How Long Should Stain Dry Before Polyurethane – Sealing Stained Wood

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There are two types of people, those wise enough to seal newly stained wood the first time around, and those who discovered way too late that you really should apply sealant to stained wood. Sealing stained wood can essentially give you an indestructible finish, capable of withstanding even the toughest weather conditions while protecting your workpiece from impact, scratches, moisture, insect infestation, and even heat and UV damage. How long should you wait after staining before you seal your wood though? Let’s have a look.




How Long Should Stain Dry Before Polyurethane Can Be Applied?

This is a bigger question than most people might think. Wood stains tend to have varying drying times based on their core ingredients. There are water-based stains, oil-based stains, conventional varnish, and various other stain types that all dry at different rates. This being said, you should familiarize yourself with each stain type and their drying time as this could come in handy if your project is time-sensitive. Here are a few types of wood stains and their drying times for your convenience.

Polyurethane over Stain with Roller


Oil-Based Wood Stain

Oil-based stain takes considerably longer to dry compared to other types of wood stain. This is due to it having a thicker consistency and the fact that oil-based stains tend to seep deep into the pores of the wood and bind with its fibers.

Depending on conditions in your immediate area, an oil-based stain can take anywhere between six to 24 hours to dry completely. In unfavorable conditions oil-based stains can take 48 to 72 hours to dry completely, this means that you will need to wait quite a while before your polyurethane coating can be applied.

Oil-Based Stain Dries Slowly

You should also keep in mind that not all brands of oil-based stain are equally as effective, if you’re using a low-quality product the dry time can be significantly extended, resulting in you waiting far longer than the aforementioned time periods for your polyurethane coating to be applied.

The ideal conditions for oil-based paints to dry in (given that you have an acceptable quality of stain on hand) is 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) with adequate ventilation inside a controlled environment.

Polyurethane on Stained Exterior Wood


Water-Based Wood Stain

One of the more complicated stains on the market is water-based wood stain. Water-based stains can be considered the new kid on the block as far as wood stains are concerned. Why? Well, oil-based wood stains were some of the most popular wood treatments on the market for many years until water-based stains were introduced as an affordable alternative.

Water-based stains are often marketed as latex wood stains even though they contain little to no actual latex in their formula, so if you have any aversion or allergies involving latex you need not worry about this wood stain. Water-based wood stains tend to be thinner in viscosity compared to oil-based wood stains, and as a result, they are significantly easier to work with.

Water-Based Stain Dries Quickly

Not only are water-based stains easier to clean up, but their drying time is significantly shorter than oil-based wood stain which makes them a go-to for those projects that are a bit more time-sensitive.

Water-based wood stains are also far better for the environment because they contain significantly less volatile organic chemicals than oil-based wood stains. In ideal conditions, water-based wood stains only take about an hour or two to dry completely, this makes them ideal for DIY enthusiasts and professional crafters alike.


Gel-Based Wood Stain

Gel-based wood stain is yet another new entry in the wood stain market. Gel-stain isn’t really like most other wood stains on the market and is unique in most of its characteristics. How so? Well, most wood stains are considered to be wood treatments, this is because they penetrate below the surface of the wood and bond with its fibers.

Stain on Raw Wood

This is not the case with gel-based wood stain, instead, gel-wood stain stays on the surface of the wood and creates a type of insulation, preventing exterior forces from degrading the wood. This being said, gel-based wood stain is not a wood treatment and is more of a surface coat, although it is still widely considered to be a wood stain due to the fact that it still affects the color and texture of the wood.

Gel-stain is known for being particularly good at hiding any existing stains on wood such as food stains, water stains, previous wood treatments, and many more. Another characteristic that seems to be unique to gel-based wood stain is its thick consistency; this makes it ideal for staining vertical surfaces or surfaces that don’t have a lot of surface friction.

Gel Stain Covers Water Marks

While this makes it sound a lot like paint, gel-based wood stain actually allows the grain and texture of your board to remain visible and tangible on the wood’s surface. If you’re working on a time-sensitive project, we do not recommend using gel-based wood stain as it takes between eight to 24 hours to dry completely depending on the amount applied to your workpiece, and ambient conditions.


Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer and oil-based wood stains tend to fall into the same vein. They are both old-school wood treatments when compared to water-based and gel-based stains. Lacquer has been around for a while and does a really great job at both upping the aesthetic appeal of the board and protecting it from exterior forces.

