{FINISHING} Water-Based Stain

You all know how I try to use the “friendliest” materials when I’m working around the house, right? Oil-based stains and conventional finishes give me headaches and I know they’re not good for the environment.

But, as much as it hurts to say this, it seems that most “friendly” finishes have a ways to go before they achieve the look, durability, and ease of application of more traditional finishes.

I’m always experimenting with finishes, trying new things to figure out if there is something I’ve missed, something that works well and looks great and won’t make me (or my kids or the earth) sick. That’s how I ended up trying water-based stains.

Here are the drawbacks that I’ve found with water-based stains:

  • They raise the grain
  • They have less “open” time (not easily wiped off)
  • They seem more opaque than traditional stains (this could also be a benefit)
  • Not widely available
  • Hard to predict the color when you dilute the stain

And the benefits:

  • Easy to dilute using water (rather than having to keep mineral spirits on hand)
  • Super easy to clean up (you can wash applicators in the sink rather than worrying about how to dispose of them “appropriately”)
  • Have very little, if any, odor. Most of what I smell is just the smell of wet lumber
  • Available at specialty stores with employees who *might* be able to give you good finishing tips (or they might not have tried water-based stains and will tell you to try something else)
  • Environmentally-friendly

Through lots of experimenting, I’ve managed to find ways to get around a few of the drawbacks with water-based stains. If you’re used to working with oil-based stains, the transition to water-based takes some practice but it’s worth it.

First, when I’m using water-based stains, I do two things before I start staining. I always rub or paint water onto the raw wood before the final sanding. This raises the grain in the wood. Once it’s been raised and dried, if you sand lightly the grain-raising will be minimized when you stain. If you sand too hard, you’ll get down to wood that wasn’t touched by the water the first time around, and your grain will end up raising later.

Second, I usually use wood conditioner. I really don’t know whether the wood conditioner helps after I’ve already done the water step, and it probably depends on how dark I want the stain. If I’m going to let the stain be pretty opaque, then I might not need wood conditioner. If I want to see lots of grain, then I absolutely will use wood conditioner in order to prevent blotchiness. When you buy wood conditioner, be sure to look for one that is meant for water-based stain. Minwax has one, and so does General Finishes.

Third, if I want to see the grain at all, I dilute my stain even more than the can says is appropriate. I don’t follow any of the other directions on the can, so why follow that one? The can says not to add more than 10-20% water, but I find that 20% just isn’t enough. Sometimes I add as much as 50% water or even more. The problem is that sometimes a diluted color can look very different from the full strength color. With the colors I’ve worked with (usually darker, less yellow-based tones), the stains tend to get cooler as they’re diluted, so I test it on scrap and then mix in warmer tones as needed. If I need to warm it up, I actually really like mixing in a tiny bit of General Finishes Yellow Ochre glaze. I’m sure it’s against every rule in the book, but it seems to work for me and I only need a touch to get the warmth I’m looking for. I’ve considered mixing in some honey-toned stain to add warmth, but I never seem to have any around, so I go for the next best thing — yellow glaze.

In the image below you’ll see some photos of different pieces I’ve done using General Finishes Espresso stain. The top two are full strength (100% stain) and super opaque. The bottom two let some grain show through. One is 60% stain/40% water, and the last one is around 15% stain/85% water The last one, where I used mostly water with a touch of stain…that was kind of a mistake. I was nearly out of stain so I thinned it enough to get through the project. I was finishing some closet shelves and just needed to get them done.

I’m sure nothing like that has ever happened to you, right?

But I’m actually happy with the rustic-ness of it and it was a great lesson in how much water I could add to the stain and still get some color out of it.

I think it’s also important to remember that you can always go back and add more color to your stain for a second coat, but if you start out too opaque and you’re not happy with it, you pretty much have to sand the whole finish off and start over.

That, my friends, is a total drag.

Lastly, I try to avoid wiping off water-based stain. The directions say to put the stain on, wait a few minutes, and then wipe it off, but I haven’t found a way to wipe it off evenly. That’s what started me diluting the stain, so that I could just lay it down and leave it. You have to be more careful with your brush strokes when using this method (the fuller strength the stain, the more the brushstrokes show), but it seems to work for me.

If you’re curious about trying water-based stain but you don’t want to go buy a whole can, grab some leftover paint and water it waaaaay down. Now you’ve got water-based stain. I know, it’s crazy simple but it works. This is a great way to get colors and greys or whitewashes. For traditional wood colors, I buy a can of stain. But for fun and funky colors? Just grab some paint and start mixing!

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