porous woods


  • Limited selection of colors
  • May require multiple coats for darker shades

Popular Brands: General Finishes Gel Stain, Minwax Gel Stain

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains use water as the carrier for the pigments rather than oil. They provide a lighter, more natural coloration. Popular versions include whitewash and pickling stains.


  • Very fast drying time
  • Low odor makes ventilation unnecessary
  • Create light, whitewashed appearance
  • Environmentally-friendly


  • Less vibrant colors than oil-based
  • Less protection for exterior uses

Popular Brands: Minwax Whitewash Pickling Stain, Varathane Water Based Stain

Preparing the Wood Surface

Proper preparation is crucial for wood stains to penetrate evenly and achieve the desired color. For interior doors, remove any existing finishes or paint with a chemical stripper or sander. Here are the key steps:


Sand down the surface using 100-150 grit sandpaper. Always sand in the direction of the wood grain to avoid scratches. The goal is to remove any remaining finish and smooth out the wood.


Use a lint-free cloth to wipe away any dust. Then clean the surface with a wood cleaning solution like Krud Kutter to remove oils, dirt, and grease. Rinse thoroughly and let dry completely.


For soft or porous woods like pine, use a pre-stain wood conditioner. This helps prevent blotchiness by evening out the absorption. Apply according to the manufacturer’s directions.


Do a test spot in an inconspicuous area before applying the stain to the entire surface. Make sure you are satisfied with the color and results.

Choosing an Application Tool

The right application tool helps ensure even coverage and minimize drips. Here are some options:

  • Brush – Use a high-quality, natural bristle staining brush. Avoid foam brushes which don’t provide good control.
  • Cloth – Lint-free cloths like cheesecloth work for gel stains. Cut into strips and fold to use.
  • Applicator pad – These pad applicators with a shallow foam surface can work well for oil-based stains.

Always go in the direction of the wood grain when applying the stain. Work in small sections to maintain a wet edge and avoid lap marks.

Application Techniques and Tips

Applying wood stain properly is an art that takes some practice. Follow these techniques for best results:

Oil-Based Stains

Stir the stain thoroughly before and during application. Use a brush or applicator pad to apply a heavy, even coat. Allow the stain to penetrate for 5-10 minutes, then wipe off any excess with a clean lint-free cloth. Work on small sections to prevent drying.

Gel Stains

Gel stains are ready to use directly from the can. Use a brush, cloth or foam applicator. Apply evenly while maintaining a wet edge. Avoid overbrushing. Wipe away any excess after application.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains usually require more frequent stirring during application. Work in small sections and immediately remove any excess stain for optimal control. Two coats may be needed for full coverage.

Uneven Surfaces

Use a small artist’s brush to carefully apply the stain for carved details, molding or paneling. Remove excess promptly.

Vertical Surfaces

On doors, it’s best to work from top to bottom. Maintain a wet edge and wipe off runs or drips as you go before they dry.

Drying, Curing and Finishing

Wood stains require adequate drying and curing time before a protective finish can be applied:

  • Oil-based – Allow stain to dry for 24 hours. Full curing takes about 3-7 days.
  • Gel stains – Dry for at least 2-3 hours before topcoating.
  • Water-based – Dry for 1 hour before applying a finish coat.

Always check if the stain surface feels dry and smooth before finishing. Then apply at least 2 coats of a clear polyurethane in the desired sheen:

  • Satin – Provides a smooth, silky finish with some reflection. Ideal for a classic look.
  • Semi-Gloss – Offers more light reflection for a bright accent. Good durability.
  • Gloss – Very reflective and shiny. Use sparingly to avoid overly slick surfaces.

Allow sufficient drying time between finish coats. Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper before the final coat. This will create a smooth, glass-like finish.

Safety Precautions

Some key precautions when working with wood stains:

  • Work in a well-ventilated area – preferably outdoors.
  • Wear protective gloves and goggles.
  • Avoid skin contact. Wash up immediately with soap and water.
  • Oil-based stains are flammable. Avoid ignition sources.
  • Dispose of oily rags properly to prevent combustion.

