How To Achieve A Darker Wood Stain [7 Tips]

Dark wood can add an easy elegance to wooden furniture and hardwood floors. Darker woods have a more defined grain, and the rich coloring provides a timeless appeal. A dark wood stain can be a quick way to refresh an item of furniture.

Learning how to stain wood effectively helps you update the home for a lower cost than replacing furniture.

How To Achieve A Darker Wood Stain [7 Tips]

The easiest method of staining wood is to sandpaper the surface, apply several layers of stain, and finish with a polyurethane seal. However, this isn’t the only way to stain wood, and there are several natural methods that can be used to achieve an excellent finish.

All wood stains are designed to darken wood, but they aren’t all fit for every purpose. In this guide, we’ll cover what you need to stain wood, and the best methods for achieving a perfect finish depending on the wood. 

Achieving A Dark Wood Stain

All wood stains are intended to darken the appearance of wood. Using a wood stain will not only alter the color of the wood, but can also bring out the natural grain. However, you have to be careful when choosing your exact stain.

Using a lighter color on a naturally dark wood won’t have the desired effect, and typically won’t make any difference. But stains that are too dark can often mark and scuff easily.

So, before you begin, think carefully about how you picture the final appearance of your stain. 

7 Steps To Stain Wood Darker

There are many methods you can use to stain wood dark. Some woods are easier to stain than others. Woods such as oak, which has a strong grain and open pores, take stains easily.

Hickory and ash are also good woods to stain. On the other hand, woods such as pine, which has an uneven grain and a dense structure, can become blotchy. Poplar and birch can also be difficult to stain.

With that said, all woods can be stained well if you take some care. If you have a tricky wood, we recommend attempting the stain on some practice pieces to begin with, and seeing how it finishes.

In this guide, we’ll discuss some quick methods to darken woods using various stains, including oil-based and water-based. We’ll also discuss some natural methods of staining, which you might like to try. 

It’s easier to darken wood than it is to make it lighter, but you can fix staining errors with some patience. Bleach and steel wool can both be used to remove a darker stain, although they will affect the overall finish of the wood.

So, here’s how to get a darker finish from your stain:

Sand The Surface

The first step to achieving a dark stain is to sand the surface of your wood. By creating a coarser texture, you increase the surface area of the wood. This gives the stain more spaces to stick to.

However, you want to avoid using particularly rough sandpaper. Don’t leave visible scratches in the wood, because this won’t help in achieving an even finish. A medium-grit sandpaper such as 120 or 150-grit is ideal.

Test the sandpaper in a small area that isn’t easily seen, to get an idea of the pressure you need to use.

When sanding your wood, make sure to sand in the direction of the grain, using even strokes. You can use a power sander, which you might prefer for large projects, but we prefer the results of sanding by hand.

Apply Water

Generally, we want to avoid getting wood wet, particularly when it isn’t stained. But the reason for this is that wet wood raises the grain — and this is exactly what we need for staining.

Carefully dampen the surface using a moist cloth or towel. You don’t want to completely soak the wood, but apply enough for the grain to raise. Then, leave to dry. The grain will dry to a rougher texture. As with sanding, this rough surface provides a greater area for the color to lodge.

Alternatively, you can use a water-based wood stain. If using a water-based stain, you can skip this step. Simply apply your first coat, leave to dry, and then apply a second.

Darken The Stain With Pigment

You’re likely to see recommendations for lightening a stain using thinner, but you can darken an already dark stain as well. By adding more pigment, you increase the ratio of colorant to solvent, resulting in an intense color. 

Add pigments based on the original stain. For an oil-based stain, you need oil-based pigment. For a water-based stain, you can use universal pigment.

This method is very much experimental. Make sure you have some scrap wood to hand, so you can test the color of the stain as you add pigment. The scrap wood should resemble the wood you intend to stain, so you get a clear idea of the outcome.

Once you’ve mixed your stain, apply an even coating to your scrap wood. Leave it to dry, and take a look. You might want to add another layer, to achieve the desired intensity. 

If you still aren’t happy, add more pigment, and repeat the process.

