How Long To Let Stain Dry Before Polyurethane (Expert Tips)

The fact that you are aware that you need to stain your wood before you apply polyurethane indicates to me that you may already know your stuff! So good job so far! If you didn’t know, don’t worry, neither did I the first time I attempted to give this a go myself. 

If like me you have ever used polyurethane without staining first, you’ll know firsthand how that’s not exactly the best idea. So, if you haven’t stained your wood already, I would get onto that as soon as possible to save yourself from a pretty unfortunate fate. 

How Long To Let Stain Dry Before Polyurethane (Expert Tips)

So now that your wood is stained, you’re probably sitting there twitching, desperate to start the next step of the job at hand. But it is actually really important that you let it dry fully before moving on to using polyurethane. 

In this article, I will go over exactly how long you should wait, some tips to help the stain dry quicker, what types of polyurethane to use, and what you’ll need to do if the stain just doesn’t seem to want to dry. 

How Long Does Stain Take To Dry

If you were hoping to move onto polyurethane the same day that you stained the wood, I have some bad news for you.

You are usually looking at around one to three days before your stain will be fully dry. It usually takes around twenty-four hours before a lacquer-based stain will be completely dry, but depending on the base of your stain it may take a while longer than this. 

The wood that your using, along with the condition that this wood is in,  will also factor into how long the stain takes to dry. You’ll also need to take into account that the more stain that you use, or the thicker the coat of stain, the longer it will subsequently take to dry. 

Surfaces such as floors can usually be left overnight if it’s a solid color, pastel colors however will require at least 12 hours. 

Oil and water-based stains are the most common that you’ll find on the market and so for now, we’ll focus on these. 

Water-Based Stains

Water-based products tend to dry quicker than oil-based ones. For a water-based stain, you’re looking at an average time of one to two hours for it to dry. Sometimes you can be applying polyurethane within three hours of applying the stain. 

However, that is only if all other application conditions and the weather have gone perfectly, which isn’t often the case. If you do not have these specific conditions, the stain is going to take a lot longer to dry. 

And although you might not think it, it’s important to keep in mind that different colored stains will dry at different rates, and while this is usually only an hour or two’s difference, it can still make an impact on the overall process time. 

Oil-Based Stains

Your standard oil-based stains usually take anywhere between 6 hours and 24 hours to dry. As a general rule, I’d say that it’ll usually dry within about eight to ten hours, but the weather can impact this time quite a lot. 

Also, these times can change product to product and it’ll really come down to which brand and product of stain that you’ve selected.

If it were me, I would always err on the side of caution and leave oil-based stains for a minimum of ten hours, or twenty-four if you can spare that long, just to be sure that it’s dry. After all, it will take a whole lot longer if you have to start again because you applied polyurethane way too early. 

Tackling Stubborn Stains That Refuse To Dry

Sometimes, you can come across a stain that has decided to be stubborn. And by this, I mean that you’ve left it alone patiently but it just seems to refuse to dry. 

For your stain to dry, you have to meet certain criteria or conditions. If you don’t meet these you will be watching that clock for an awfully long time. So let’s take the time to talk about a few common staining issues that might delay the drying process. 


Ventilation can seem like a fairly irritating issue because ideally you should be keeping your windows to avoid dust, however given the strong odors that come from some staining products you’re left with no choice but to keep it open. 

Ventilation is also needed to help dry the stain quicker. It just also runs the risk of dust or pesky insects coming into your home and ruining the job.

Sometimes cracking out a fan will be your best bet if your stain isn’t drying after the allotted time, this will increase the ventilation and help the stain to dry quicker. 


If you’re planning to stain your wood, you might want to give the weather a quick once-over as the temperature can impact the dry time quite significantly. If you see a day forecasted 70 degrees any time soon, pick that day as 70 degrees is the optimal temperature. 

If you can’t wait for warmer weather, you can still do it on a cooler day as it won’t particularly affect the quality of the stain, just the time in which it takes to dry. Obviously, the hot weather lends a helping hand in getting the stain to dry so warmer weather is preferable. 

There is a cut off limit though, so if the weather is below the mid-50s most manufacturers will state that you shouldn’t apply your stain. If you do you’re going to be waiting a long time before you can move on to the polyurethane.

 Inversely, if the weather is scorching hot, then it’s probably not wise to apply your stain either as you’re likely to dry only the outer surface leaving the inner still wet.

This can cause the stain to crack, and if you get to there, theres no point of return. You will have to start over if your stain cracks. 


