How to Apply Eco Stain

If you know how to apply eco stain, you can create beautiful projects. Staining wood really brings out the natural appeal of the grain, but many stains are not eco-friendly. You can get the same fantastic results when you apply eco stain, but you must take care to get the best finish possible.

So, how to apply eco stain? Follow these steps for the best application:

  • Gather supplies and calculate how much stain you need
  • Clean the wood surface you want to stain
  • Test the stain on a small, out-of-the-way spot to make sure you like it
  • Apply the stain and let it sit for a few minutes
  • Wipe off the excess stain
  • Reapply stain if you want your project to be darker
  • Seal the surface with a clear finish

You can apply a beautiful eco-friendly stain to any project with a little planning and preparation. If you are ready to jump in and stain a project, read on.

Supplies for Applying Eco Stain

The first step to any successful craft project is gathering materials. In addition to stain, you will need wood conditioner and sealant to apply to your project.


The first thing you need is eco-friendly stain. At a minimum, you should buy water-based stain. Just because a stain is water-based does not make it eco-friendly, though. Eco stains remove all harmful ingredients, not just the oil base. All water-based stains are safer than oil-based stains, but eco stain go a step further.

Coverage Calculation

Start by figuring out how much eco stain you need to buy. Calculate the number of square feet (or square inches, for small projects) you need to stain. For flat surfaces, calculate the area by multiplying the length X width (or length X height for staining fence). For 3-D projects, calculate the area of each side to be stained and add them together.

One gallon of stain will cover 150-200 square feet, depending on how heavily you apply it. That’s enough to put a single coat on an area 10 feet X 15 feet or 10 feet X 20 feet. If you are staining furniture, a half-pint can is more than enough for any single piece. If you are staining a lot of furniture, two half-pint cans might be better than one large can. If you don’t need the second, you can return it unopened.

Wood Conditioner

Wood conditioner makes the wood absorb stain evenly. Some woods, especially softwoods like pine, contain resin and pitch. The resin and pitch block absorption of the stain. Since the resin is not evenly distributed in the wood, the result is a patchy finish.

Wood conditioner breaks up resin and pitch in the wood that block stain absorption, and it fills the pores of the wood just enough to even out the stain. Applying wood conditioner before staining results in even coloration and a beautiful finish.


Stain does not protect wood. Stain penetrates into the wood to provide color and highlight the grain. To protect the wood, you have to apply a clear sealer. The sealer keeps the elements from penetrating the wood and adds luster to the surface.

Make sure to use the correct type of sealer—interior or exterior. Using the wrong sealer will cause headaches for you. Even eco-friendly exterior sealer contains some chemicals to prevent mold and mildew, so you don’t want it inside. Interior sealer won’t stand up to wind and rain and sun, and your piece will deteriorate quickly. Some of the most common eco-friendly sealers are:

  • Tung oil. This isn’t a petroleum product, but natural oil pressed from the nuts of the tung tree. This oil is not great for exterior use, but it has some water resistance. One nice feature of a tung oil finish is that the dried finish is soluble in new tung oil. When a piece gets scratched, you can wipe on a new coat of tung oil, and the scratches will disappear.
  • Linseed oil. Another seed oil, made from flax seeds. Linseed oil isn’t very water resistant, so use it inside. It is less glossy than tung oil. It can also be used to repair itself by wiping a new coat over an old, battered layer of linseed oil.
  • Shellac is a resin secreted by insects. Shellac is very glossy but turns white if it gets wet. Keep it inside and keep it away from cold drinks. White drink rings are common on shellac finished furniture. It is dissolved in alcohol, so the application process produces fumes.
  • Proprietary formulas from paint and stain companies. Most big paint companies now offer eco-friendly clear coats for both interior and exterior applications. These are high-tech formulations that have a great look and durability without emitting harmful fumes.

Pro tip: If you have extra tung or linseed oil, store the cans upside down. The surface of the oil in the can will harden into a filmy layer. If the can is upside down, the film is on the bottom and won’t be in your way the next time you open the can.

