Can You Stain Plywood?

Staining plywood, as well as employing other finishes, is a fantastic way to bring out the natural beauty of the material. Whether you are completing a project like cabinets, furniture, or decorative objects, stain and other finishes like paint and varnish bring the project to completion. Yet staining plywood is not the same as with other types of wood. The unique nature of the material means that it requires special considerations. Knowing the steps involved with finishing plywood will empower you to transform this practical building material from something utilitarian to something amazing.

Stain plywood

Can You Stain Plywood?

The short answer is “yes”, you can stain plywood. It is important to note that staining plywood, which is a composite building material, requires a different process and preparation from solid wood surfaces. This is due to the presence of wood veneer layers and the way that they absorb stains.

Plywood Characteristics to Consider Before Staining

Most stain types are semi-opaque to transparent. Therefore, the quality of the plywood is of vital importance as it shows through stain. Certain considerations are useful when choosing what type of plywood is best for stain.

  • Veneer Quality – High-quality plywood with well-matched veneers work best for staining. You should consider the quality of the veneer by considering the visual aspects of the plywood. Choose veneer faces by taking into account smoothness, evenness, grain pattern, and whether it is free from visual blemishes like knots and splinters.
  • Veneer Species – Manufacturers create plywood veneers from a variety of wood species, including oak, spruce, birch, maple, and pine. These different wood types vary by wood grain, color, and texture, and each will accept stains in unique ways. This is a vital consideration when considering the resulting appearance of your stained plywood.
  • Veneer Thickness – The thickness of the veneer used on plywood can affect how it accepts stains. Thin veneers absorb stains more unevenly and cause a blotchy appearance. You can apply a wood conditioner to thin veneers to help even out absorption.
  • Veneer Grade – Manufacturers make plywood in different grades, like A, B, C, and D. This indicated the quality and appearance of the wood veneers. Higher-grade plywoods have greater structural integrity, strength, and aesthetic appearance. In general, higher-grade veneers have a better surface for staining.
  • Stain Compatibility – Not all stains are suitable for staining plywood, so you must consider the type of stain that works well in plywood. Water-based stains are more forgiving and work well with most plywood types. Oil-based stains require more surface preparation and greater expertise in the application.

Best Plywoods for Staining

The choice of different plywood veneers depends on your personal preference regarding the result you want. Here are some popular plywood types that work well for staining.


Oak veneers are popular due to their distinctive grain pattern and their excellent finishing qualities. With stain, you can produce rich tones and bring out a gorgeous contrast between light and dark grain lines.


Birch plywood is beloved by craftsmen for its smooth and even texture. This texture allows it to achieve a consistent stain finish. Birch has a pale color, which allows it to produce a range of finishes from dark to light depending on the stain color.


Maple veneers have a subtle grain pattern that provides a range of aesthetic options from modern to contemporary. Maple has a tight grain structure, which gives it a smooth finish. Maple veneers accept stains well and produce an even color.


Mahogany wood is beloved for its rich, reddish-brown color and distinctive grain pattern. Staining mahogany plywood is an ideal way to enhance its beauty and texture because it brings out its unique color.


Walnut plywood has a dark, chocolate-brown color and a distinct grain pattern. Staining walnut plywood enhances the rich color and intricate grain of the wood.

Steps to Stain Plywood

Staining plywood requires prep work as well as the steps of the staining process. Don’t skimp in either area. Careful preparation and processing through the steps are vital because of the transparency of the stain finish and the way that it highlights the natural qualities of the plywood.

  1. Prepare the Plywood

Begin the process by ensuring that the plywood surface is smooth and clear and free from dust, dirt, and imperfections. Use fine-grit sandpaper to lightly sand the surface and create an even surface to which the stain can adhere well. Use a tack cloth to clean the surface of any residual grit from the sanding process.

  1. Choose the Right Stain

Think about the desired outcome of your plywood project in terms of color and the species of plywood veneer. Certain veneers like oak stain well and produce a rich color even with one coat. Other veneer types, like birch or maple, require extra coats to ensure a deep color.