Use The ‘Dirty Wipe’ Method

Traditionally, once you’ve applied a stain, you’ll wipe it down while wet to remove the excess colorant. A ‘dirty wipe’ uses a lighter touch. While some excess stain is removed, the surface of the wood is left damp. This can produce an intense color.

The downside of the ‘dirty wipe’ is that it can result in a blotchy finish. It can also make applying the second layer harder, because if the finish is too thick, the rest of the stain won’t adhere properly.

If you plan on using the ‘dirt wipe’ method, practice on some scrap wood before you begin. 

Instead Of Oil Stain, Use A Dye

Dyes can be used to create a darker color than the traditional wood stain. Dyes are available in two common forms: powder and liquid. Liquid dyes are often referred to as Non-raising-Grain (NGR) or TransTint, and come ready to apply. Powder dyes need to be dissolved in either water or alcohol.

Because of the way the dyes darken the wood, they can be used to effectively stain even dense grains. And you can apply multiple coats without the risk of separation. 

Add A Coat Of Toner

Toner can be sprayed after the sealer coat to darken the color of the stain. The best toners to use are dye toners. Pigment toners have a tendency to muddy the color. A toner adds only a light layer of color, so it can gently darken without massively influencing the overall look. 

Toners can also be used to slightly adjust the shade of the stain. You can add warmth to the toner with red or orange dye, or a touch of green for a cool finish. We recommend thinning the toner, for better control over the color.

Use A Glaze

A glaze can be used on its own to darken wood stain, or in combination with oil- and water-based stains. 

Glaze is thicker than a standard stain, so it can be applied easily. Once applied, it has to sit for longer before you wipe off the excess, to give it a chance to darken. But make sure to wipe before it dries. Glaze can be sprayed or brushed onto the wood. On its own, it will darken the surface.

However, glaze can be used alongside a stain if you want a color with some depth. After the first coat of stain and sealer, you can apply the glaze and leave it to darken. Make sure the glaze has the same base as the stain.

An oil glaze will need to be used with an oil stain, and a water glaze with a water-based stain.

Selecting The Right Wood Stain

The methods listed above are good ways of increasing the potential darkness of a stain on wood. However, there are some woods that will only go so dark.

Most wood stains work by soaking and penetrating the pores of the wood. After a while, the pores become saturated, and can hold no more stain, no matter how much you apply.

When you wipe the excess away, you might feel like you’re losing a lot of the color. But in reality, you’re only wiping away a top layer that would sit, rather than absorb.

But with the tips we’ve laid out, you can improve the overall absorption of the wood stain, leading to a darker finish.

Of course, another factor affecting the depth of the stain is the color you choose.

Best Darker Wood Stains

Choosing the right wood stain is partly about picking a color. It goes without saying that the darker you want your wood to be, the darker the dye has to be.

Ebony is typically the darkest wood stain. Ebony stains are close to black, and can be quite striking when applied correctly. Sometimes, Ebony will appear closer to gray than black, so make sure to test before applying. We recommend the Ebony Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain from Varathane. 

Walnut is another shade that’s typically dark, and often comes in even darker varieties. Walnut tends to have some warmth to it that can work particularly well for interiors. We like the Walnut shade from SamaN. The range also includes Dark Walnut and American Walnut, which are even richer colors. 

If you’re after some real warmth in your stain, cherry is a fantastic option. Cherry stains are typically dark with hints of red. Take a look at this Vintage Cherry dye stain from General Finishes.

These are typical shades to look out for that are consistently dark across brands, but there are plenty more that can help you achieve that desired deepness. 

Benefits Of Gel Wood Stains

We’ve spoken about water-based and oil-based stains, but there’s another popular form of wood staining we haven’t covered yet: gel stains. Gel stains are fantastic for creating a bold color. Unlike traditional stains, they don’t soak into the wood.

Instead, you can build up layers, to create your preferred finish. But instead of creating a thick top coat, like paint would, you can still feel the grain of the wood beneath.

Gel stains are good for covering up poorly stained wood, and masking base colors. Gel is also thick, which makes it easier to apply. Beginners will often find it easier to get an even finish with gel, rather than oil- or water-based stains.

How To Achieve A Darker Wood Stain [7 Tips]

This thickness also makes gel stains excellent for vertical surfaces.

