How to Apply Wood Stain - Hand Application Using Water Based Stains

Water Based Wood Stains have all the advantages of oil-based stains: they spread easily, can be repaired, blend effortlessly and have plenty of open time. The thicker formula allows controlled penetration, which will reduce blotching on soft wood. Read on for the video transcript, instructions for how to best use GF Wood Stains and a list of useful links.



The great thing about GF water-based stains is that it is not necessary to pre-wet the wood. General Finishes Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner is also not needed. GF's water-based wood stains are formulated to condition most wood species.

Water-based finishes need a smoother surface than oil-based finishes but be careful not to over sand. Water-based stains dry faster than oil so it is critical to plan your project section by section. Always have General Finishes Extender on hand to use if humidity is low, temperature is high, or you are working on a large project. Ideal conditions are seventy degrees Fahrenheit and seventy percent relative humidity.


On unfinished wood, start with a medium sandpaper then progress to finer grades. The grain in the wood will determine your prep sanding schedule:

  • Closed Grain Woods such as Cherry, Pine, Maple, Birch, and Alder should be sanded with 150 then 180 grit sandpaper.
  • Open Grain Woods such as Oak, Ash, Mahogany, and Parawood should be sanded with 180-grit, then 220-grit sandpaper.


Use a liberal amount of stain. The product is thick so it's not going to run off, making it is easier to control. Use enough stain so that you can actually write your initials in it.

Next, come back and wipe off the excess with blue shop towels.

Take a bristle brush and come back in to back brush it. Feather it out using the brush to even out anything that you missed with the towels.

Allow your first coat to dry 2-4 hours. If it is rainy, humid or cold let it dry overnight.

After the first layer of topcoat has dried, run your hand over the surface. It will feel fuzzy because water-based stains raise the moisture content of the wood. Don't worry, grain raise is normal.

Using a 220-grit flexible sanding pad, break the edge so it's not too coarse. Be careful not to go too heavy across the corners because you don't want to cut off any color.

The finish is dry when it produces a white powder and is smooth to the touch.

Apply three to four layers of topcoat. Let each coat dry 2-4 hours, sanding between coats with a 220-grit sanding pad.


Thin GF water based semi-gel stains with 10-15% General Finishes Extender or water at point-of-use only. Decant what you need into a separate container and use immediately. If thinned water based semi-gel stains are stored, they will separate and lose the semi-gel consistency.

General Finishes RTM Stains are a thinner formula designed for professional spray applications.