According to these specifications, choose an appropriate stain type, either water or oil. Water stains are more forgiving for all veneer types and are easier to use. Oil stains tend to produce a richer color but take a longer time to dry, are harder to apply, and have a strong odor due to their high VOC content.

  1. Apply the Stain

Read all the manufacturer’s instructions on how to apply your chosen stain. Before you stain the entire plywood surface, it is best to try the stain on a small corner or space piece of the plywood. Take note of the way the stain absorbs and how many coats you need to achieve the shade you like.

Once you understand these details, you can begin applying the stain with a brush, cloth, or sponge, according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. Apply the stain in the direction of the wood grain to minimize streaks and unevenness.

  1. Allow for Absorption Time

Plywood has variations in density within its layers, leading to uneven absorption times. Allow the stain to penetrate and dry according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Once the stain has been absorbed, you will be able to tell if you need to apply more coats to achieve the desired color.

  1. Wipe Off Excess Stain

Sometimes all the stain does not absorb into the plywood. Then it is necessary to manually wipe off the excess stain. This helps prevent the stain from drying unevenly or blotchy.

  1. Apply a Protective Finish

Once you have applied all the necessary coats to achieve the color finish you desire, allow the stain to dry completely. Once it is dry, you can apply a protective finish to the stained plywood, like polyurethane, lacquer, or varnish. This enhances the durability and beauty of the wood as well as enhances its resistance to scratches, moisture, and UV damage.

Other Finish Options for Plywood

Besides stain, there are a variety of other finish options for plywood that can enhance the beauty and durability of the material.

  • Paint – Paint finishes are a way to change the color and appearance of plywood. With paint, there is a wide range of color and sheen options such as matte, semi-gloss, and gloss. You can also use paint finishes to create unique styles like stencils and faux finishes.
  • Clear Finish – Clear finishes like lacquer, polyurethane, and shellac provide a protective layer and also enhance the natural color and grain of the plywood.
  • Oil Finish – Oil finishes like tung and linseed oil penetrate the wood and enhance the natural beauty of plywood veneers. These finishes require periodic reapplication to preserve the protective layer.

Tips for Applying Paint to Plywood

The steps for applying paint to plywood are similar to those that involve stains. The preparation is not as intense for paint as for stain because paint covers more surface imperfections, but the smoother the initial surface, the better the painted surface will look. Here are some specific tips for applying paint to plywood.

Apply a Primer

A primer coat helps to increase adhesion, cover imperfections, and create a more even surface for the paint. Choose a primer that is compatible with the type of paint you use, whether oil or water-based.

Choose the Right Paint

Select the right kind of paint to give you the desired finish. Water-based paints are easy to apply and dry more quickly. While the finish is durable for water-based paints, it is not as durable as oil-based paint. Oil-based paint is more difficult to apply and has harsh odors. It does create a durable finish.

Applying the Paint

Apply the paint according to the manufacturer’s instructions by using a brush or roller. Coat the plywood with multiple thin layers rather than thick layers. As with stains, always paint in the direction of the wood grain.

Allow Proper Drying and Curing Time

Allow each layer to dry between recoating. Avoid subjecting plywood that has not cured to heavy use and contact. This will damage the painted surface.

Tips for Applying Clear Finishes and Oils to Plywood

Clear finishes like varnishes and oils provide a protective layer but no distinct color change. The steps for applying these finishes are similar to those of stain and paint, but some specific tips are helpful if you want to explore this option.

Choose the Right Finish

Each finish option like polyurethane, shellac, varnish, and oil has different sheen options and protective qualities. Polys, shellacs, and varnishes come in matte, semi-gloss, and high-gloss options. Oil finishes like tung and linseed oil penetrate the surface of the wood, and they are more natural finishes. Wax is another clear finish option for plywood, though it is not as protective or lasting as varnishes and oils.

Periodic Reapplication

Polys, shellacs, and varnishes are highly protective and lasting. These will not need to be reapplied. Tung oil, linseed oil, and wax do need to be reapplied to maintain their protective finish.

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Written by Murat

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