Equipment for Applying Eco Stain

  • Water sprayer or wash rag. Water-based stain will raise the grain of the wood and can leave your project feeling rough. Wet the piece first to raise the grain, then sand it smooth. This will prevent the stain from raising the grain later.
  • 220 grit sandpaper for smoothing the project after you wet it down. Using a random-orbit sander or palm sander can cut down sanding time, but it’s not necessary. Even if you do use a power sander, you will need sheets of sandpaper to reach into corners and crevices.
  • Tack cloth for removing dust. Tack cloths are special paper towels that have been treated with stick material to grab all the bits of sawdust that the sander leaves behind.
  • Paint can opener. I never think about a can opener until I’m in the middle of a project. When you are laying out equipment, don’t forget that you have to open the cans of stain, conditioner, and finish. Most home improvement stores will give openers away with the cans of stain.
  • Rags for staining. Everyone remembers the old commercial where someone uses a brush to wipe on perfect swathes of stain, so most people reach for a brush when staining. Don’t be most people—TV isn’t real and using a brush for stain results in lots of overlapping stripes that don’t look good.

Instead of a brush, use a rag to apply the stain. You can buy painter’s rags at home improvement stores, or you can cut small squares out of an old t-shirt. You just need a piece of cloth about three inches square to dip into the stain and wipe onto your work piece. Using a rag will produce a smooth, even color over the entire piece.

  • Brushes aren’t good for applying stain, but they are the best choice to get a smooth coat of sealant.
  • Waterproof gloves and old clothes. Even though eco stain isn’t harmful, you will still want to wear gloves and old clothes. It’s still stain, and it will stain your hands and clothes.

If you are staining a new project, this list is everything you need to apply eco stain and make your project look great. If you are staining an old item, you need a few more things to get it ready.

Refinishing Furniture

If you are refinishing an old item, make sure to get all of the old finish off the surface. In the past, stripping old finishes required nasty chemicals. Now there are several eco-friendly options for removing the old finish.

  • Soy-based paint strippers work by breaking the bond between the old finish and the surface. They are safe and biodegradable but work slowly. Soy strippers are usually a thick gel, which makes them easy to apply to vertical surfaces. Once the stripper has done its job, the paint falls off in flakes.
  • Citrus paint strippers are made from the oils in citrus fruit skins. Citrus cleaners are great for removing grease and oil as well as paint. These products do have a strong odor, but they smell like oranges instead of an oil refinery. They clean the old paint off the wood surface.
  • Heat guns push out very high-temperature air that softens old paint and makes it easier to scrape off. This can release some fumes from the old paint, though. Make sure to do this in a well-ventilated area. Heating paint must be done together with scraping.
  • Safer paint strippers that do not contain methylene chloride. These are still chemical strippers that aren’t biodegradable. The formulas omit the chemical methylene chloride, which is the worst chemical in paint stripper. It is responsible for headaches, dizziness, and fatigue when applying paint stripper. This isn’t the best option, but it is better than using a traditional stripper.
  • Elbow grease is a great way to remove old paint and stain. Get busy with a scraper and sandpaper, and you will eventually get all the old paint out of the way without using chemicals. Make sure to wear a respirator for protection from dust.

Once you have your paint stripper and other supplies, you can move ahead with the project.

Steps to Apply Eco Stain

Getting a good finish using eco stain requires you to follow a step-by-step process. Take your time and make sure to get each step right before moving on.

Step 1: Surface Prep

If you are refinishing an old item, this is the time to get all the old finish off. Strip, scrape, and sand until all faces of the project are down to bare wood.

Once your project is down to bare wood (whether new or old), wet it down. You can use a wet rag or a spray bottle. Getting wood wet will raise part of the grain and give it a rough feeling. Once the grain has been raised, sand the piece with 220 grit sandpaper.

This step is necessary when you use a water-based stain. If you wet the piece and sand it, the grain won’t rise up again when you apply the stain. If you don’t wet and sand, your stain will raise the grain, and you will be left with a rough-feeling project.

After sanding, wet a small area of the project again to see if the grain rises again. Some surfaces are fine after one wetting/sanding, and some require two cycles to really get the grain smooth.

Step 2:  Repair Damage

This is the time to scrape up excess glue on the surface and fill any scratches or gouges. All these things will absorb stain differently than the rest of the surface, so the stain will highlight any defects or blemishes.

