Generally speaking, it takes around 24 – 48 hours for any kind of stain to dry on wood. Most stains would dry in 24 hours or less. However, there are stains that could take longer. How long stain takes to dry depends largely on several factors, including the type of stain, the type of wood, how the stain is applied, and the environment you are working in, whether you are indoor or outdoor. Working indoor or outdoor will factor in on how long your wood stain will take to dry because of changing environmental factors, such as temperature, humidity, air flow, and generally, the weather.
These are most of the factors that impact your stains drying time. Let’s look at each of them in more detail, to help us understand how long it takes for stain to dry on wood.
Factors That Impact Your Wood Stains Drying Time
Composition of Wood Stains
There are at least 5 types of wood stain you can use on wood, and these have different drying times. The main reason for their different drying times is found in the composition of the stain or what ingredients the stain is composed of. Wood stains are generally composed of three basic ingredients: a pigment or dye, a solvent or carrier, and a binder.
Pigment. The pigment or dye is the color of the stain. It’s similar with paint, but stains are not as viscous. These pigments are made of finely ground minerals that are either natural or synthetic. Most pigments you’ll find mimic the natural color of wood, like oak, walnut, maple, and mahogany. These woods have a natural color. And stains are made to mimic the natural color off these woods with the use of finely ground minerals.
Pigments are generally dispersed in the solvent in a suspension, meaning they do not dissolve. Unlike dyes which dissolve in its solvent.
Solvent. The solvent or carrier is the liquid component of the stain that transports the pigment. The main job of the solvent is to make the stain easy to apply. Applying is done with the use of either a cotton cloth, a brush, a stain pad, or a pressurized spray. Another job of the solvent is that after it is applied, it will evaporate, leaving only the pigment or dye on the surface of the wood. This factors in the drying time of your stain as different solvents have varying rates of evaporation.
Among the different solvents, what are commonly used in wood stains are water, alcohol, or mineral spirits (thinners). These have different rates of evaporation or drying times: alcohol dries almost instantly; water also dries quickly. However, oil-based stains dissolved in mineral spirits are the slowest to dry. This is how the kind of solvent used to mix your stain affects how long the stain will take to dry.
Binder. Thirdly, the binder polymerizes the pigment or dye on the wood. Because they are resinous, the binder creates a seal or finish that makes the wood bring out the color of the stain. The binder also reduces the amount of stain the wood absorbs, so that the stain doesn’t soak too deep into the wood. This gives the surface of the wood a smooth and an even finish. Some of the more popular binders are lacquer, shellac, varnish, and polyurethane.
2 Type of Wood Stain Application
Interior vs. Exterior
How long does it take wood stain to dry if you use interior or exterior wood stain? Interior wood stains generally dry faster than exterior wood stains. It takes between 6 – 24 hours for interior stain to dry. Exterior wood stain takes between 24 – 48 on average.
Interior wood stains are formulated to penetrate the wood and affect the appearance of the grain. On the other hand, exterior wood stains are specifically formulated for outdoor projects that would be exposed to the elements if not 24/7, most of the time. Therefore, exterior wood stains act more like varnishes and protective finishes, compared to interior wood stains, that focus on the surface finish.
Interior wood stains need an outer coating to protect the stain. You could apply varnish, shellac, or polyurethane as a final coat for your wood stain to have a longer life. Exterior wood stains need no outer coating since they are formulated to leave a protective outer layer of varnish upon application.
4 Types of Wood Stain and How Fast They Dry
Water-Based Wood Stain
Water-based stains use water as its solvent to dissolve water soluble dyes to create the color. They are aniline dyes and come in powder form that are ready to be dissolved in water. Aniline dyes were originally used on textiles to give them variety of color. An ounce of aniline dye powder will make a quart of water-based stain.
Water-based stains often don’t have resin binders as ingredients. This allows the wood to keep its natural appearance and grains despite the presence of color. You can apply many coats of water-based stain without altering the natural appearance of the wood. If you desire deeper or lighter colors, you can simply change the proportion of the dye to the water — more dye produces deeper and darker colors, and less will produce lighter color.
One of the distinct advantages of using water-based stains are the true colors that they give to wood. Also, the way in which water-based stain tends to enhance the grain rather than hide it. It is easy to apply and easy to maintain. However, one disadvantage is that water-based stain fades more easily compared to oil-based stains. You’ll need to give more attention to its maintenance than to oil-based stains.
Alcohol Wood Stain
These are dye stains that use alcohol as a solvent. Most often you find alcohol wood stains already pre-mixed, unlike some water-based dyes. Alcohol wood stains also contain a retardant that slows down the stains drying time.
