Can You Stain Plywood? (Different Types of Plywood)

The artificial structure and porosity of plywood make DIYers question if plywood can be finished with wood stain. So, can you?

You can apply wood stain on plywood surfaces. But, you’ll need to prep the plywood by sanding and applying a coat of wood conditioner or shellac-based washcoat.

This is to prevent the plywood material from over-absorbing the wood stain which can lead to a blotchy finish. You can also use special gel-based wood stains on plywood surfaces and many homeowners opt for this because it gives a deeper finish.

Either you use regular wood stain or gel stain on plywood, you’ll need to seal the plywood with a sealant so the finish is strong and protected from damage.

What Kind Of Plywood Can You Stain?

You can stain both types of plywood but hardwood plywood is known to accept stain more evenly than softwood or smooth plywood. This is because softwood plywood varies in density – some parts of the softwood plywood are denser than others meaning that the wood stain wouldn’t be absorbed evenly.

Professional woodworkers always advise a coat of sealer or wood conditioner to prep softwood plywood for stain application. The wood conditioner helps to regulate the stain absorption so the finish comes out better.

There are several types of plywood but hardwood plywood and softwood plywood are the two main types of plywood because all other types are gotten from either hardwood, softwood, or a mixture of both. When it comes to staining, hardwood plywood gives better finishes. This is because the wood is porous and evenly textured. So, the stain is absorbed evenly in the plywood and the finish is smoother.

Softwood plywood on the other hand is not evenly textured. Some parts of the softwood plywood are porous while others are sealed. This leads to an uneven and blotchy stain finish so hardwood is often a better option for staining.

To stain softwood plywood, a coat of wood conditioner is necessary but for hardwood plywood, it’s optional though it also helps with achieving a smooth finish. You should also know that exterior plywood isn’t stainable unless you sand it first. This is because exterior plywood is sealed to be water-resistant so the wood will repel wood stains.

What Type Of Stain Should You Use On Plywood?

What Type Of Stain Should You Use On Plywood?

You can use water-based stain, oil-based stain, and gel stain on plywood. All 3 types of wood stain work on plywood but the best option depends on the type of plywood.

For hardwood plywood that absorbs wood stain evenly, you can use an oil-based or water-based stain. For softwood plywood that doesn’t absorb wood stain evenly, the best option is gel stain since gel stains don’t penetrate the wood like oil and water-based wood stains do.

When in need of wood stain for a plywood surface, all 3 major types of wood stain can be used. Oil-based stains penetrate wood easily and when dry reveals a deep color shade. Oil-based stains are ideal for hardwood plywood because the plywood absorbs stain evenly and oil-based stains are durable.

However, oil-based stains contain additives and solvents that make the wood stain slightly toxic. As such, the oil-based stain shouldn’t be used in large quantities inside the home because it can cause a buildup of toxic fumes. Instead, you can use oil-based stains outside the home.

You can also use water-based stains on hardwood plywood but the finish isn’t as deep as oil-based stains. Also, water-based stains don’t give as much wood protection as oil-based stains. So, water-based stain isn’t ideal on busy or exterior plywood surfaces.

However, water-based stain contains fewer toxins than oil-based stain so it can be used indoors and in large quantities. You should know that both oil and water-based wood stain can be used on softwood plywood. But, a washcoat sealer or wood conditioner is needed to make the stain absorb evenly.

The best wood stain for softwood plywood is gel stain because it doesn’t penetrate the plywood and as such will dry evenly. Next, let’s find out how to stain plywood.

How To Stain Hardwood Plywood?

Staining hardwood plywood is easy because the wood absorbs stain well but you still need to follow the right steps to achieve the perfect finish. This guide shows the steps to follow but before starting anything, you’ll need a few tools and supplies:

  • 180-grit sandpaper
  • A paintbrush
  • Paint mixer or turning stick
  • Rags
  • Mineral spirits
  • A power sander (for large surfaces and plywood floors)

Here is a quick rundown of how to stain hardwood plywood:

  1. Sand the plywood surface
  2. Remove dust and wipe the plywood
  3. Apply coats of the stain
  4. Seal the finish

Next, let’s check out these steps in detail.

1. Sand The Hardwood Plywood Surface

Sand The Hardwood Plywood Surface

The first step is to sand the hardwood plywood surface with 180-grit sandpaper. Sanding helps to remove stuck debris and dust nibs on the plywood surface.

Sanding also helps to prep the plywood for stain absorption by causing tiny openings in the wood that the stain can be absorbed through. You should always sand in the direction of the wood grain and not against it.

For large surfaces like plywood floors and walls, you’ll need a power sander because sanding manually will be time-consuming and very stressful. If you are working on a small plywood surface like a tabletop, you can sand it manually. While sanding, pay attention to the edges of the plywood so you don’t over-sand.

2. Wipe and Remove Dust From The Plywood

Wipe and Remove Dust From The Plywood

After sanding down the plywood surface, wipe down the dust with a clean rag. For large surfaces, you’ll need to wash off the dust or use a vacuum. If you washed off the dust, allow the plywood to dry for at least 12 hours before staining.

