How to thin wood stain for lighter color (5 Best Tips)

how to thin wood stain

How to thin wood stain? No matter the type of stain you’re using, the most important part of the whole process is getting the color you want. You can buy the stain in the color you want or mix different colors to get the stain color you want. Some wood stains can be too thick and difficult to apply, but you can thin it with a compatible solvent to give you the look you want on your woodwork.

Staining gives your woodwork an aesthetic look and helps to preserve the wood for longer. It allows you to add texture, color, and even grain which improves the look and feel of your wood finish. However, some wood stains can be difficult to apply while others have limited color varieties that may not match the color you’re looking for. One quick and easy way of solving these problems is by learning how to thin stain for lighter color.

Different types of stains

There is a variety of in the market today that contain solvents that carry the pigment or dyes that give different colors to the stain.

Water-based stains

These stains tend to be semitransparent and great for exterior use and use water as the solvent for thinning. However, these stains have already been thinned with water so you don’t need to thin again. It doesn’t contain any toxic VOCs so it’s not dangerous to use. Thinning this water-based stainer will help slow down the application time.

Oil-based stains

These contain mineral spirits like petroleum distillates. These stains include lacquer, oil-based varnish, polyurethane, and shellac that contain very toxic VOCs which can be very dangerous. Although thinning these stains reduces the VOC concentration, you might not want to thin this stain because they’re highly flammable which makes them very dangerous.

Varnish stains

These are thicker than the conventional oil-based stains. They contain mineral spirits that you use to thin them.

Gel stains

These are very thick oil-based stains that are very messy to apply so it’s better to use the rubbing method when applying on wood. However, they give a smooth color without any blotches which makes it a great choice for staining pine and other softwood.

One-step stain and finish

This is a combination of wood stain and varnish which is the coloring agent and the topcoat mixed in one product. This is a time-saving innovation that you will find in both water-based and oil-based forms. These products will color your wood and then harden to give a topcoat finish, but if you need a deeper color you can apply multiple coats then apply a clear polyurethane varnish. You can apply it over an existing stain or vanish to rejuvenate the worn surfaces.

Products to use to thin wood stain

When thinning wood stains, there are different types of products you can use.


This is the best thinner if you’re planning to use water-based stains, which seems pretty obvious.

Mineral spirits

You can only use these for thinning oil-based stains, polyurethane, and varnish. Although it’s less toxic than these stains, you still need to be careful when handling it and use a face mask to prevent you from breathing it in for too long. Mix 4 parts stain to 1 part mineral spirits when staining. It’s flexible as it only affects how thick your stain gets.

Mineral spirit variations

The traditional mineral spirits have different variations that you can use. One of the old-fashioned variations that have been and are still used by painters is turpentine. Although it’s now more expensive it slows down the drying time. Another variation is Varsol and Naptha which is more flammable but has a shorter dry time.

How to thin wood stain

With different types of stains in the market, you first need to know the type of stain you want because its composition will determine the thinner you will use. Carefully read the labels to check the ingredients and manufacturer recommendations. Here are some common stains and thinners that go well together.

  • Water-based stains: These are ideal for exterior use, and have a semitransparent color with the word latex on their labels. Water is the best thinner to use with them.
  • Oil-based pigment stains: These contain mineral spirits that are indicated as petroleum distillates on the label and the best thinner is mineral spirits.
  • Lacquer-based or non-grain raising stains: They contain toluene, xylene, or methyl ethyl ketone that have very strong smells. You can mix with a lacquer thinner.
  • Varnish stains: They contain mineral spirits, but are thicker than most oil-based stains. You can use mineral spirits for thinning.

To ensure you get the desired results, ass the thinner just before staining your wood. When diluted in advance then store with a lid that isn’t well closed, it will become pasty by the time you use it. You can thin and make all other stains workable apart from varnish so it’s best to thin it right before application. Add the thinner in small mounts and keep stirring to allow the dye or pigment to dissolve. If you use too much thinner, the stain will become too liquid which will make the color too light so you’ll need to apply 2 or 3 layers. If you’re using a spray gun, ensure the stain isn’t too liquid to avoid dripping or running.

After mixing the stain and thinner, you should test the stain on a piece of wood similar to the surface you want to use or on a small area out of sight. This will help you to check if the stain has the color and texture you want or if you need to thin it more. Repeat this process until you get the desired results. Once you get the desired color and consistency, you can apply it on your wooden surface using different methods of application depending on the type of stain and thinner you’ve used.


When you want to thin and stain wood, you must wear protective equipment to protect you from harmful chemicals that can be toxic to your skin and lungs. Ensure that you’re working in a well-ventilated area and avoid using thinners and stains near a heat source to prevent accidents.


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