But gel stains aren’t perfect, and their features have downsides as well as benefits. The thickness of the gel tends to build up in corners, giving an uneven surface. Gel stains also take a long time to dry, which can slow down a project.

Finally, gel stains won’t mask the grain, but they also don’t highlight it. 

If you do choose to use a gel stain, we recommend considering the pros and cons. Gel stains are particularly good when you want to use just one coat. Gel works well on both porous and non-porous woods, so we recommend them for projects where you might have used multiple types of wood. 

Using A Gel Stain To Darken Wood

In this section, we’ll cover the best ways to use gel stains to darken wood. 

What You’ll Need

  • Grease-cutting wood cleaner
  • Lint-free rags or cloth
  • 120-grit sandpaper
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Chip brush
  • Gel Stain
  • Polyurethane wood finish
  • Face mask
  • Rubber gloves
  • Safety goggles

How To Use Gel Stain To Darken Wood

Prepare The Area

Staining wood is dirty work, and there are chemicals involved. Your first step should be properly preparing your workstation. Ventilation is necessary. If you can, work outside. Otherwise, open windows, and consider using a fan. 

Cover the area with a drop cloth. If you’re working indoors, cover nearby furniture with a cloth to protect from the stain.

Prepare The Wood

This step is only necessary if you’re refreshing treated wood. If you’re staining new bare wood, you can skip it. 

Prepare the wood by cleaning it using a grease-cutting wood cleaner. You want to strip away any oil and grease on the surface that might prevent the gel stain from sticking.

Sand With Coarse 120-Grit Sandpaper

This initial sanding will help prepare the surface for the wood stain. Make sure to wear a face mask when sanding, to avoid inhaling the wood dust. We recommend safety goggles as well, to stop the fine shavings from irritating your eyes.

Only press lightly when using the coarse sandpaper. You want to avoid leaving any scratches.

Sand With Fine 220-Grit Sandpaper

Moving in the direction of the grain, lightly sand the wood surface. This will give it a slight texture, which the gel stain can then adhere to. Don’t press too hard, as you don’t want to scratch the surface. 

Using a clean rag, wipe the wood down when you’re finished. Do this to remove any shavings that might be clinging to the surface. 

Apply The Gel Stain

With the surface ready, it’s time to apply your gel stain. Put on your rubber gloves, so you don’t stain your hands. To ensure an even finish, we recommend using a chip brush. As gel stain is thicker, it has to be either brushed or rolled on. It can’t be sprayed.

Make sure to patch test your gel stain before covering the project. Testing on a small area will alert you to any potential issues.

Brush the stain on with the wood grain, working in small areas at a time. Once you’ve applied a patch, wait for 30 seconds, and then wipe the excess with a lint-free cloth. Wipe along the wood grain, to create an even finish.

Move onto the next section, and avoid recovering stained areas. Applying gel stain on top of damp gel stain won’t make the stain darker. In fact, it will actually wipe the first layer away.

Once you’ve applied a layer, leave it to dry for at least 24 hours. Some brands may take longer. 

After that 24 hours is up, and the stain is completely dry, you might want to add a second layer. The best way to build a dark stain is with multiple thin layers. This can take some time, as the gel needs to try completely between each layer. 

Protect With Polyurethane Wood Finish

While your finished gel layers might look good, a polyurethane wood finish coating can protect the stain from water and moisture damage. This protective layer will also keep the stain looking bolder for longer. 

Spray the surface with a few coats of the polyurethane finish, and leave to dry. A mixture of shellac and lacquer can also work, but avoid using just lacquer. This gel can cause the lacquer to wrinkle. 

Applying Wood Finish

The wood finish is the final touch to your stained wood. It protects the surface of the wood itself, while also guarding the stain against general wear and tear. This is particularly useful for gel stains, which sit on the surface, rather than absorb into the pores.

Our preferred wood finish is polyurethane, thanks to its durability. We like the Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane Protective Wood Finish

How To Use Coffee To Stain Wood

Anyone who has ever spilled a freshly made espresso will know that coffee has excellent staining abilities. It might not be the most obvious choice, but coffee can make an effective natural wood stain. As well as looking good, using coffee as a stain is cost-effective. 

