How to Make Homemade Wood Stains

Learn how to make water-, oil- and alcohol-based homemade wood stains.

Water-, oil- and alcohol-based homemade wood stains.

Before mixing your homemade wood stains, take ample time to observe the wood you are staining and the color you want to achieve.

Photo by James Wade

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In The Furniture Bible (Artisan Books, 2014), master furniture restorer Christophe Pourny reveals everything you need to know about caring for furniture, whether you’re a woodworker, a collector, a fan of good design — or just looking to fix a scratch on your dining room table. Covering furniture materials and construction, shopping and collecting, and cleaning, repair, and refinishing, The Furniture Bible is a timeless and definitive guide. The following excerpt explains how to make homemade wood stains and comes from “Part 5: Tool School.”

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Furniture Bible.

There are three types of stains: oil-, water-, and alcohol-based. For the recipes below, use pigment that’s appropriate for the medium (each one is processed differently).

You can also add pigments directly to finishes like tung oil, creating a product that stains, seals, and finishes simultaneously (multitasking products are not a modern invention!). You can add pigments to varnish, although add only a small amount — just enough to give a highlight or subtle hue. Any more would look weird, and the result would be difficult to predict.

What You Will Need to Make Homemade Wood Stain

• Glass container
• Pigment
• Medium appropriate to that pigment (e.g., oil for oil pigment)
• Wood or plastic stirrer
• Powdered whiting or powdered chalk (optional)

Oil-based Stain

You can make oil-based stains with a good-quality gum turpentine or naphtha if you want a longer open time, which comes in handy when staining larger surfaces and avoiding lap marks.

1. Mix pigment with the appropriate medium. Start with 1 ounce or less of pigment per 1 quart of solvent. Add more pigment if desired; the exact amount will depend on how deep or intense you want the color to be. Stir and wait overnight.

2. Adjust the transparency. You may also add powdered whiting or powdered chalk to create a more opaque or semitransparent stain. While I don’t recommend hiding the beauty of the wood, a higher degree of opacity can come in handy for darker species like ebony or Jacobean oak, or if your piece is quite a disaster.

3. Stains from the same medium can be mixed. This can help you adjust not only the lightness or darkness but also the color itself.

Water-based Stain

Even though water-based stain dries to the touch very quickly, it’s important that after you apply the stain, you let the piece of furniture sit overnight before finishing.

1. Mix the stain. Boil water. Add 1 ounce of powdered pigment per quart of water, adding more pigment as desired. Remove the stain from the heat and stir regularly. Transfer the stain to a container.

2. Let the stain cool overnight.

3. Shake the container to stir. The stain is now ready to use.

4. Shelf life: This stain has a long shelf life if stored away from light.

Alcohol-based Stain

Alcohol stain dries almost instantly, so you can apply the subsequent finish right away. For techniques during which you’ll add stain to shellac, use this.

1. Mix the stain. Use 1 ounce or less of pigment per quart of alcohol and adjust as desired. Add pigments to methanol (not regular denatured wood alcohol) and stir regularly for 1 hour. Better yet, put it in a bottle with a safe cap (so the medium doesn’t evaporate) and shake it regularly.

2. It’s ready to use. You don’t even have to wait for the product to set.

3. Shelf life: If stored tightly and away from light, alcohol-based stain keeps almost indefinitely. Mark the level with a marker to be sure the mix is constant.

Tips for Making Homemade Wood Stains

There are many natural-earth pigments: lime, walnut-hull powder, etc. Or search the Internet for custom pigment makers and mixers. The quality of their material is unparalleled and their preparation flawless!

Before mixing, take time to observe the wood you’re staining and the color you want to achieve. I always tell people that wood has no color — it has colors. Look closely; the hue changes fiber by fiber, layer by layer. Look from another angle, in a different light, and the tone changes again. There’s no right or wrong, only choices! It’s up to you.


Excerpted from The Furniture Bible by Christophe Pourny and Jen Renzi (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by James Wade. Illustrations by Christophe Pourny. Buy this book from our store: The Furniture Bible.