Staining is one of the best ways to finish wood projects. A stain coat protects the underlying wood surface, shielding it from external elements, such as dust and dents, and weather factors, such as direct sunlight, moisture, and UV protection.

Moreover, staining is better than painting because it leaves the wood’s beautiful grains visible to everyone. Staining also enhances rather than conceals the wood’s natural color.

Unfortunately, the quality of the outcome depends on many factors, chief among them the choice of staining brush. The right brush guarantees a smooth, beautiful finish. On the other hand, a poor stain brush can be highly inconvenient and often results in a poor finish with brush marks and bristles all over.

So, what’s the best brush to use for staining wood? It depends on many factors. Read on to learn how to make the right choice.

Why does it matter?

staining wood with brush

There are many reasons. But, generally, a great stain brush offers the following advantages;

  • Hold more stain: The right brush holds more paint but not too much to damage the project. This allows you to work faster while ensuring maximum finish quality.
  • Releases more paint evenly: Poor brushes retain lots of finishing material, resulting in wastage and difficulty cleaning. Quality brushes don’t have this problem.
  • Retain their shape for longer: Low-quality brushes lose their shapes easily. So, you should find the right brush if you wish to reuse it for complex projects.
  • Do not shed bristles: No one enjoys removing bristles from a finished surface. Fortunately, high-quality brushes don’t shed bristles.
  • Durability and longevity: Quality brushes can last several years, saving you hundreds of dollars.

What’s the best brush for staining wood?

Generally, natural bristled brushes are the best choice for oil-based stains, while synthetic-bristled brushes are ideal for water-based finishes. The main reason is that natural-bristled brushes are easier to clean. Unfortunately, cleaning solvent-based stains from synthetic brushes is excruciating.

Bristle brushes vs. foam brushes: Why bristle brushes?

brush and woord stains

Again, it’s about achieving the highest quality of finish. Foam brushes are good. They are highly affordable to the point some people call them disposable. Moreover, foam brushes don’t leave brushmarks or bristles on your work.

However, there are many reasons bristle brushes are the better choice, especially for wood staining

Foam brushes pros and cons

Foam brushes are made from a foam-like sponge material that absorbs paint, much like a sponge pad. The handles are often made from wood or plastic.

  • Pros: Foam brushes are affordable and can work fast without leaving brush strokes. Additionally, they carry substantial stain for fast coverage.
  • Cons: Unfortunately, foam brushes can leave air bubbles and other marks on your project. They are also prone to shredding and are ill-suited for corners and hard-to-reach areas.

Bristled brushes pros and cons

Bristled brushes use hairs instead of sponges to carry paint or stain onto the work surface. These “hairs” can be natural or synthetic, while the handles are often wooden or plastic.

  • Pros: Bristled brushes carry way more stain than foam brushes, guaranteeing faster completion. They are also more durable and better suited for corners and hard-to-reach areas.
  • Cons: Unfortunately, bristled brushes are more expensive than foam brushes. Additionally, they often leave brushstrokes on the work surface, which can be undesirable.

Factors to consider when choosing a bristle brush for wood staining

brush for wood staining

We’ve established that you should consider bristle brushes for staining wood. But what type of bristled brushes? The following are several additional factors to consider;

Bristle type: Natural vs. Synthetic

Bristled paint bushes are available in two categories – natural and synthetic bristle varieties. Natural bristled brushes are made from animal hair, such as hog or badger hair. Meanwhile, synthetic bristles are made from nylon, polyester, or both.

Natural bristled brushes enable a smoother application with fewer brush strokes. Moreover, they are easy to wash. Unfortunately, they become limp when used with water-based finishes. On the other hand, synthetic-bristled brushes are more economical as they don’t absorb much wood stain. However, you need more brush strokes as the tips don’t split.

Bristle shape: Square-Cut vs. Sash Cut

Bristled brushes are either square-cut or sash-cut. Square/flat cut brushes are excellent for holding and laying stains. However, they provide poor control when working on corners, narrow edges/surfaces, or adjacent surfaces.

On the other hand, sash-cut brushes, cut at a slight angle, provide exceptional control when working on corners. However, they can be inefficient for large, flat surfaces.

Bristle tips: Flagged vs. Tipped

High-quality stain brushes feature flagged, or “split” ends. Flagged ends are bushy or splintered, turning a single bristle into multiple bristles. This allows flagged brushes to hold more paint and spread paint more evenly and smoothly. They’re also ideal if you want to work faster. 

On the other hand, tipped brushes come to a tip. So instead of spreading out, the brush tips converge to a tip. This often means you need to work longer to cover larger areas. However, it also translates to greater control and precision.

Brush width: Narrow brushes vs. Wide brushes

Finally, stain brushes are available in various sizes/widths to suit different applications. The typical range is one to five inches.

So, what size suits your project? There’s no one right answer. Instead, it’s best to match your brush width to the surface. Specifically, you want a brush slightly narrower than the surface. For instance, choose a 2½-inch wide brush if working on a 3-inch wide wooden board as a 4-inch brush would overlap the surface, causing drip paint.

Read more: Improving the efficiency of your woodworking shop

Can you apply wood stain with a rag?

Yes, you can apply a wood stain with a rag. Indeed, it’s the best way to apply stain to wood surfaces. It gives you the highest control and lets you quickly but gently wipe off excess stains. The only downside is that it’s slow.


A natural-bristled, square-cut brush is the best choice for applying wood stain if rag application isn’t an option. It holds plenty of stains and enables smooth application with great control. Consider wide, flagged brushes for fast application and narrow, tipped brushes for maximum precision and control.

What brush to use for staining wood? was last modified: October 2nd, 2023 by Billy Guteng
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Foam? that’s kindergarten material