How Long Does Water-Based Stain Take To Dry?

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My, how impatient we have become these days.  Instant gratification is the rule now – we want it all, and we want it now.  Those of us who work with wood know this doesn’t work well in the shop.  

Years ago, when I realized I needed to learn patience, I took up bonsai as a hobby.  I had read that it was a requirement in the raising of trees in pots.  As an aside, the word bonsai means “tree in pot,” and is pronounced “bone-sy” and is very different from banzai.

I certainly learned patience with my trees.  Potting them was the easy part; trimming and pruning, then wiring, and then waiting for a growing season or even a full year before touching them again required great patience.  

I mention this because finishing a project, whether with stain or paint and with whatever topcoat you have chosen, requires patience, too.  Each step takes as long as it takes and can’t be hurried.  No matter how much we want that 3-minute egg to be done in 2 minutes, we have to wait the full 3 minutes.  

Such is the case with staining.  Not the process of staining, mind you, but rather waiting for the application to dry before applying a second coat or a first coat of varnish or shellac or polyurethane.  It goes even further.

Make sure you read the label on the stain container and know how much time it’s going to take to dry.  That becomes part of your project planning, just like allowing glue-ups to dry or a topcoat to dry before a second coat is applied.  Your project can go sideways easily if you don’t take time into account – time to dry, time to cure.

Factors To Consider For Staining

General Finishes Water Based Wood Stain, 1 Quart, Espresso

The time it will take for your stain to dry will depend on a number of factors:

The type of wood stain

There are two types of wood stains – water-based wood stain, and oil-based wood stain.  Each has its own dry time, and the label will tell you what to expect and how patient you must be. 

  • Water-based stains, as the name suggests, use water as the medium to which is added aniline dyes to provide the color. 
  • Oil-based stains use an oil medium, often linseed oil, to which the color dyes are added.  Water and oil have different dry times, as the type of stain matters, and we’ll get to that later.
  • Gel stains are relatively new to the staining world.  They are thicker than either of the first two and go on easily.  They are thick enough, too, to hide any imperfections in the wood, so if you are a lazy sander, choose a gel stain for your project.
  • Lacquer is another wood stain of sorts that imparts color to wood.  Its fumes, though, require a careful choice of place and environment for its use, and a respirator is recommended, too.  
  • Dye stains are another option and are usually sprayed, not brushed or wiped on.  They are composed of wood colorants and acetone and are very thin.  

The method of application and number of coats

Brushing the stain on will have one dry time; wiping the stain on and removing excess stain as you go along with having a different dry time; spraying the wood stain will have a third dry time.  The number of coats of stain will influence dry time, as well.

The type of wood being stained

Hardwoods, those woods from deciduous trees like oak, maple, walnut, and hickory, will have a quicker dry time than softwoods like pine and spruce.  Softwoods are more porous and will absorb more stain as it is applied, and thus have a longer dry time.  Pressure-treated wood is similar to hardwoods in its dry time requirements.

For hardwoods and pressure-treated woods, you should plan on two coats of stain to make sure enough has been absorbed into the wood and has been absorbed evenly without patches.  Especially with pressure-treated woods, you will want to apply a thinner coat of stain and wipe off any excess as you go along.  This, too, will reduce the chance of a patchy coat.

For softwoods, and since they will absorb more of the stain, it’s advisable to apply a pre-stain conditioner to help facilitate a more even absorption of the stain and reduce the chance of blotches.

Environmental factors

If the weather is damp or the room is humid, dry time will be longer, as you would expect.  The colder it is, the longer the dry time, too.  A dry, warm environment with good air circulation is more conducive to a quicker dry time.  Use common sense in choosing the right environment for staining wood – where would you dry off quicker, a sauna room or outside in the breeze and warm air?  

Various Stain Dry Times

Now that we know a bit about stains and the woods they are being applied to, let’s get specific about dry times.

Water-based Wood Stain Dry Time

Water-based stains will dry in as little as 3 – 4 hours.  Humidity will affect water-based stain dry times more than any other factor.

Oil-Based Wood Stain Dry Time

Oil-based stains require a lot longer to dry than water-based stains, much more than the 3 -4 hours for the water-based stain.  You should expect upwards of 12 – 24 hours, and the manufacturer’s label will give a clear indication of how long you should expect. 

Gel Wood Stain Dry Time

You’ll have time not only for a coffee break but also for a few meals if you use gel stains.  Expect to have to wait 24 hours for them to dry, as you would expect for the thickest stain.

Lacquer Dry Time

You can drink your coffee a bit faster if you’re using a lacquer for color on the wood.  It will dry in as little as 15 minutes, irrespective of air circulation.  Again, though, the fumes will get you if you don’t wear a ventilator.

Dye Stain Dry Time

The speedy dry time of dye stains beats them all, faster even than lacquer.  It’s thick, sprays on quickly, and dries just as quickly.  Unlike gel stains that will cover up some defects in the wood preparation before staining, dye stains will show those defects clearly, so you’ll have to pay attention to your wood prep with a good sanding job.

The Difference Between Dry Time and Cure Time

Staining a Wood Wall

Yes, there is a difference between drying time and curing time, and it’s important.  Dry time is sometimes referred to as “coat time” in that the drying time measures the time between coats.  When we say water-based wood stains take 3 -4 hours to dry, we mean you should wait 3 – 4 hours before applying a second coat. 

Cure time refers to the time you should wait before heavy use or traffic.  Cure time for a water-based wood stain will be between 24 – 48 hours to fully cure.  Environmental factors will play into the time you should wait before continuing with the project.  Manufacturer labels will offer more specific information about both dry time and cure time, and you should take it to heart.  

The cure times for other types of stains vary:  oil-based stains will need 72 hours to cure; gel wood stains can require as many as 7 days to cure; dye stains will take less than one day to cure.

Steps to Take To Speed Up Dry Times

Sometimes, all it will take to speed up drying time for wood stains is a good day.  When the weather is favorable, sunshine and warmth, and a light breeze, choose to dry your work piece outside. Let the environment do the work for you.

Even if you will not be drying the work piece outside, you should still pick a good weather day.  Temperature should be above 50 degrees (cold will inhibit drying time), and open windows will enhance circulation to aid in drying.

Beyond that, though, there are a few things you could consider:

  • Apply thin coats and wipe off excess stain with a clean cloth. Wood will eventually stop absorbing stain, and you want to remove what it doesn’t absorb rather than let it pool on the wood surface.
  • Improve airflow in the drying area.  Use a fan or open windows to create a cross-breeze, to improve circulation.
  • If it is an outdoor project, something like refreshing wooden steps or a deck, don’t stain right after you’ve pressure-washed.  Wood should be fully dry before stain is applied.  So, power-wash on one day, again taking advantage of good weather with sunshine and a good breeze; then stain in a day or two to give the wood enough time to dry fully.  In fact, this is one of my spring projects out back.

Staining Basics To Consider

We’ll keep the word count for this part low.  We found a very helpful and informative video that presents a lot of stuff about staining woods and cures some misconceptions about stains and staining woods.  (see what we did there?  alliteration, and pun)  It’s worth watching, as there are some tips that might not have occurred to you if you are new to woodworking and finishing your projects.

Choose the wood for your project carefully, and understand how it will take stain applications.  Read the manufacturer’s label on using their stain and the recommendations on dry time and curing.  Create the right environment for staining to enhance dry and cure times.

Follow these simple guidelines, and your staining project will go well.  

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