Alcohol wood stains are also known as Non-Grain Raising (NGR) stains. They color the wood with dye without raising its grains. Unlike oil-based wood stains that raise the grain when they dry, alcohol wood stains do not. Moreover, alcohol-based wood stains actually color the wood without covering up the natural grains. So, the end product has a beautifully colored surface with much of the grain’s patterns still clear and visible. You can finish this with a coat of clear lacquer to preserve the stain and the wood.
However, alcohol wood stains dry too quickly, which is why you need to be careful if you choose this kind of stain for your project.
Oil-based Wood Stain
Oil-based wood stains are the most widely used type of wood stain. It is easy to handle especially for beginners to the staining process. Oil based stains are also durable because it penetrates deeply into the wood and will give you a beautiful even coat. Most oil-based stain contain linseed oil which is an excellent wood preservative and use mineral spirits as a solvent.
It takes 2 -3 hours for a coat of oil-based paint to dry before you can apply a second coat. It will completely cure between 24 – 48 hours depending on weather conditions.
Gel stain is another form of oil-based wood stain. As its name indicates, gel stain uses gel or a gel-like substance as its carrier. Gel stain is thick, viscous, and not as easy to spread as a regular oil-based wood stain. it has larger pigment particles that’s why gel stain gives off better color quality and brightness. Also, gel stain doesn’t penetrate much into the wood because of its viscosity. This is the reason why it takes less coats (maximum of 2) to do the job. Gel stain spreads evenly on the surface of wood and so you get a more even finish.
However, you cannot apply gel stain using a pressure spray because of its high viscosity (thickness). You can only use a bristle brush, a roller, or a staining pad. You can use gel stain on any kind of wood, softwood or hardwood. Because of its characteristic viscosity, gel stains don’t easily penetrate wood and stays mostly on the surface of wood. On top of that, because gel stain is highly viscous it doesn’t drip. It is easier to apply on vertical surfaces, like walls and sides of cupboards, as compared to oil-based wood stains.
How Long Does Gel Stain Take to Dry?
Gel stain dries much like any oil-based wood stain. It will take from 12 – 24 hours before it dries. But temperature and relative humidity will factor in on this.
The ideal temperature to dry wood stain (of any kind) is at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A cooler temperature will slow down the drying process and the stain will take longer to dry.
In terms of relative humidity, somewhere between 50 – 70% is ideal. In this case, a higher number will keep your wood stain moist for longer. This is ideal. So, check your thermometers and hygrometers, if you want to make sure. Otherwise, to check if the stain is already dry, touch it. If the stain is no longer tacky and is cool to the touch, this is a good indication that the stain is dry. However, if in doubt, wait a little longer before you apply the second coat or the finishing topcoat.
How to Make Stain Dry Faster
To make wood stain dry faster, there are two things that you can do. One is, you can expose the article to direct sunlight. This is also called heat treatment. Heat hastens evaporation. And exposure to direct sunlight will accelerate the evaporation of the solvents and will speed up the drying process. 3 hours of direct sunlight will help accelerate the drying process without causing any harm to the color or quality of the wood stain.
Another step you can do is to increase the ventilation around the article you want to dry. Increased ventilation means you have more air circulating in your work area and around the article. This helps get rid of unwanted fumes and chemical odor, if there is any. At the same time, the circulation of air also helps speed up the evaporation of solvents, and it will accelerate drying time.
You can also add a volatile solvent in order to accelerate the drying time of your stain. This dilutes or thins out the stain and makes it easier to apply and faster to dry.
How Long Should Stain Dry Between Coats?
How long does it take wood stain to dry before applying a second coat? This depends largely on what type of wood stain you are using. Because the different types of wood stains react differently with second coatings.
Water-based stain requires a shorter period to dry between coats, compared to oil-based or gel stains. Water-based stains need only 1 – 2 hours to dry, or at most 4 hours, before you can apply a second coat. It takes the same amount of time to dry, if you intend to add a third layer. But three layers would be enough to get a deeper and darker shade on your water-based stain.
An oil-stain needs to dry from 12 – 24 hours before you apply a second coat. However, because most oil-wood stains have a lacquer binder, some manufacturers do not recommend doing a second coat. But if you desire a deeper and darker stain on your article, two coats will do.
Gel stains, on the other hand, takes about 24 hours to dry before you can apply a second coat. However, if you decide to apply a second coat, make sure that the first coat is completely dry. Two coats of gel stain is enough to give you the desired color and look of your finished article. Gel stain spreads evenly.
How Long to Let Stain Dry Before Polyurethane?
If you decide to apply polyurethane as your topcoat, you need to make sure that the previous layers of stain are completely dry. It takes about 48 hours for any kind of stain to completely dry before you can apply a polyurethane topcoat to it. However, if you are not in any rush, you can allow the article to dry for a longer period in order to avoid unnecessary complications and ensure that your topcoat will be durable. Polyurethane will give your article a hard, glossy finish. It will not only make your furniture shine, but also protect it from scratches and damage. However, a polyurethane finish is ideal for indoor articles because it doesn’t withstand UV as effective as varnish does.
