Color Chart of Wood Stains

Wood stain charts should be viewed as guidelines, indicating what to expect for a given product. All types of stains, no matter the formula or application, are subject to conditions that can alter the final color of the stain.

Worker staining a deck.

Planning, preparation and following instructions are key to making sure your result matches the sample on the color chart.

Chart Anatomy

Color charts represent a general idea of what to expect over the broad application of a product. Variations on application, wood species, preparation, drying time, environment and top coat have direct effects on stain color. Some manufacturers produce only three colors: light, medium and dark. Others produce a large variety of tinted colors. When stains are applied under controlled conditions consistent with the manufacturer's instructions, the finished product should match the chart. When variables are added, subtle differences between the finished product and the chart may occur.

Range in Colors

Color charts typically range from light to dark, with the description on the chart synonymous with a natural wood color. For example: light colors are often termed maple, honey or fruitwood. Dark colors are most often referred to as walnut or a version of walnut such as medium walnut or dark walnut. Tinted colors come in a broad range that may or may not relate to a real species. The most common of the tinted colors are based on cherry or mahogany, with many variations of each.

Stains at Work

Stains contain dye and pigment mixed with a carrier of water, solvent, synthetic or oil. Unlike paint, which coats the surface of wood, stain penetrates into the wood. When the carrier dries or evaporates, the pigment or dye remains in the wood, revealing grain patterns. All wood species have specific density that affects stain penetration and color. Color charts are very specific concerning wood species. For example, a color chart designed for oak should be used on oak for best results; color charts for mahogany should be used on mahogany. Substitutions can result in darker or lighter colors, or tints that deviate from the charts.

Prep is Key

Results in tint or degree of color may vary if the wood is not properly prepared. The roughness of the wood surface relates directly to how fast and how deep stain penetrates. Higher-grit sandpapers polish the surface of the wood, preventing stain from penetrating at the same rate as lower-grit papers. For example, sanding with 100-grit sandpaper will produce a deeper, darker color than a surface sanded with 120-grit. Advanced color charts may state what kind of sandpaper to use for best results.


Controlled environment is key to consistent stain color that matches the chart. Stain charts have been produced under perfect conditions. Check the manufacturer's instructions for room temperature and drying time. Humidity, temperature and air movement have direct effects on how fast stain dries and to what degree it penetrates. For example; stain applied during the morning hours may be darker or lighter than stain applied during the afternoon when outside temperature or humidity has changed.

Top Coat

Lacquer, varnish, shellac, polyurethane or any other clear coat adds depth and color to stain. Charts are typically produced with a top coat in place. Match charts to the final product by applying a specific top coat to a stained sample of wood. For example, a lacquer top coat will produce a slightly deeper color without changing the tint. Shellac or varnish will produce a yellow or golden tint, changing the color of the sample to a small degree. The only way to ensure that charts match the final stain color is to perform tests on scrap wood and compare them with the chart before starting the project.

Codes and Regulations

Stains contain volatile organic compounds that are released into the air when stain dries and cures. Also known as VOCs, the chemicals can produce health hazards such as eye and skin irritation, and respiratory issues. Newer formulations such as water-based stain release fewer VOCs. When comparing stain color charts, take into consideration the application, health and environmental precautions, and local regulations.