Step 3:  Clean It Well

After sanding, you need to get the surface as clean as possible. Sawdust left on the surface will take stain differently from whole wood, so you need to get rid of all of it. Pay special attention to corners and crevices that can hold dust.

Use a tack cloth to wipe up all the dust left by sanding. Tack cloth is coated with a sticky material that will collect the dust from sanding and leave the cleanest surface possible. Wipe everything with the tack cloth.  You may need more than one cloth. If the piece is very dusty, the sawdust will gum up the tack cloth, and it won’t work anymore. Keep wiping until there is no more dust to pick up.

Step 4: Wood Conditioner

Once you have cleaned and sanded the surface, apply a wood conditioner. You can apply the conditioner with a brush or rag. The tool you use to put on the conditioner isn’t that important. The important things are to work with the direction of the wood grain and to put plenty of conditioner down.

Cover the entire workpiece and let it sit for a bit. Most manufacturers recommend waiting five to fifteen minutes. Wipe off the excess with a rag and let it dry a little more. Don’t wait too long—most manufacturers recommend applying stain within two hours of applying the conditioner.

Step 5: Test the Stain

Before you go all in on staining the piece, test the stain on a piece of scrap wood that matches your piece, or on a small spot that isn’t noticeable. Unlike paint, stain can’t be removed. If you stain the piece and don’t like the look, it’s too late. You can’t remove stain. You can darken it or cover it with paint, but you can’t go backward. Testing guarantees that you don’t make a big mistake with your stain.

Step 6: Apply the Stain

Cut a square of rag three to four inches square. Shake the stain can well, then dip your rag into the stain and wipe it on the wood. This is why you need gloves—the stain will get on your fingers in this stage. Follow the grain as much as you can. Use the rag to spread the stain around evenly and avoid stripes or drippy blotches. If you leave blotches, the blotches will be there forever. Keep the stain coating even!

Step 7: Wipe Up Excess Stain

Once the surface is evenly covered, wait a bit. The longer you wait, the darker the stain will be. After waiting, wipe off the excess stain with a clean rag. Make sure to wipe up any streaks or spots. This is your last chance to prevent spots and streaks. We recommend that you read through our guide to paint without streaks or marks.

It is better to wipe up the stain too soon than too late. If you wipe up too early and want the piece darker, you can always go back and add more stain. If you wait too long, the only recourse is sanding, and that doesn’t work very well.

Pro tip: For big pieces of furniture, work in sections. Stain the top, then wipe up excess stain on the top. Stain and wipe the front, then the left side, etc. This makes sure you won’t get too far ahead of yourself.

Step 8: Wait

After wiping up the stain, let the piece dry. If you are happy with the stain, you can move on to sealing it. If you would like it to be darker, repeat the staining process to darken it. Let it dry again, and you’ll be ready to seal.

Step 9: Seal It Up

Once the stain has dried, it is time to apply sealer. Use a brush for the sealer. Brushing will produce the smoothest coat of sealer. Overlapping brush strokes don’t matter here. Put on a thin coat just like you were painting the piece. Let it dry and apply a second coat. Once the second coat is dry, your piece is finished and ready to display.

Pro tip: Don’t use a rag or a foam brush to apply the sealer. Rags won’t produce a smooth, even topcoat like a brush. You can’t get the same shine and luster if you use a rag. Foam brushes are even worse. They will leave tiny bubbles in the finish—forever. The sealer can dry with the bubbles in it and will never look good.

Step 10:  Cleanup

One of the nice things about eco stain is ease of cleanup. Since it’s water-based, you can clean your brushes and equipment with soapy water. Check your local regulations about whether you can rinse stain into the sink. Some cities allow trace amounts of stain in the sewer system and others don’t. If you bought a compostable stain, you can just pour out the rinse water on your compost pile.

Differences in Applying Eco Stain and Traditional Stain

The process for applying eco stain is very similar to the process for applying a traditional stain, with a couple of exceptions. Since eco stain is water-based, you don’t need to worry about ventilation. You can apply eco stain inside if needed. Make sure to use a drop cloth if you do, though.