Something to always keep in mind when painting is always the quality of your brush. Check out our guide on brushes ideal for polyurethane.
How Can I Slow Down Stain Drying Time?
You can slow down the drying time of wood stain by increasing the relative humidity in your work area. You can do this using a humidifier that pumps mist into the air. Stain dries faster if exposed to heat and the relative humidity is between 50 – 70%. Anything higher than 70% humidity will cause the drying time of stain to slow down because of the increased moisture in the air.
However, it is important to take into account that some stains really dry much faster than others. Oil wood stains take longer to dry, than lacquer-based stain and water-based stain or dye. In case of lacquer-based stains, adding lacquer thinner may slow down the drying time a bit, but it can also affect the darkness of the shade because of the dilution.
In order to slow down drying time, you can also brush the area that is drying with a fresh coat of stain. This will dilute the stain that is already drying and slow down the process. This is also an important step to prevent lap marks and blotches.
If your stain dries too quickly, before you can wipe off excess stains, it will cause blotching or create lap marks, and may ruin your project. Make sure that you are able to wipe off excess stain before it dries.
How to Apply Wood Stain
Wood stain can be applied using four basic methods: brush, cloth (rag), roller, or pressure spray. It depends largely on the type of wood stain you use. For example, gel stain cannot be applied using a pressure sprayer or a cloth because of its high viscosity. A brush or microfiber roller is the best tool to use to apply gel stain. It will give you a much even coat.
However, in most cases of applying stain a wet cloth or rag is the most effective way of getting the job done. Compared to a brush, a wet cloth can spread stain more effectively because it can cover a large surface with stain with just one pass of the wet cloth. Unlike a brush which has a limited width and can cover the surface with stain using more effort.
Whatever method you choose, whether brush or wet cloth, it is very important to wipe off any excess stain immediately after applying. Wiping off excess stain prevents the excess stain from drying up before the next stroke. This will result in an uneven shade or blotching, and can ruin your finish. Likewise, immediately wiping off excess stain also prevents the formation of lap marks.
If you decide to sand the article after the first coat, do not let the stain completely dry. Because this will tend to raise the grains later. Sand the article before the stain completely dries, because at this point the grains are raised, and you would get a smoother surface after sanding than when the stain has completely dried.
How to Tell if Stain is Dry
You can tell if the stain is dry by touching the surface of the article with a slight pressure of your finger. If the stain is dry, it will not be tacky to the touch. Otherwise, if it hasn’t completely dried you can feel the stain slightly stick to the tip of your finger. Leave it for another hour or two before touching it again.
Another way to tell if the stain is dry is if the surface is cool to the touch. When stain has completely dried, it forms a smooth polymerized layer that feels cool to the touch. You can slide your finger on the surface to get a better feel.
Make sure the stain is completely dry before applying the finish.
Best Fast-Drying Wood Stain
General Finishes Dye Stain is probably the best fast-drying wood stain when it comes to how fast a stain dries. It is a water-based dye that dries in only 1 hour of its application.
Other brands of water-based stains that are fast-drying take a little longer. General Finishes Wood Stain, Miniwax Water-Based Wood Stain, #1 Deck Wood Stain Deck Stain and Sealer, and Defy Extreme Semi-Transparent Wood Stain all dry within 3 – 4 hours of application. All 3 stains are water-based. But some oil-based stains also dry in 3 – 4 hours, including Varathane One Step Wood Stain and Polyurethane, and Varathane Premium Gel Stain.
However, Varathane Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain is probably the best brand of wood stain in the market. It is an oil-based wood stain composed synthetic pigments and a mixture of different kinds of oil. The stain is not only efficient but also economical to use. You only need 1 coat of Varathane Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain to achieve your desired color and make your article look gorgeous. It saves you both time and money.
How to Get Wood Stain Off Hands
The quickest way to get wood stain off your hands is by rubbing it off with a wet cloth soaked in either mineral spirits, rubbing alcohol, or acetone (nail polish remover). These dissolve the pigment and dyes that have dried up on your skin more effectively than other natural substances. The solvent immediately acts on the dyes and pigments, clearing them off your skin in no time.
You can check to see if the color rubs off from your skin into the wet cloth by inspecting the cloth for color transfer. Continue to scrub off any dried paint from your hands or any part of your skin until no traces of stain are left. Then, immediately wash off all residue of solvent with soap and warm water, as some solvents are also harmful to the skin on prolonged contact.
Always use protective hand gloves when working with wood stains and finishes. This helps you avoid getting too much stain on your hands. However, it is unavoidable that in the process of staining, other parts of your skin that are exposed might also get in contact with some wood stain.