Skip to Content

How do you stain wood to look light?

Staining wood is a great way to enhance and protect the natural beauty of wood. When done right, staining can really make the wood grain pop and give your wood projects a rich, warm glow. But sometimes, especially when working with lighter colored woods like pine or maple, you may want to stain the wood a lighter shade instead of going dark. The good news is there are several techniques you can use to stain wood lighter.

Prep the Wood Properly

The key to achieving a light stain color is starting with bare, clean wood. Any existing stain or finish needs to be completely removed, down to the raw wood. Sand the wood thoroughly with 120-150 grit sandpaper to remove any residue and create a smooth surface for the stain to adhere to. Pay extra attention to sanding along the wood grain – never across it. Once sanded, wipe away any dust with a dry cloth.

Choose the Right Stain

For a lighter stain color, choose a wood stain that is light in tone. Some examples of light stain colors:

  • Natural
  • Golden Oak
  • Birch
  • Pecan
  • Maple
  • Driftwood
  • White Wash

Within these lighter stain colors, there are different shades and undertones to choose from. Test samples of a few different stains on a scrap piece of wood to see which you like best.

Thin the Stain

One of the easiest ways to lighten wood stain is by diluting it with mineral spirits. Thinning the stain reduces the pigment concentration, allowing more of the natural wood color to show through.

As a general guide, you can thin oil-based stain by adding mineral spirits in a 1:1 ratio. For example, 1 cup of stain + 1 cup of mineral spirits. For lighter colors, use more mineral spirits – up to a 3:1 ratio. Thin water-based stains with water instead.

Test your thinned stain on a sample board first. You may need to do a couple rounds of thinning to get the right consistency and color.

Sand Between Stain Coats

Applying multiple thin coats of stain, with light sanding in between, is another technique for achieving a lighter color. Here’s the process:

  1. Apply a thin first coat of stain, wiping off any excess.
  2. Let the first coat dry as directed.
  3. Lightly sand the first coat with 220 grit sandpaper.
  4. Wipe away any dust and apply a second thin coat of stain.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 for additional coats until you achieve the desired lightness.

The sanding between coats helps remove some of the pigment, preventing too much build up and darkening with each coat.

Add Wood Conditioner

Using a wood conditioner is a helpful trick for lightening pine, maple, ash and birch. Wood conditioner (also called a pretreatment) seals the wood pores before staining, which evens out the absorption. This prevents the darkerpigment from absorbing too deeply into the soft wood grain.

Simply apply the wood conditioner per the manufacturer’s directions, let it fully dry, then apply your light stain color on top.

Use a Gel Stain

Gel stains are thicker than regular liquid stains. The gel formula adherence to the wood surface rather than soaking into the grain. This makes it easier to keep gel stain light.

Using a gel stain is a great option for getting an opaque, painted look with lighter stain colors. Apply two coats of gel stain for good coverage and color intensity.

Seal With Polyurethane

Once you’ve achieved the desired light stained look, it’s important to seal and protect the wood with a clear finish. Polyurethane is ideal for this – it will lock in the light stain color and add protection from wear, water, UV rays and other damage.

Use a satin, semi-gloss or gloss sheen polyurethane for the best durability. Make sure to apply enough coats to fully seal the wood – 2-3 coats is usually sufficient. Adding a polyurethane topcoat will help keep your light stained wood looking great for years!

Tips for Staining Wood Light

Here are some additional tips to help ensure success when staining wood lighter:

  • Always test stain on a scrap piece first to confirm color
  • Stir stain thoroughly before and during application for color consistency
  • Maintain a wet edge while staining to prevent lap marks
  • Work in the direction of the wood grain
  • Wipe off excess stain for an even appearance
  • Apply stain in a well ventilated area
  • Allow proper drying time between coats
  • Use high quality brushes and rags
  • Sand lightly between coats if needed
  • Finish with a clear polyurethane for protection

Common Problems and Solutions

Here are some common challenges that can occur when staining wood lighter and how to fix them:

Problem Solution
Stain appears blotchy Use a wood conditioner or gel stain for more even absorption
Stain is drying too quickly Thin the stain and/or apply in cooler temperatures
Stain color is uneven Ensure wood is sanded smooth. Stain entire surface evenly.
Stain is too dark Add more mineral spirits to thin it or sand and reapply
Stain won’t penetrate wood Sand wood and wipe away dust for better absorption


With the right preparation, materials, and techniques, staining wood to achieve a lighter color tone is very doable. The key steps are starting with bare wood, choosing a lighter stain, thinning the stain, applying multiple coats, sanding between coats, and sealing with a polyurethane topcoat. Paying close attention to the wood grain direction and working in proper conditions will also ensure the best results. With a little care and patience, you can stain pine, maple, oak, and other lighter woods to have a beautiful, natural light color.