The big difference is drying time. Water-based eco stains dry much faster than traditional oil-based stains. The good news is that you don’t have to wait as long between steps when applying eco stain as when applying a traditional stain. The bad news is that you don’t have much leeway in time between steps. If you are working on a big project, it might be best to condition / stain / seal in phases if you can.

Can You Use a Sprayer with Eco Stains?

If you have taken on a big job like a fence or deck, wiping the stain on with a little square of rag won’t cut it. For these jobs, a sprayer is the best choice. Eco stain will work with most sprayers if you set everything up correctly.

  • Read the sprayer directions. Make sure to use the correct spray tip and settings for spraying water-based stain.
  • Strain the stain. Oil-based stains will dissolve lumps of pigment in solution. Water-based stains won’t dissolve lumps, leading to a clogged spray nozzle. Pour stain into the sprayer through a strainer to prevent this.
  • Take it easy. Water-based stains can dry in specks if you spray it on too thickly. Spray a thin coat to prevent this.
  • Thin it, but slowly. All you need to thin water-based stain is water, but a little water goes a long way. Add water little by little until you get the right consistency.
  • Use multiple coats. The light, thin application from thin stain won’t be very dark. It works better to use multiple coats than to try to get one heavy application.
  • Get help. Since water-based stain dries quickly, you may need two people when spraying stain—one to spray and one to wipe.

Leftover Stain

Once you are through with your stain project, store your eco stain properly. Make sure the lid is sealed tightly. Some painters use a rubber mallet to tap down the lid of paint and stain cans to get them sealed. It is best to store stain in an area that won’t get too hot or cold.

If you need to dispose of the stain, read the ingredient label, and check your local laws. Stain and paint are hard to dispose of, and there are lots of regulations about what goes where. Eco stain should be easier to get rid of since there are no petroleum products or latex.

Maintaining Eco Stain Inside

If your eco stain is on an indoor project, maintenance will be minimal. The biggest problem for indoor projects will be chipping and scratching from use. If you use tung or linseed oil for a finish, these are easily repaired. Sand the damaged area lightly, wipe up the dust and apply a new coat of sealant. The fresh sealant will dissolve a little of the old coat, then dry seamlessly.

Maintaining Eco Stain Outside

Believe it or not, outdoor applications of eco stain are more durable than applications of oil-based stains. Oil-based stains include ingredients that will feed mildew and fungus, so they will eventually discolor. Oil-based stains also trap moisture in the wood, leading to rot, and oil-based stains are susceptible to fading from UV rays.

Water-based stains don’t have any of these problems, so you won’t have to take any action for a while. When the eco stain does start to fade, just sand a little and apply a new coat. Your wood will look as good as new.

Make Your Own Eco Friendly Stain

If you are really concerned about the ingredients of your stain, you can make your own. Some homemade stain recipes use common household items, while others are a little more exotic. Check out these options for making stain at home:

  • Coffee, tea, and grape juice or wine will all stain your clothes. They will also stain your wood. Brew up hot beverages extra-strong, and be ready to apply several coats to get a full effect.
  • Onion skins. Soak papery onion skins in warm water to get a yellow stain. Wood stained with onion skins will range in color from pale yellow to amber.
  • Walnut husks. Black walnuts were used by pioneers to get brown dye for clothing. It’s actually the walnut husk you want. Let the husks dry and blacken, then soak them in warm water. The resulting stain is rich brown.
  • Vinegar and steel wool. Soak steel wool overnight in vinegar for a red-brown stain. The steel wool will rust quickly. The rust stains the wood. Mild acid in the vinegar will also enhance the wood grain, so give it some time to work before wiping off.

With any of these options, you will know exactly what goes into your stain. Once you have applied your stain, put on a clear topcoat just like you would for commercial stain.

Whatever stains and finishes you choose, applying eco stain will give you great results without the fumes and problems from oil-based stain. You can complete your project knowing that you are safe and that you are doing your part to keep the world a little greener.

Applying Eco-Friendly Concrete Stain

You can also apply eco-friendly stain to concrete. (Be aware that “Eco Stain” is a brand of concrete stain, but it’s not the only eco-friendly concrete stain.) The steps are similar to staining wood: remove the old finish, sand the surface, clean it, apply stain, and apply finish. The difference is that you have to buy concrete-specific stain and equipment.

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