Lacquer, like the oil-based stain, is waterproof and virtually transparent in appearance. This wood treatment is typically used on high-end furniture and lasts the lifetime of any workpiece. Lacquer might be effective as a wood treatment but lots of crafters have moved away from using it in recent years due to its production being bad for the environment.

Lacquer Finish on Wood

Although it doesn’t contain an obscene number of VOCs, lacquer can cause serious discomfort if inhaled or if it comes into contact with your skin, and to make matters worse it can only be applied via a spray gun. This means that working with lacquer (in addition to producing it) can be hazardous.

This being said, it still produces a beautiful finish that really sets your workpiece apart from the rest, and considering it has a complete dry time of around five to ten minutes you can use this high-end finish for all of those time-sensitive projects. This particular wood treatment does not require the use of a sealer as it does a pretty good job of sealing itself, but there’s no harm in adding a polyurethane coating should the mood take you.

Polyurethane on Outdoor Woodwork

Wood Stain Drying Time
Oil-Based Wood Stain 6-24 Hours
Water-Based Wood Stain 1-2 Hours
Gel-Based Wood Stain 8-24 Hours
Lacquer Wood Stain 5-10 Minutes



Is There a Way to Speed Up the Drying Process of Wood Stain?

How long should wood stain dry before polyurethane can be applied? Well, regardless of the type of wood stain you choose to use, if the conditions in your workspace aren’t ideal, they will either take longer than expected or exactly as long as they should. Is this a bleak prospect? Maybe, but you have the power to alter your working conditions, so they are as conducive as possible to the drying of your wood stain. Let’s have a look at a few things you can do to ensure that your wood stain dries as quickly as possible.

Wait for Stain to Dry


Ensure That Your Wood Has Been Sanded Correctly

How long does stain take to dry? Well, since we’ve looked at the various dry times of wood stain based on their base element, the next factor you should consider is the state of your wood. If your wood has not been sanded correctly and the previous wood treatment or old conditioned wood is still present on the surface of your board, your wood stain will take significantly longer to dry.

Sand Wood for Paint and Poly

In addition to taking longer to dry, you will end up with blotches on the surface of your wood which you will have to remove, sand, and re-stain. How long does stain take to dry? Faster if you sand your workpiece correctly!


Ensure That You Are Working in an Ideal Ambient Temperature

What happens if you apply polyurethane before stain is dry? Well, it’s a bit like taking a cake out of the oven before it’s ready, you’re going to have a mess on your hands. Speeding up your drying process doesn’t depend on your workpiece alone; in fact, you should ensure that the airflow and ambient temperature are good too.

Air-Flow for Staining Wood

If the temperature and airflow in your workspace are too hot or too cold, it could extend the dry time of your wood stain or prevent it from drying and curing completely. What happens if you apply polyurethane before the stain is dry then? Well, the two substances will inevitably mix, which will result in you either scrapping your entire workpiece or having to clean, re-sand, and re-stain your workpiece.


Use Artificial Temperature Control or Compatible Substances

Controlling the temperature of your workpiece can significantly decrease the drying time of your wood stain. How do you do this? Simply use a heat gun, hairdryer, oven, or (pro tip) the sun to increase the temperature of your workpiece and remove the majority of the humidity in its immediate vicinity.

Heat Gun for Drying Stain

Additionally, you could use compatible agents like alcohol or products with the same base element as the wood stain you’re using to increase the drying rate of the stain. Other methods include using a dehumidifier in an enclosed space, increasing airflow in your workpiece, or simply finding something to keep yourself busy so it feels like time is passing by faster (if you don’t have access to any of the aforementioned means)



What Happens if You Apply Polyurethane too Early?

We mentioned earlier that applying polyurethane to wet wood stain is a bad idea overall. Why? Polyurethane and wood stain are fundamentally different substances, and they are both extremely incompatible in their wet states. We know that it can be frustrating to wait for the wood stain to dry, but if you apply polyurethane to tacky stain neither the wood stain nor the polyurethane coating will dry at all. 

Know When to Seal Stain

This means that you have essentially taken something that would have taken a moderately long time to complete and made it completely unsalvageable. Applying polyurethane over tacky stain will inevitably result in you having to remove the mixture you have created and then having to re-sand the surface of your workpiece, re-stain it, wait for the stain to dry completely all over again, and then apply your polyurethane sealer again.

