Can You Stain Plywood? (Different Types)

The plywood’s artificial structure and porosity make you wonder whether you can stain it. So, can you?

You can stain plywood, but you must prep it by sanding and applying a coat of wood conditioner or shellac-based washcoat. This is to prevent the plywood from over-absorbing the stain, which can lead to a blotchy finish.

You can also use special gel-based stain made for plywood surfaces. However, you still must prep (or seal) the surface. 

Types of Plywood:

There are several types of plywood, but hardwood and softwood are the two main types. That’s because all other types are either made from hardwood, softwood, or a mixture of both.

When it comes to staining, hardwood plywood gives better finishes. That’s because it has a porous surface that is evenly textured. So, the stain is absorbed evenly, so the finish comes out smooth.

On the other hand, softwood plywood isn’t evenly textured; some parts are porous while others are sealed. This leads to an uneven and blotchy stain finish. That’s because some parts will absorb the stain, and others won’t.

To stain softwood plywood, applying a wood conditioner (or sanding sealer) is necessary to prevent over-absorption. Also, exterior plywood isn’t stainable because it’s sealed with a water-resistant sealant. To stain it, you must sand it to remove the sealant. 

Types of Stain:

What Type Of Stain Should You Use On Plywood?

You can use water-based, oil-based, or gel-based stains on plywood. The type you use depends on the type of plywood. 

For hardwood plywood, use an oil-based or water-based stain. For softwood plywood that doesn’t absorb stain evenly, use gel stain as it doesn’t penetrate the wood deeply. 

Each type of wood stain has different features. For instance, oil-based stain penetrates the wood easily, gives it a deeper color shade, and protects it. That’s because it contains a high amount of oils in the formula.

On the other hand, the water-based stain doesn’t penetrate wood as deeply, gives a lighter color shade, and doesn’t offer good protection. Gel stain is a tropical finish that doesn’t penetrate the surface and produces a glossy protective coating.

How To Stain Hardwood Plywood?

Staining hardwood plywood is easy because it absorbs it evenly. But, you still need to properly prep it to archive a smooth finish.

Here are the tools you need:

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

1. Sand It

Sand The Hardwood Plywood Surface

Sanding removes imperfections and dust and preps the surface for stain absorption by creating tiny openings (holes) on the surface. The stain will penetrate or soak into these tiny holes. 

To sand plywood, use 180-grit sandpaper. For larger surfaces, use a power sander. While sanding, pay attention to the edges of the surface to avoid over-sanding. After sanding, remove the dust. 

2. Apply Coats Of Stain

Apply Coats Of Stain

Since hardwood plywood has textured pores, you don’t need to apply a washcoat. However, if the surface is riddled with dents, spaces, or holes, you must apply a shellac-based washcoat to seal (or fill) these spaces. 

Once the surface is sanded and perfect (no holes), apply the wood stain using a paintbrush. To apply gel stain, use a lint-free cloth. Apply 3 coats of stain on the plywood, but leave enough dry time between coats. On average, you must wait 2-6 hours between coats, depending on the type. 

3. Wipe The Excess 

Wipe Excess Stain

After 30 minutes, use a clean rag to wipe off the excess. For gel stain, damp a rag with mineral spirits and wipe the surface. 

5. Seal The Finish

Seal The Finish

After it dries, you must seal the stained plywood with polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer (3 coats). This gives the finish the best durability, strength, and water resistance.

Staining Softwood Plywood (Birch or Pine)

Staining softwood plywood, such as Birch or Pine is harder because they don’t absorb stain evenly. So, you must apply a washcoat or wood conditioner to limit and prevent over-absorption. 

Here are the tools you need:

  • 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

1. Sand It

Sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper (220-grit). That’s because fine-grit sandpaper produces fine dust that can fill and clog the softwood pores. This helps to control the absorption of the stain. Also, sanding removes imperfections and bumps from the surface.

2. Wipe Off The Dust

After sanding, remove the dust using a lint-free rag. Don’t vacuum or wash off the dust because that will remove the fine dust particles that have clogged the wood pores. For larger surfaces, use a mop. 

3. Apply Wood Conditioner

Wood conditioner is a thin coat applied over softwood to reduce the absorption of the stain. After applying it, wait 2 hours until it dries. 

4. Apply The Stain

After the wood conditioner dries, apply the stain. To apply water or oil-based stain, use a paintbrush. To apply gel stain, use a lint-free rag. Apply 3 coats and wait until one coat dries before applying the next one.

5. Wipe Off Excess Wood Stain

After applying the final coat, wipe off the excess.

6. Seal The Finish

For the best durability, strength, and water resistance of the finish, seal it with polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer (3 coats).


Here are the benefits of staining plywood:

  1. Makes the plywood look better.
  2. Protects the surface from moisture, water damage, scratches and dents.
  3. Prevents it from rotting. 
  4. It’s affordable.
  5. Prevent dust and debris from sticking. 
  6. Highlights detail work, carving, and designs on the surface. 
  7. It’s easy to apply.
  8. It can be painted over. 
  9. Doesn’t peel off. 

Final Words

In summary, staining hardwood plywood is easy because it absorbs stains evenly. However, softwood plywood doesn’t absorb stains evenly, so you must apply a washcoat (or wood conditioner) to limit and prevent over-absorption.

You can use oil-based, water-based, or gel stain. It’s recommended to seal the finish with polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer after it dries. 

Tony Adams
Tony Adams

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about,

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