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How does a substrate affect the colour of a stain?

Wood stain

Ever wondered why different timbers can affect the colour of a final finish, even if you used the same colour stain on it? 

In this blog, we’ll explore the factors that affect the colour of your stain and how you can create a uniform finish: 

What affects your stain colour? 

Different densities  

Different densities of wood absorb stain in different ways. Generally speaking, the more porous a wood is, the better it will take stain, as more pigment particles which carry the colour will adhere to your substrate.  

Highly porous wood, or sections of your substrate that are more porous than others, will absorb more stain and darken considerably in those areas.  

Water-based stains  

Water-based and solvent-based stains can affect the colour of a stain differently. Water-based stains are made with water as the primary solvent, which often results in a more transparent finish, which allows the natural grain of the wood to show through. They are typically available in a wide range of colours, but may appear lighter or less intense compared to solvent-based stains. 

Solvent-based stains 

Solvent-based stains can lead to deeper colour penetration into the wood, resulting in a richer and more intense colour compared to water-based stains. They may also offer a broader selection of darker and more vibrant colour options. 

Hardness of the wood 

Harder woods tend to accept stain better and more evenly, softer woods absorb stain more inconsistently which can appear as blotching. 

Wood grain 

Examining the wood’s grain pattern is crucial as it influences the even absorption of stain and the final finish. The grain’s higher porosity causes it to absorb more stain, resulting in deeper coloration and the possibility of light and dark areas. 

The natural colour of the wood 

Wood’s natural colour varies vastly across different types of wood, ranging from extremely pale creamy colours to deep red hues, this plays a big part in the overall colour of the stain 

Different wood types, their natural colours and how they stain 


Oak is a popular choice for stain, it has a light brown hue with a subtle red wood tone. It has a noticeable grain and large pores which quickly absorb stain.  


Chestnut has a uniform medium brown shade that has excellent results when stained in shades of brown or grey. 


Hickory is a light to medium brown colour, with a reddish hue, it will take stain well, but requires meticulous sanding first. It is robust wood and a popular choice for furniture and flooring. 


Ash has a light tone and will stain well with any colour. It has a natural wood grain which gives an aesthetically pleasing look to finished products. 


Pine is pale yellow and has porous open grains, it can be challenging to get an even finish as the stain penetrates deeply and may cause blotchiness. 


Cherry wood’s grain has a rich reddish colour with open pores, which enables stains to penetrate deeply into the surface of the wood. Care needs to be taken, as this can lead to blotchiness and uneven colour. 


Maple wood is a cream colour and very dense which can be difficult to stain. It is hard for the pigments in the stains to penetrate the surface of the wood, making it difficult to achieve the desired stain colour without thorough preparation. 


Poplar has a light creamy yellow hue and is one of the most porous hardwoods, it is difficult for some stains to adhere to the surface, which can make it tricky to apply stain evenly.   


Birchwood is creamy in colour and does not take stain very well. Birchwood absorbs pigment unevenly which can make it appear blotchy, especially when using a dark stain. Irrespective of the stain used, birchwood will typically turn a light golden-brown colour. 

How to create a uniform finish 

Use the same substrate 

As we’ve seen from how each wood differs and is affected differently by stain, selecting the type of wood and its colour carefully is crucial to getting the results you want.  

When you start staining it is important to use the same substrate across the project to create a uniform finish. 

Prepare the wood 

The orientation and quality of the wood fibres plays a significant role in how stains are absorbed and distributed. Careful sanding and preparation of the wood surface is crucial to remove imperfections and ensure a smooth even finish.  

New timber can often have a wax like sealant put on it at the mill, which will prevent the wood from staining if not properly prepared. 

You will also find the end grain of any type of wood is typically more porous wood and absorbs more stain, so to get a consistent colour all over, it is crucial to sand the end grain with finer sandpaper. We recommend lightly sanding the wood with 80-grit sandpaper and then using 180 to 220-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface. If the end grain is not sanded properly, it will absorb more stain than the rest of the wood, resulting in an uneven and blotchy appearance. 

Use of solvents  

Woods treated with solvents or heavily exposed to strippers will develop an increased open grain, which will absorb stain more than untreated wood and create an uneven finish. 

Stain along the grain 

It’s vital to apply the stain in the direction of the wood grain, to ensure that the colour seeps into the wood well and enhances the natural grain. 

Apply even coats 

To ensure an even colour, it is usually necessary to apply two or more coats of wood stain. For best results, we recommend letting each coat dry completely before adding another and removing any excess stain, to prevent an uneven finish. 

Test the stain on your substrate 

Different species take stain better than others, before proceeding with staining the entire wood surface, it is essential to test a small area of your substrate first to ensure you get the desired finish. 

This will help to ensure that the stain is compatible with the wood and that the colour matches correctly. Please contact our specialist team for expert advice or to take advantage of our colour matching service. 

Correct storage and use  

Stains contain various chemical compounds that will degrade over time. To ensure the best results, store the stain container properly in a cool, dry place and ensure the stain is within its expiration date before use. 

Check out our vast colour range of easy to apply stains, available as solvent or water based here. 

For a stain that meets your project’s requirements, contact us on 023 9223 3310 or email