When To Apply Second Coat of Stain

I was eating a tuna sandwich for lunch this afternoon before returning to work, and I slobbered some of the mayonnaise on my shirt.  Mayonnaise is egg and a lot of oil, along with additives to punch up the flavor.

While trying harder to be careful while I was eating, some of the tuna salad once again landed on my shirt, right around the same place.  A second coat of oil, if you will, and the staining was complete.

Should I have waited longer before adding that second coat?  Maybe wait until the first coat of mayo stain was dry?  

Yes, I know, silly.  But that is the subject of today’s article – when to apply a second coat of stain. 

Key Points:

  • The different types of stains take different times to dry sufficiently for a second coat.
  • Oil-based stains dry more slowly than water-based stains but not as long as gel stains take to dry.
  • Be patient when staining for the best results.

Wood Stains

Wood stains are very much like a thin oil or water-based paint and can be applied with a brush or cloth with any excess stain not absorbed into the wood pores wiped off.  That excess stain might contribute to an uneven color on the wood, and we want to avoid that.

They are, in essence, a type of paint used to color wood and enhance the wood grain’s appearance.  They contain a colorant that is suspended or dissolved in a medium or solvent.  

They have a sealing quality that will prevent the absorption of water, although they do not make the wood waterproof.  They will, however, protect the wood from harmful UV rays from the sun that could cause the wood to crack, warp, or cup.  

Wood stains contain pigments (the colorant), what is referred to as the “volatile” (the medium or solvent in which the pigment is dissolved or suspended), resins, and additives, depending on the type of stain.

Wood Stain Types

There are two main types of wood stains to consider for your project.  They are:

Oil-based stain.  As you can likely figure, the volatile for oil-based stain is oil.  Oil-based stains have good adhesion, penetrate into the wood just below the surface, and will add rich color to the wood, especially by highlighting its grain.  They contain chemicals that can be harmful, as well as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that will emit as a gas when applied and as the stain dries.  A respirator should be worn when working with them, and the room should be well-ventilated with good air circulation.  Even then, the chemicals and VOCs will linger in the air for a while, and it’s best to simply leave the room and allow enough time for the stain to dry.

Varathane 262006 Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain, Quart, Dark Walnut

Water-based stain.  The water is the volatile, or medium,  in this type of stain, and the pigment is dissolved in it.  It is easy to apply, resistant to mold and mildew, and very easy to clean up after with – you guessed it – water and soap.  A respirator is not necessary when working with water-based stains, and they dry very quickly – again, there’s water.

Generally speaking, stains do a good job of bringing out the wood’s grain pattern, no matter which type of stain you use. This is especially so when you are working with larger grains, woods like oak and ash.  To an extent, you can treat them like paint in that you can leave a little extra pigment on the wood’s surface for added color as long as you wipe off most of the excess stain.

When To Add That Second Coat of Wood Stain

Just as you wait until the first coat of paint has dried before adding the second coat, you wait for wood stain to dry before you consider that second coat.  First, though, you want to see how the first coat of stain took – are you happy with the color? – is the grain sufficiently highlighted?  – is a second coat even necessary?

A second coat of wood stain may not be necessary if you are happy with the color or the evenness of it on the wood surface.  If you are happy, that one coat of stain could be enough, in which case you’re done. 

If you aren’t, though, and would like the stain to be a bit darker, a second coat will get you that darker, deeper color.  You don’t want to be adding a liberal coat of stain, though, whether it’s the first coat or the second, and again, wiping off excess stain is important for a more even color.  Even then, though, an even color is not always possible, depending on the type of wood you’re staining.

But, if that first coat of wood stain is not dark enough, or even enough, you’re on to a second coat.  When and how then come into play in your decision-making.  

Dry Time For Wood Stains

Just as with paint, you want the first coat to dry fully before adding a second coat.  With wood stains, though, you don’t want to wait too long between coats, as it will affect the results of the staining project.  In the same respect, you don’t want to apply a second coat too soon, as it will not adhere well to wet stain from the first coat.

You’ll find useful information on the stain container, and be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendation for the drying process.  Those instructions may also make recommendations on where you are staining that piece of furniture, house trim, or bookshelf.

What Can Affect The Drying Process for Wood Stain?

Dry time can be affected by weather conditions, for instance.  Humid weather will slow down the drying process, as you might expect, for both oil-based and water-based stains.

Beyond weather conditions and humid weather, ventilation and air circulation will impact how long stains will take to dry fully.  The better ventilated and the greater the air circulation you can provide, the quicker your first coat of stain will dry.  

You do not want to use or count on direct sunlight to speed along the drying process.  This could lead to what is called a “flash dry” that could result before the stain has had a chance to penetrate the wood.  Involving the sun in the drying process is a bad idea. 

The temperature will also impact drying time for your stain.  Too cold, and it dries more slowly, and in fact, manufacturers will tell you not to apply a coat of stain if it is below a certain temperature.  The range of temperature for decent drying time is between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The type of stain you are using will also determine how long the hours between coats should be.  A coat of oil stain takes longer to dry no matter what, while water-based stains will dry much more quickly. Gel stains, with their pudding-like consistency, will also take longer to dry fully before you can consider a second coat.

The drying process for each is different, and again you should turn to the product label on the stain can for that guidance. Not all wood stains are the same, either, and differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. 

Each will have its own drying requirements, and stains should never be mixed. Stay with the stain you began with, and don’t use a different stain for a second coat.  Mixing stains is also a bad idea.

The wood you are using will also have an effect on drying time.  If the wood itself is dry, the stain will dry faster and along the manufacturer’s suggested drying time.  Wet wood will slow down the stain’s drying process.  This is just common sense.

Adding a Second Coat of Oil-Based Stain

You’ve allowed some time to pass after adding the first coat of stain, and you want the color to be darker.  A second coat of stain is coming, then.  But when?

Remember that oil stain takes longer to dry than water-based ones.  Generally speaking, you will want to wait 4 hours before adding the second coat.  Environmental factors can lengthen that, as we mentioned above, but the touch test will tell you for sure when it’s safe for the second coat.  If it touches dry after 4 hours, it will likely be safe for the next coat.

Adding a Second Coat of Water-based Stain

It’s water, and absent environmental conditions that would inhibit the drying process, a second coat can be applied after an hour.  Again, check the manufacturer’s recommendation, and maybe you will want to wait for 2 hours, but that should be plenty.

Adding a Second Coat of Gel Stain

General Finishes Oil Base Gel Stain, 1 Quart, Java

Gel stains are generally longer to dry than the two regular stains. Their pudding-like consistency will take longer, even, than oil stains.  They will sit on the surface of the wood and not penetrate as deeply as the other stains.  They form a film on the wood’s surface that takes time to cure.

Video Demo on What Not To Do When Staining

We’ve spent all these words telling you what and when to do something with your staining project, and wanted to balance it out a bit for you.  Here’s a video that offers 5 tips on what not to do when staining wood.

How many coats of stain you add to your wood is up to you, and we’ve mentioned the considerations for adding that second coat.  Coats of stain are purely personal preference – what it looks like, how dark it is, how evenly or unevenly the first coat took to the wood’s surface.

We can simply suggest patience.  Wait sufficiently for the drying process to play out, examine the stained surface, and then decide.  All woodworking projects benefit from patience throughout, and staining is no different.

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