What kind of rag is best for staining?

I’ve painted rooms and furniture at least 100 times throughout my life. Friends and family have paid me to paint rooms. A dear friend owns a painting business, and I’ve done some moonlighting for her. I feel I’m pretty knowledgeable in the materials needed and the process to paint professionally, though I wouldn’t call myself a professional.

However, I’ve only stained furniture and other wooden objects a handful of times. It can seem overwhelming since it is so much different from painting, so it’s important to know what materials I need before beginning the project. Staining is an entirely different process from painting because of the materials you’ll use and the steps you’ll take to stain. Many stores sell rags that are meant for staining purposes, but do you need to purchase special rags to stain? The quick answer is no.

What kind of rag to use for staining

Let’s take a look at the best types of rags to use when staining. While some may be best accessible at a home improvement store, it is not your only option. We’ll also look at some alternative options for traditional rags.


Reason for Rags

If you’ve painted before, but never stained, you may wonder why you even need rags. While painting is a process, staining is even more methodical. When you add stain to the wood, you want to be sure it is wiped off quickly before it dries. If the stain remains on the wood for too long, the wood may saturate more in that spot, creating a blotchy, unappealing finished product.

Using a rag to apply the stain also gives you more control over the amount put onto the wood at any given time. In this case, less is better. Using too much stain in one spot can cause that area to be darker than the rest of the wood. You’ll also want a drier rag to wipe off the excess stain. If the rag is too saturated, it will not remove as much as you’d like. Staining is a patient man’s game.

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Tack Cloth

Tack cloth is often described as the best rag to use when staining wood. Tack cloth is made from a cotton gauze coated in either beeswax or varnish. The finished product is sticky – or tacky – and works great to remove lint, dust, hair, and anything else that may fall on the wood.

Tack cloths are typically washable and reusable, so they are worth the cost in the long run if you have more than one project to stain. Using a clean tack cloth is recommended to wipe down the wood before applying a second coat of the polyurethane finish.


Think of cheesecloth as tack cloth’s older brother. In fact, cheesecloth is often the gauze used when making tack cloths. Cheesecloth is used for many home projects, including making cheese (hence the name). It is cotton threads loosely woven to make the gauzy fabric. It is lightweight and airy, allowing liquid to penetrate or escape from the solids inside.

Cheesecloth is sold by grade. The higher the grade, the more threads per square inch and the thicker the weave. Consider using a higher-grade cheesecloth to stain, such as grade 90.

Terry Cloth

Terry cloth rags are also a very popular choice for staining. They are typically lint-free, which means you won’t have any annoying debris left behind in the wet stain – something which is not an easy thing to remove.

Terry cloth is known as an excellent absorber of liquid, which is why it’s typically used for bath towels. Because it is so absorbent, it will hold a good amount of the stain. At the same time, it holds it so well, that it will not likely drip off and create splotchy finishes. It is also quite durable, so it works well for a longer time.

Staining Pad


This is a popular product for those who want to work on larger surfaces, such as decks. These pads can be connected to poles so there is less necessity to bend over when staining. Staining pads are made from sponges that are then covered with microfiber or terry cloth rags.

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Staining deck pad

The great thing about using a staining pad is that the process is sped up a bit. Going with the grain, you simply push the pad back and forth over the wood. This allows the stain to soak into the grain, while simultaneously removing the excess stain until you reach your desired color. These can be more expensive than typical rags, but a large pad can be cut into smaller ones. Also, these are single-use items.



The number one option for me is old t-shirts. I have many in my closet that I never wear or ones that are so worn through that they shouldn’t be worn. While many companies put out t-shirt, or jersey shirt, rags for purchase, why not just use your old shirts? Especially if you’re not a professional who will need many rags in the future.

I tend to cut the t-shirts with scissors rather than tearing them to avoid loose strings and lint. I also try to cut along seams, like the arms and up the sides. These are very absorbent, and they are mostly lint-free. Many companies sell t-shirt rags that have been prewashed, guaranteeing more absorbency. They also use recycled t-shirts and polo shirts, which many DIYers like because it is more environmentally friendly.

Paint Brushes

Paintbrushes are not recommended for applying stains. Water-based stains dry much too quickly to apply the stain evenly and these are not absorbent enough to pick up much excess stain. If you choose to use oil-based stains, it won’t dry nearly as quickly, but it still takes longer than necessary to brush on the stain. You’ll also waste a lot more stain. Oil-based stains need to be cleaned off brushes with mineral spirits and paint thinners, so the process is much more complicated.

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Staining with brush

However, brushes should not be completely ignored from going in your staining kit. A small brush will allow you to reach hard areas, like corners or holes. The bristles will let you get to decorative pieces much more easily and quickly than using a rag.

Foam Brushes

Similar to their cousins, the bristle paintbrushes, foam brushes shouldn’t be used for staining. This is with the exception of corners. The tapered edges will reach harder to reach areas that a rag cannot get. Some painters will tell you that foam brushes work better than paintbrushes because they do not leave bristles or bristles strokes behind. They are also much cheaper than staining pads.

Shop Towels

Not as common, and not recommended by professionals, shop towels are another option for staining. These blue towels are especially great for small projects. If you’re unfamiliar, these towels come packaged similar to paper towels, often on a roll. These are made specifically to absorb liquids and hold onto them, so they work great for holding onto the stain.

Since these are not as indestructible as other rags, you should be careful and keep an eye on your shop towel as you use it. If your wood is rough, it could easily get caught and tear on a piece of splintered wood. A shop towel that is falling apart could leave debris behind on the wood.

Paint Sprayer

I wouldn’t recommend using a paint sprayer to apply stain, but it is often done on larger projects, like decking or doors. If you spray properly, it should provide a smooth finish, with little blotchiness. However, many people who use sprayers when staining suggest brushing the stain with a paintbrush while it is still wet. Others suggest using a staining pad or rags to remove excess.

It’s important to be familiar with your sprayer because if you are not comfortable with it, you could end up with the stain looking speckled on the finished product.