Learn How To Finish Wood With Waterbased Stains

Reader Contribution by Staff
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Before you check out my video on successful interior wood finishing, let me tell you something important about how wood finishes are changing. 



Traditional wood finishing has often involved a conflict between enhancing the appearance of wood on the one hand, and endangering brain cells on the other. Water-based urethanes have come a long way to reducing the problem of solvent exposure in the home and workshop,  but progress is happening more slowly when it comes to liquid wood stains. My favourite brand of water-based stains comes from a company called Minwax, and I’m impressed enough that I’d like to tell you how I use them. 


Until now there have been two problems with traditional wood stains, other than their solvent base. First, they’ve only been available in a relatively small array of factory-mixed colours. There’s only so much shelf space that can be reserved for cans of stain. And of those available colours, all were some shade of brown. The Minwax line of waterbased stains expands the palette to a total of 66 different colours, including some rich blues, reds and greens.  


Before you dismiss the idea of a blue entertainment centre or a red dresser, think about snowsuits for a minute. They’re a big part of life here in Canada, and when I was growing up in the 1970s, winter gear for kids was either dark brown, or dark blue. It was sensible, traditional and predictable, in a Soviet-block kind of way. But would anyone really go back to that now? Isn’t a playground full of brightly coloured children so much more appealing? I think it’s the same with non-traditional hues of wood stain, and we’ll probably see other companies copy-catting Minwax in time.   


George Frank, one of the most talented wood finishers of the 20th century, was on to this same truth more than 40 years ago. In his enduring book “Wood Finishing With George Frank”, the author  shows the stunning effects that are possible when rich, rainbow colours are combined with visible wood grain. This isn’t paint I’m talking about here, but a stain that lets the natural variations of wood grain show through the colour. Obviously, Minwax didn’t invent this approach, but they have made it easily accessible to many people. 


Using the product involves a three-part process: application of a pre-stain sealer; application of the stain; and protection of the surface under several coats of water-based urethane. The pre-stain sealer is important, as the instructions insist. I prepared matching colour samples, one with the sealer and one without, and found a much richer, crisper result on the sealed surface. The wood grain was somewhat muddy on the non-sealed sample. 


To see exactly how I use waterbased stains in my homestead workshop, check out my video at 

Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on .