With care and safety, wood staining can be accomplished by DIYers. Just take your time and follow application directions closely.

Additional Wood Staining Tips

Here are some extra pointers to get that perfect stained finish on interior doors:

Choosing Stain Colors

  • Test colors on scrap wood before committing. Stains look different on various wood species.
  • Darker stains help hide imperfections. Use lighter shades to showcase finer wood grains.
  • Match your interior color palette. But don’t be afraid to make a bold statement.

Staining Exterior Doors

  • Use oil-based stains containing UV inhibitors. Water-based versions lack longevity outdoors.
  • Apply at least 3 coats of satin or semi-gloss exterior grade polyurethane for protection from the elements.

Staining Without Removing Doors

  • Use painter’s tape around hinges, knobs and edges to prevent drips.
  • Stain the door while vertical. Carefully stain edges and hardware last.
  • Lay the door flat on sawhorses for the finish coats to minimize runs and drips if possible.

Renewing Existing Stain Finishes

  • Lightly sand and clean surface. Use gel stain markers to touch up worn areas.
  • Reapply the same stain and finish coats every few years to maintain the look.

Achieving Special Effect Finishes

  • Whitewash – Water down white paint for a washed out driftwood appearance.
  • Pickling – Brush white paint over stained wood and immediately wipe away for an antique look.
  • Distressing – Use steel wool or tools to rub away stain in crevices and edges before applying finish.

With the right preparation, tools and techniques, it’s possible to refinish and stain interior doors to create any desired look. From modern to farmhouse chic, wood staining allows you to customize your décor.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different types of wood stain finishes?

The main finish types are oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane, varnish, shellac, and lacquer. Polyurethane is most common for interior wood. It provides good durability and scratch resistance.

How do I get an even stain color?

Proper sanding, wood conditioning, and using the right application tools all help achieve an even stain penetration. A gel stain or pre-stain conditioner is a good option on blotchy woods. Apply stain in the direction of the wood grain.

What are the best wood stains for indoor furniture?

For indoor use, oil-based stains provide the richest color and protective finish. Gel stains are also ideal for smooth application on furniture. Use satin or semi-gloss polyurethane for protection.

How long does it take for stained wood to dry?

Oil-based stains take 24 hours to dry. Gel stains dry in 2-3 hours. Quicker drying water-based stains are dry within an hour. Always allow more time for curing before applying a finish coat.

Should I use a sealer before staining wood?

A pre-stain wood conditioner can help prevent blotchiness for soft or porous woods. However, some experts recommend staining first. The stain acts as a sealer before applying the finish.

What is the difference between sealer and stain?

Sealers are clear finishes that protect the wood. Stains contain colored pigments to change the hue of the wood. Sealers and stains are often used together – sealers before and after staining.

How do I fix blotchy wood stain?

First try gently sanding the blotchy areas and reapplying stain. Using a gel stain or wood conditioner can also help. For extreme blotchiness, fully stripping and sanding the wood may be required to restain evenly.

Can I use the same stain on different types of wood?

It’s best to test stains on each type of wood first. Different wood species have varying porosity and undertones that can affect stain absorption. Adjust application for consistent coloring.

What are grain fillers and when should I use them?

Grain fillers are products designed to fill in the pores of open-grained woods like oak before finishing. This creates a smoother stained surface. Use when an ultra-smooth finish is desired.

How many coats of stain should I apply?

One or two coats are typically sufficient for most oil and gel stains for interior surfaces. Water-based versions may require a couple more thin coats. Always test absorption and color depth on scraps first.


Staining and refinishing interior doors provides limitless possibilities to update the look of any room. With many stain types and colors available, you can match any style. While proper preparation is key, applying techniques can be mastered with practice. Adding rich wood tones to your doors results in a dramatic yet timeless design statement.

With this complete guide, you now have all the information needed to tackle staining projects for interior doors confidently. So grab your preferred Minwax, Varathane or General Finishes stain and enhance the wood’s natural richness. Just protect your freshly stained surface with a clear polyurethane finish for durability. Giving your home a wood stained makeover has never been easier!