Poly on Wet Stain Removal



How Do You Know if Your Wood Stain is Dry?

The answer to this question varies from wood to wood, and you are working with wood stain for the first time. This is a really good question. Water-based stain is by far the easiest to assess when checking if it has dried completely.

The water-based stain will simply be completely dry to the touch after the manufacturer’s recommended drying time has elapsed, therefore if you have any doubts simply touch an inconspicuous part of the workpiece.

Oil-based stains do take considerably longer to dry, but they give you two indications that they have dried completely. The first indication will be when the stain stops smelling and the smell dissipates, the second would be when the stain is no longer tacky to the touch, instead of leaving your surface smooth and the grain of your board might be slightly more pronounced. Gel-based stain is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to checking if it has dried correctly.

Ensuring Stain is Dry

Gel-stain tends to be very sticky compared to oil and water-based stains so the best way to check if your gel-based stain has dried is simply to try and scratch it off. A good indicator of whether your gel stain is on its way to drying is if it has become really sticky. This means that your stain is well on its way, but if it’s still gooey in texture, this could mean that either your workpiece, work area, or stain needs to be adjusted.

When it comes to telling if lacquer has dried you shouldn’t have a problem at all. Lacquer tends to dry so quickly it might feel instant. Lacquer stain tends to evaporate into the wood’s fibers, which makes it perfect for those time-sensitive projects. Lacquer also has a very distinct smell once it has dried, it tends to mix with the natural scent of the wood, and it will leave behind a glossy finish letting you know that it has dried completely.



What Are Metalized Dye Stains?

Looking for something a bit off the beaten path? Can’t quite find a wood stain that fits the image you have in your head? Well, you’re in luck because we have one more option for you and we promise it’s not varnish! This one is a bit of a blast from the past, it’s all the way from the 1950s and has been used to create finishes that tend to last a lifetime.

Metalized Dye Stain

Metalized dye stain is a wood treatment that is most commonly referred to as grain-raising wood stain. Why? Well, it tends to do something completely unique when applied to a wood board, it actually raises the grain of the wood above the surface of the board to create a really beautiful aesthetic.

Not only will metalized dye stain set your workpiece apart from the rest, but it intensifies the wood’s natural color in the process. This being said, if there is a wood stain capable of doing all of this, why don’t we hear of it more often? Well, like most things out of the ’50s they aren’t really good for the environment, and like most other things from the ’50s, the aesthetic they produce simply fell out of fashion.




Now that you know how long each type of wood stain takes to dry, why it’s important to wait for the wood stain to dry before applying sealer, how long to let the stain dry before polyurethane can be applied, the factors that affect the dry time of wood stain, and how to tell if wood stain has dried completely, it’s time for you to go out there and put your newfound knowledge to the test. Remember to always work in a well-ventilated area when working with wood stain, and to always ensure that conditions in your workspace are conducive to your wood stain drying as fast as possible.



Frequently Asked Questions


How Long Should Stain Dry Before Polyurethane Is Applied?

Even though there are various types of stains out there that dry at different rates, you should do your best to let any stain dry for 12 to 24 hours before applying a polyurethane sealer. This reduces the possibility of the stain only being dry on the surface and you having to re-do your entire workpiece.


How Long After Staining Can You Apply Polyurethane Coating?

How long after staining can you apply a polyurethane coating? Even though there are stains on the market that dry a lot quicker, you should make a habit of allowing a stain to dry for a full 24 hours before applying a polyurethane coating.


What Is the Typical Polyurethane Stain Drying Time?

What is the typical polyurethane stain dry time? This is entirely dependent on the type of polyurethane you choose to use on your workpiece. While water-based polyurethane typically takes a maximum of two hours to dry out, it will take oil-based polyurethane around eight hours to dry out. The full cure time for any polyurethane product is typically 24 hours.


How Much Time Should Elapse Between Staining and Polyurethane Coating?

How long should you wait between applying a stain and a polyurethane coating? Considering that most commonly used stains take between 12 to 24 hours to dry and cure completely, it’s good practice to wait a full 24 hours before applying polyurethane sealer to your workpiece after your stain has been applied.