How Long Does Wood Stain Last in the Can?

You may have been there before: buying wood stain to use on one of your wood pieces and not using the entire can of stain. Buying wood stain and the materials needed to apply it can add up, and if you’re like most of us, you’ll want to make the most of your purchases and save them for further use.

When you’re getting ready to put the lid back on the wood stain can to store it, or even wondering if you should keep or toss it, you’re probably wondering: how long does wood stain last in the can? Wood stains have a general shelf life of three years, although that time can be shortened or lengthened depending on how and where it’s stored.

It’s time for you to get the most out of your wood stain, and we’ve compiled all the information you need to do so. We’ll let you know what wood stain actually is, the different types of wood stains, how long the types of wood stains can last in the can, how to make your wood stain last longer, and even how to tell when it’s time to throw it out.

Everything You Need to Know About Wood Stain

There are some important things you need to know in order to find out how long the wood stain lasts in the can. Let’s walk through what wood stain actually is and what it’s used for, the different types of wood stains, how long the different types can last, and how you can tell if it’s time to toss out your wood stain.

The Basics: What is Wood Stain?

At its simplest description, wood stain is a type of paint that is used to color wood. Let’s paint a different picture for you, though: there are many different types of wood, and each has a complex system of complex and hidden grain patterns under its surface.

The wood stain seeps down into the hidden grain patterns to amplify them and add definition and color, resulting in a whole new more beautiful side of the wood!

Like you’ve probably seen before, wood also has contrasting colors; some spots are very light, where others are very dark. Wood stain can be used to bring these contrasts closer together and make them more even. Wood stain can be subtle, too – tones can be lightly brought out or even muted with stain.

As if the wood stain didn’t already have enough good benefits, it can also be a protectant for wood, shielding it from sun rays and other damage like insects.

What Can Wood Stain Be Used On?

Wood stain can theoretically be used on any type of wood, but it’s commonly applied to a lot of household items, like:

  • Furniture like tables, chairs and couches
  • Cabinets
  • Floors
  • Decks
  • Molding and trims

Some of the Types of Wood Stains

There are various types of wood stains that have different properties and uses. They include oil stains, varnish stains, water-based stains, gel stains, and lacquer stains among a few others. Let’s take a brief look at them.

Oil Stains

Oil stains are the most widely available and common type of wood stain. Oil stains are what most people picture when they think of wood stains. Some oil stains only contain pigment, where other oil stains only contain dye, or contain pigment and dye. This type of stain is versatile.

Varnish Stains

Varnish stains share most of the characteristics of oil stains, except for the fact that varnish stains only use varnish as the binder. This means they dry hard, while oil stains don’t. Varnish stains are also more difficult to use than oil stains because it’s harder to remove the excess stain, which can affect the finished product.

Water-Based Stains

Water-based stains use a water-based finish as their binder. They’re less irritable to be around, easier to clean up, and create less pollution. They may be more difficult to use because they bring out the grains of the wood, and they dry pretty quickly.

Gel Stains

Gel stains are a thick type of wood stain that has a consistency like that of mayonnaise. They’re messy to apply, and may be harder to use, but they have a big perk: they can cover blotching on pine. This type of wood stain is important for staining woods that are prone to blotching.

Lacquer Stains

This type of wood stain is fast binding and fast drying, and can even be applied within 15 minutes or so. Because they dry so fast, they can be desirable to use, but they can also be harder to use.

How Long Wood Stain Lasts in the Can

It can be hard to determine how long a certain type of wood stain may last in the can, as a lot of the cans aren’t like other products; they don’t have a “Use By” or “Best By” date. According to Rockler, manufacturers of wood stains that are oil, water or solvent based say the stains have a general shelf life of three years.

Three years is a good baseline if you’re looking for one, but the truth is, with proper care and storage, wood stain can last much longer. Many lacquer stains have been known to last for decades (yes, you read that right!).

What Contributes to Wood Stain in the Can Going “Bad”?

While wood stains can last anywhere from a general three years to a stretch of decades, there are some big factors that contribute to wood stain going “bad.” Your wood stain could be more prone to going “bad” and lasting shorter in the can if:

  • It’s exposed to air
  • It’s exposed to moisture
  • It’s stored in an area with temperature extremes like freezing and high heat
  • It’s exposed to bacteria

How to Tell if It’s Time to Toss Out Your Wood Stain

There are some ways to tell if it’s time to finally let your wood stain go and toss it out, rather than preserving it. First, start with a visual inspection. If you open up your can of wood stain and its contents look separated, stringy, rubbery, or thick, it may be time to throw it out. Additionally, if your wood stain looks moldy or has a skunk-like odor, that’a a good indicator it’s time to toss it.

But what if the contents look okay? Time to do a test! Take some of your wood stains and place it on a piece of plastic or glass. Tip your plastic or glass to a 45 degree (or more) angle and observe how fast it dries.

Lacquer wood stains should dry in under an hour, water-based wood stains should dry in six hours or less, and oil wood stains should dry overnight. If your wood stain still isn’t dry within those time frames, it’s probably time to get a new can.

Tips for Making Your Wood Stain Last Longer in the Can

Once you’ve gone out and purchased you’re desired can of wood stain and used it on your wood piece, there are some tips you can follow to ensure your wood stain lasts longer in the can while you’re not using it. Storage matters!

Tip #1: Get a Good Seal

When you’re finished using your wood stain, it’s important to get a good, airtight seal on the can before storing it. This prevents air, moisture and bacteria from creeping through and cutting the shelf life of your wood stain down.

Wipe off the outer rim of the wood stain can after using it and tightly seal the can with its lid. Pro-tip: to tell if your seal is tight enough, squeeze the can of wood stain. If you hear or feel any air seeping out, your seal isn’t tight enough. Try again!

Tip #2: Make Sure You Have a Good Storage Area

Where wood stain is stored matters a lot. When you’re getting ready to store your wood stain, make sure it’s in an area that is relatively temperature controlled. Wood stain can become unusable if it freezes or is exposed to extreme heat. Moderate temperatures like 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 65 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal for storing wood stain.

The wood stain also needs to be stored in a dry area; moisture is wood stain’s enemy when it’s in the can! Make sure your wood stain is stored somewhere that it won’t be exposed to a lot of direct or indirect moisture to keep it lasting longer.

Tip #3: Safety First

When storing your wood stain after use, consider the safety concerns. The wood stain should be stored on high shelving out of the reach of children or pets. It should also be stored on something sturdy to assure it doesn’t fall. Additionally, your wood stain should be stored out of areas in which it could be exposed to fire hazards. Wood stains are generally highly flammable.


I've been building things for many years, and I want to share what I've learned to try and help whoever I can. Make sure to checkout the homepage for my most read posts!

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