What You’ll Need

  • Coffee
  • Grease-cutting wood cleaner
  • 120-grit sandpaper
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Lint-free rag or a paintbrush
  • Safety goggles
  • Face mask
  • Wood finish

How To Use Coffee To Stain Wood

Brew Your Coffee

Brew a pot of strong coffee. It has to be strong if you want to achieve a good, dark stain. But it doesn’t exactly need to be good quality coffee. We recommend mixing up a big pot of instant coffee, so you can make it as strong as you like for a low cost.

Pour the coffee into a bowl, and leave it to cool completely.

Prepare The Wood

If you’re staining old wood, give it a clean using grease-cutting wood cleaner. Otherwise, you can move straight on to sanding.

Begin by sanding the surface of the wood with the coarser 120-grit sandpaper. Use a light touch, and wear safety goggles and a face mask to protect from the wood dust. 

Switch to the finer 220-grit sandpaper, and gently scuff the surface of the wood. This will introduce texture, so the stain has more to adhere to, creating a better color. Grab a clean rag, and wipe away the remaining wood dust.  

Sand the wood as the coffee cools, to save time.

Apply The Stain

Using your rags, apply the coffee stain to the surface of the wood in even strokes. Only add a small amount at a time, as you want to avoid flooding the pores. The coffee shouldn’t sit in pools on the surface, but naturally soak into the wood.

Work in the direction of the grain, gradually covering the entire surface.

Leave the stain to sit for roughly 15 minutes, and then apply a second coat. Keep doing this until you’re happy with the color intensity.

Wipe any excess away, and leave the wood to dry completely.

Apply Wood Finish

When you’re happy with the color, and the wood has completely dried, apply a layer of wood finish. 

How To Use Tea And Vinegar To Stain Wood

Another popular breakfast drink that can be used as a natural wood stain is black tea. Tea is a slightly more complex method than coffee, but it can create some exceptional results. For the black tea to adhere to the wood, you need to create an iron acetate.

This isn’t as involved as you might think. You can create an iron acetate by soaking steel wool in vinegar.

What You’ll Need

  • Fine-grit steel wool
  • Water
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Black tea bags
  • 120-grit sandpaper
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Lint-free rags or cloth
  • Chip brush
  • Wood finish
  • Safety goggles
  • Face mask

How To Use Tea And Vinegar To Stain Wood

Create Your Iron Acetate And Tea Stain

Submerge your steel wool in a jar of apple cider vinegar, and seal the lid. Leave the steel wool to soak for roughly 48 hours.

When the 48 hours are up, create your tea stain. Submerge three or four tea bags in 2 cups of freshly boiled water. Leave the tea bags to soak and cool for around 2 hours. While the tea is steeping, you can get on with preparing the wood.

Prepare The Wood Surface

Wearing a face mask and safety goggles to protect yourself against wood dust, scuff the surface of the wood using coarser 120-grit sandpaper. Press gently, to avoid leaving scratches.

Then, repeat the process using fine 120-grit sandpaper. This should create the textured surface the stain needs to cling to. Use a clean rag to wipe away any remaining wood dust.

Apply Your Stain

Apply the steeped tea to the wood using the chip brush. Work in even strokes, moving with the grain of the wood. Avoid soaking the wood. Water shouldn’t pool on the surface, but should be able to penetrate the pores.

Once applied, leave to sit for 60 minutes, and then wipe away any excess.

Apply the iron acetate solution across the surface of the wood, using a chip brush. Work in the same even strokes, and avoid any pooling on the surface. The iron acetate should react with the tea tannins, creating a darker stain.

Dry And Repeat

With both mixtures applied, leave them for an hour to set. Then, check the surface, and see if another coat is needed. Repeat the process, applying the tea first, waiting for it to dry, and then using the iron acetate.

Apply Wood Finish

When the surface is completely dry, protect the stain using a wood finish.

Achieve A Dark Wood Stain Easily

Creating a darker stain isn’t that difficult, no matter what type of wood you have. And you can darken the stain further by using preparatory scuffing methods, and multiple thin layers. We hope this guide will help you achieve the perfect dark stain for all your projects. 

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