How to Tell if Wood Is Stained or Painted: A Handy Guide

If you’ve ever come across a piece of wood furniture or an interior feature and wondered whether it was stained or painted, you’re not the only one. The subtle differences between these two finishes can sometimes be challenging to identify. But no worries, we’re here to guide you through the process of unraveling this intriguing mystery.

how to tell if wood is stained or painted
Image by Michael Schwarzenberger from Pixabay

Let’s disclose the secrets behind these two popular wood treatments.

Understanding the Difference between Stained and Painted Wood

Wood finishing is a crucial aspect of woodworking, and two common methods of finishing wood are staining and painting. Both techniques enhance the appearance and protect the wood, but they differ significantly in their application and final results.

Stained Wood

Stained wood refers to the process of applying a semi-transparent or transparent colorant to the surface of the wood. The primary purpose of staining is to enhance the natural beauty of the wood by accentuating its grain and texture while preserving its inherent characteristics. Stains are available in various colors, allowing woodworkers to choose the shade that best complements the wood’s appearance.

Characteristics of Stained Wood

Natural grain visibility: Staining allows the natural grain patterns of the wood to remain visible, giving it a more organic and textured look.

Penetrates the wood fibers: Stains are designed to penetrate into the wood fibers, rather than just forming a surface layer, ensuring lasting color retention.

Variations in color depth and tone: The depth and tone of the stained wood can vary depending on factors such as the wood’s species, its porosity, and the number of coats applied.

Enhances wood’s natural beauty: By enriching the wood’s color and grain, staining enhances its inherent beauty, making it visually appealing.

May have a clear protective finish: In some cases, stained wood may also have a clear protective finish, such as varnish or polyurethane, which provides additional protection against moisture, UV rays, and general wear.

Painted Wood

Painted wood refers to wood surfaces that have been coated with pigmented paint, creating a solid, opaque color layer that conceals the natural grain of the wood. The purpose of painting wood varies from providing decorative finishes to offering enhanced protection against weathering and wear.

Characteristics of Painted Wood

Solid, opaque color covering the wood surface: Unlike staining, which allows the wood grain to show through, painting completely covers the wood with a solid, uniform color.

No visible wood grain: Painting obscures the natural grain patterns of the wood, providing a smooth, consistent appearance.

Can have various finishes (matte, satin, glossy): Painted wood can be finished with different sheens, including matte, satin, or glossy, allowing for diverse visual effects.

Often used for decorative purposes: Painted wood is commonly used for decorative and aesthetic purposes, allowing for a wide range of color options and creative designs.

May offer better protection against weather and wear: As paint forms a protective barrier on the wood’s surface, it can offer increased resistance to moisture, UV rays, and general wear and tear compared to stained wood.

How to Tell if Wood Is Stained or Painted?

Determining whether wood is stained or painted can be essential for various reasons, such as refinishing or restoring furniture, choosing the right method for stripping or cleaning the wood, or matching new pieces with existing ones. Here’s a guide to help you identify whether wood has been stained or painted:

1. Visual Clues to Identify Stained or Painted Wood

Observe the surface texture:

Stained wood: It will have a rough texture with visible wood grain.

Painted wood: The surface will be smooth without visible wood grain.

Inspect the color:

Stained wood: It will display natural wood colors with variations.

Painted wood: It will have a solid and consistent color, often different from natural wood shades.

Check for any signs of chipping or peeling:

Stained wood: There will be minimal to no chipping or peeling.

Painted wood: Chipping or peeling paint may be evident, especially on older surfaces.

2. Additional Techniques for Identification:

Sanding test:

Stained wood: Sanding will reveal the natural wood color below the surface.

Painted wood: The surface color will remain unchanged due to the paint layer.

Chemical test (solvent application):

Stained wood: The solvent may slightly darken the wood but won’t remove color.

Painted wood: The solvent may dissolve or remove the paint layer.

Other Techniques to Identify Wood Is Stained or Painted:

Scratching test:

Stained wood: When lightly scratched, stained wood will still show the natural wood color beneath the surface.

Painted wood: Scratching painted wood may reveal a different color or the bare wood, indicating it is painted.

UV light test:

Stained wood: Under UV light, the natural wood colors in the stain may appear slightly darker or more pronounced.

Painted wood: UV light will not significantly alter the appearance of painted wood.

Examination of edges and corners:

Stained wood: Check the edges and corners of the wood piece; stained wood will show consistent wood color throughout, including in these areas.

Painted wood: The paint on the edges might appear thicker and may obscure the natural wood grain.

Wood grain inspection:

Stained wood: Wood grain will be visible and show variations in color and texture, reflecting the natural appearance of the wood.

Painted wood: Even with a smooth finish, you might still see faint wood grain impressions, but they will not be as pronounced as in stained wood.

Examination of joints and recesses:

Stained wood: In joints and recesses, the wood’s natural color will be apparent, even if they are hard to reach or hidden areas.

Painted wood: Paint tends to build up in joints and recesses, often leaving noticeable thickened or inconsistent coloration.

Peeling or stripping test:

Stained wood: Attempting to peel or strip stained wood will not remove any color but may reveal a deeper layer of the same or similar wood tone.

Painted wood: Peeling or stripping painted wood will remove the paint layer, exposing the original wood or primer underneath.

Age and wear assessment:

Stained wood: Over time, stained wood develops a slightly weathered patina, but the color and grain remain visible.

Painted wood: Painted surfaces, especially if old and worn, may show signs of cracking, peeling, or flaking.

Look for brush strokes or drip marks:

Stained wood: Stains are typically applied more evenly, and you won’t see brush strokes or drip marks on the surface.

Painted wood: Visible brush strokes or drip marks may indicate that the wood is painted.

Backside inspection:

Stained wood: Flip the wood piece and examine the backside; the stain should penetrate through the wood, and the color will be consistent on both sides.

Painted wood: The paint layer will be evident on the backside, and you may notice a clear distinction between painted and unpainted areas.

Look for Absorption:

Stained wood: To check for absorption, find an inconspicuous spot on the wood, such as the back or underside, and place a few drops of water. If the water is absorbed and darkens the wood, it’s likely stained.

Painted wood: If the water beads up and does not penetrate, it may be painted.

Note: Some furniture or wood items may have a combination of staining and painting, such as stained wood with painted accents or vice versa. Also, aged or weathered wood can sometimes make it harder to differentiate between staining and painting. But by carefully observing the wood’s characteristics and using these tips, you should be able to determine whether the wood is stained or painted with reasonable confidence.

Does Paint Last Longer than Stain?

Paint generally lasts longer than stain as it creates a protective barrier on the surface, shielding it from UV rays, moisture, and other elements.

Stain, while enhancing the natural beauty of wood, tends to require more frequent reapplication due to its lower durability. However, the longevity of both paint and stain depends on factors such as surface preparation, quality of products used, and maintenance.


Knowing the differences between stained and painted wood opens up endless creative opportunities while keeping the wood’s natural beauty intact. Next time you encounter wood, you’ll be able to spot the distinctions and admire its special allure.

About the Author

Ivan McCloud