3. Apply Coats Of Stain

Apply Coats Of Stain

The next step is to apply the stain, since the hardwood plywood has been sanded properly, it can be stained without a washcoat.

But, if you see dents, spaces, and holes in the wood, you should use a layer of shellac-based washcoat to seal the spaces. You can apply the wood stain using a bristled paintbrush but if you want to apply gel stain, you should use a lint-free cloth.

You can apply up to 3 coats of wood stain on the plywood but leave enough dry time between coats of the wood stain.

You can check the manufacturer’s instructions to be sure how long to wait before another coat. On average, you should wait 1-2 hours between coats of water-based stain and 4-6 hours for oil-based stain. Gel stain takes at least 12 hours to dry between coats.

4. Wipe Excess Stain

Wipe Excess Stain

After applying the wood stain, you should use a clean rag to wipe off the excess wood stain. This should be done in less than 10 minutes after the final application.

If you are working with gel stain, you can dampen the rag with mineral spirits before wiping off the excess.

5. Seal The Finish

Seal The Finish

The final step is to seal the finish. This should only be done when the wood stain is fully dry. You should wait at least 24 hours after application before sealing the finish – this gives enough time for the wood stain to dry. You can seal the finish with water-based polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer. Gel stains should also be sealed.

Next, let’s find out how to stain softwood plywood.

How To Stain Birch or Pine Plywood?

Staining a Birch or Pine plywood surface is not as easy as staining hardwood plywood. This is because Birch and Pine plywoods are made from softwood so these plywood surfaces don’t absorb stain evenly.

So before staining the plywood, you need to condition the wood first. There are different ways to condition the wood and this guide will show you how to go about it. But first, we need a few tools and supplies:

  • Sandpaper (180-grit – 24-grit)
  • Wood stain
  • A sealant
  • Clean rags
  • Wood conditioner or shellac-based washcoat
  • Paintbrushes
  • Mineral spirits
  • A power sander
  • Paint mixer or turning stick

Here is a quick rundown of how to stain softwood plywood:

  1. Sand the Pine or Birch plywood with fine-grit sandpaper
  2. Wipe off the dust
  3. Apply wood conditioner
  4. Apply the stain
  5. Wipe off the excess wood stain
  6. Seal the finish

Next, let’s check out these steps in detail.

1. Sand The Pine or Birch Plywood With Fine-Grit Sandpaper

The first step is to sand down the plywood with 220-grit sandpaper. Unlike hardwood plywood surfaces where you need to sand with medium-grit sandpaper, you need to sand softwood plywood with a fine-grit sandpaper.

This is because fine-grit sandpaper produces fine dust that can fill in and clog the softwood. This helps to control the stain absorption of the softwood plywood surface.

2. Wipe Off The Dust

After sanding, remove the dust by wiping the surface with a lint-free rag. You shouldn’t vacuum or wash off the dust because doing that will remove the fine dust that has clogged the plywood. Instead, wipe off the dust with a rag. For large surfaces, you can use a mop.

3. Apply Wood Conditioner

The next step is to apply a wood conditioner to the plywood. Wood conditioner is a thin coat that preps the softwood and reduces stain absorption.

Wood conditioner ensures that the wood stain is absorbed evenly. If you want to apply water or oil-based wood stain on the Pine or Birch plywood, a wood conditioner is important. Leave the wood conditioner to dry for at least 2 hours before staining.

4. Apply The Stain

When the wood conditioner is dry, you can apply the stain. Water-based and oil-based wood stain should be applied with a paintbrush while gel stain should be wiped on. Allow each coat to dry before applying the next.

5. Wipe Off Excess Wood Stain

After applying the final coat, wipe off the excess wood stain.

6. Seal The Finish

For the best durability, strength, and water resistance of the finish, you should seal it after it dries. You can seal with polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer – For each of these sealants, you need a maximum of 3 coats.

Next, let’s check out the benefits of staining a plywood surface.

Benefits Of Staining Plywood?

Here are the top ten advantages of staining a plywood surface:

  1. Staining the plywood makes the surface more attractive.
  2. When sealed, a wood stain finish will protect the plywood from moisture and water damage.
  3. Oil-based wood stains prevent the plywood from rotting.
  4. Exterior wood stain protects the plywood from the sun and UV ray deterioration.
  5. Wood stain is easy to use on plywood.
  6. Gel wood stain can be used to highlight detail work, carvings, and designs on plywood.
  7. Wood stain protects the plywood surface from scratches and dents.
  8. Wood stain is affordable.
  9. Staining plywood prevents dust and debris from sticking to the plywood surface.
  10. Wood stain doesn’t peel off of wood as paints do. Instead, the wood stain fades and this makes touch-ups easier.

Final Words

In summary, plywood surfaces can be stained with either water-based, oil-based, or gel-based wood stain. For hardwood plywood surfaces, all 3 types of wood stains work well and if the plywood is smooth, you should be fine without conditioning the wood first.

However, for softwood plywood, gel stain is the best option and if you want to use water or oil stain, you’ll need a light coat of wood conditioner or shellac-based washcoat. Remember to follow the manufacturer’s guide when staining plywood and don’t apply too many coats.

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