If it’s really humid outside, it will slow down your drying time quite a lot. So you’re going to want to try and find a day when it’s not so humid. This is because when it’s humid theres a lot of moisture in the air and it gets absorbed into the stain which makes it wetter, resulting in it taking longer to dry.

But how do you find a day where the temperature is high but the humidity is not? Most come together in summer days. This is a really annoying issue that can be a little tricky to try and get around. 

How Long To Let Stain Dry Before Polyurethane (Expert Tips)

Getting a dehumidifier is your best option to speed the drying process along. It’ll absorb the moisture in the air, and although it might cool down your room slightly, it wont be enough to impact the stain. 

The Thickness Of The Coat

This may seem like an obvious one, but the thicker the coat, the longer your stain is going to take to dry. To speed up the process, I would suggest only using very thin layers. They will dry much quicker and you can always add more coats if you feel like it still needs more. 

If you have used a thick layer, you may feel tempted to use a blow-dryer to speed the process along. Do not do this. You will cake the inner layers and will just have to start all over again – and trust me that takes longer. 

The Brand

When selecting your brand of stain, you really want to take some time before just picking the first one that you see off of the shelf. The brand you pick is likely to be the biggest factor in how long your stain takes to dry. 

Each brand has their own set of optimal conditions for the application of the stain. For best results, follow the instructions on the stain you have purchased. It may be worth while having a look at a few as some will dry within hours while others will take days. 

Interior or Exterior

Have you planned a project for outdoors or indoors? Each have fairly different drying times. Anything for inside is most likely going to dry quicker than anything for outside.

This is because outdoor projects are subjected to the elements whereas indoor ones can be done in much more controlled environments. 


Did you know that even the color of the stain you use will impact how long it takes to dry. Certain colors can take up to an extra two hours to dry, so you’ll want to keep this in mind when purchasing your stain. 

Although, for the sake of two hours, if you prefer a longer drying color I’d still pick it. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Tell When The Stain Has Dried? 

You’ll notice that the stain isn’t tacky to touch anymore when it’s dry. If you touch it gently with your finger and the tip is slightly sticky, it still needs a bit more time. Another good indicator of whether your stain is dry is whether the surface is cool to touch. 

What Happens If I’ve Put Too Much Stain On Wood? 

If you’ve thickly coated the wood, it’s going to take a while to dry, and in fact it may not even dry if the coat is too thick. You’ll have to wipe any excess stain away before it starts to solidify. 

What Will Happen If I Apply Polyurethane Too Early? 

If you apply the polyurethane before your stain is dry then it’s not going to adhere correctly. I know that it can seem hard to be patient, and you may be tempted to apply it even though the stain isn’t quite dry yet.

 But it’s imperative that you do wait. It wont do the job effectively or reliably on a wet surface, and you’re going to create more problems for yourself down the road, so if anything you’ll only slow down the process. 

How Many Coats Of Stain Should I Use? 

Usually, two coats of stain will be fine. A lot of manufacturers say that one coat should still be plenty, but personally I would always go with two. 

Once your first coat has dried, you can apply the second coat. To coat stain on stain you don’t need to wait as long as you would before applying polyurethane though, so as soon as it seems dry enough, get that second layer going. 

Will A Really Tacky Stain Dry Eventually? 

It really depends for this one, most stains that seem very tacky at the beginning do dry. But if you’ve had a really tacky stain that is still noticeably tacky after half a day is a lost cause. You’ll fair better just sanding the wood back down and reapplying a thinner layer. 

You can avoid tacky stains by wiping off any excess stain once you’ve spread the first coat. If your having trouble with tacky stains – keep the polyurethane away. Use it on this surface and everything will be ruined and you’ll be starting over again from scratch. 

Can You Use A Water-Based Polyurethane On An Oil-Based Stain? 

Yes you can. You can also reverse it and use a oil-based polyurethane on a water-based stain. Just make sure the stain has dried and cured and you can really use any polyurethane. However you might want to try and stick to similar bases as mixing the two can later impact how the polyurethane dries. 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, I have answered all the questions you have had before you started your project. You should now have all the knowledge you’ll need to stain your wood and get moving. 

It really is a lot easier than it may seem, just check for the right conditions, especially the weather for outdoor projects and then make sure you’re controlling these conditions if your doing an indoor project. If you follow these, then the only other thing you need is patience. 

I know it can seem oh so tempting to just steam-roll ahead to try and get the job done, but giving the stain time to dry is essential. Once you have done this though, and your stain is fully dry, you’re all set to move onto the next step of your project which is applying the polyurethane! 

I wish you the best of luck in all of your DIY projects. 

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