Staining Your Kayak

An essential introduction to working with stain by expert kayak builder and designer, Nick Schade:

Using stains to add a little extra color to your boat.

There is no accounting for taste, but for some reason I find okoume a little bit boring. While the grain can be quite nice, the color can be muted. In my opinion okoume benefits from a little pumping up.

Stain on Strip-planked Petrel
The random colored strips on this Petrel are more unified with a coat of stain

There are also times when I just don’t have a nice selection of wood strips. The tones and colors are all over the place and I’m not in the mood for making a complicated pattern to take full advantage of the variation. In this case I like to do something to unify the colors.

Staining the wood is a logical solution. A little bit of color can enrich boring okoume and even out distracting color variations. However, the stain needs to be compatible with epoxy because all of the wood will end up being covered with fiberglass and encapsulated in epoxy. Typically, traditional woodworking stains (such as MinWax) are oil based. The oils in these stains will repel epoxy. You do not want to use oil based stains in combination with epoxy.

Instead you want to use a water-based or alcohol-based dye. When the water or alcohol evaporates all that's left is the color. The stain must also be be color-fast. In other words, you don’t want a color that is going to fade or change the moment it is exposed to the bright sun. Many woodworking stains are intended for indoor furniture that don’t see much direct sunlight and are not subject to fading.

The best way to apply the stain is with a rag. Old t-shirts are ideal. Clean out the shirt drawer of some of those old 5K race or ugly office “Team-Building” retreat shirts. Cut them up into several 6” x 6”  squares. Too big and the rag will soak up too much stain, thus wasting it.  Wet the rag with stain by covering the top of the bottle with the rag bundled up into a ball. BTW, wear gloves while applying the stain. Anything that will stain wood will leave your hands a beautiful color for several days.

Staining Cedar Strip KayakStart wiping down the wood with quick back-and-forth strokes along the grain. Due to the fast evaporation of the alcohol you need to keep the rag fairly wet. The stain should make the wood wet, soaking deep into the grain. If you let the rag dry out it will only make a dry smudge on the surface, leaving light spots in the deeper grain pores.

The wet look of the freshly applied stain will most closely match the finished color. As the stain dries it will lighten and appear less saturated. It may also appear blotchy. There are several ways to even out the color. One way is to apply another coat of stain. Only do this if you feel the color when the stain was wet was not as dark as you desired. Don’t base this judgment on the dry appearance --the dry color is deceiving. Another option is to wipe the boat with solvent. Behlen’s offers a “Reducer” that will lift the color a bit and spread it around, but denatured alcohol will work.  If you don’t want the boat any darker, use a fresh rag instead of the original you had used to apply the stain. The solvent will release any stain in the used rag resulting in more color added. It is best to do this solvent wipe-down before the stain has dried as the solvent does not need to work as hard to lift and move the applied stain.

The final, lazy way of making the applied stain more uniform is to apply a seal coat of epoxy. If the stain is still not fully dry, the epoxy will pick up some of the stain and redistribute it. This works with the alcohol-based stain because the solvent is compatible with the epoxy. It will not work as well if the stain has dried completely.

Epoxy over Stain
A seal coat of epoxy can help spread out the stain for a more even color


Staining Stitch-and-Glue Boats

If you are staining a stitch-and-glue plywood boat, you need to apply the stain before any of the wood has been sealed with epoxy. This generally means before you glue scarfs or puzzle joints, i.e. the raw panels right out of the kit box. Clean up the wood with a light sanding of 120 grit sandpaper, stroking with the grain. The sanding is not strictly necessary, but does give you a chance to inspect the wood for printing or labels that you don’t want to show.

Sort through your pieces identifying the color you wish to make each piece. Sort each color into a separate pile. Identify the side of the part that should be stained. You don’t want to go through everything only to find that you stained the inside of the front left side of the hull, instead of the outside! Find a clean surface to work on that you don’t mind getting stained a bit. Use heavy paper to protect any surface you don’t want messed up.

If you are doing several colors, start with the lightest color. In this way, if you get any of the color on other parts, the darker color has a better chance of hiding the mistake.

Stain each part, being careful to get to the edge of the part. You may find that the grain of some parts lets the rag slide more easily one way than the other, lift the rag and stroke in the easier direction so the grain doesn’t pull bits of lint off the rag.

Store each piece off to the side after it is stained. Don’t stack the parts one atop of the other as this may leave a mark as the stain dries. Also don’t stack the light colored parts under your work area as you apply darker stains.  Drips or splashes will leave permanent marks.

After I’m done staining the plywood I like to protect the color under a sealing coat of epoxy. I use a paint roller to apply a thin but uniform coat of epoxy over all the stained surfaces. In this way you will be less likely to scratch off any color later in the boat building process.

After the boat is assembled you may need to touch up spots where the stain has been removed, for example, if you rounded over corners. I find the best way to re-coat these spots is to use a Q-tip as a brush. Only apply stain where stain has actually been removed.  If you try to darken light spots caused by sanding epoxy on top of the stain you will just make a dark spot.

Staining Strip-Planked Boats

I’m often asked if it is possible to stain strips before installing them on the boat. Of course you can, but don’t expect the color to still be there when you are done. The stain does not soak in very deeply at all. One stroke of a plane or sandpaper will remove most of the color. You need to apply the stain as the last step before applying an epoxy seal coat or fiberglass. Get your boat completely sanded and apply stain only as the very last step before fiberglass.

It is really not practical to apply more than one color to the surface. The low viscosity stain will soak under masking tape and bleed across any line you attempt to create. Plan on staining the whole deck or hull surface a solid color.

Apply the stain as directed and then proceed to the fiberglass or seal coat as you would have if you weren’t staining.

If you want some sort of accent that is not stained you can add it later. One technique is to add a thin strip on top of the hull sheer line after glassing the outside. Then glass the inside and the outside will be covered after gluing down the deck.

If you have a feature in the middle of the deck or hull that you don’t want stained, it may be able to scrape the stain off certain areas with a razor blade. Since the stain is not very thick on the wood, you don’t need to scrape much, but you will probably not want to do large areas this way.

Selecting Color

It is important to remember as you select your colors that the stain will end up under several layers of fiberglass, epoxy and varnish. Because of this the color you see on bare wood will not match the color you will see on the finished boat. If you are trying to create a very specific color, you will want to make up test panels with the complete coating schedule on top of it. A color that looks good on bare wood may change drastically with the addition of epoxy and then varnish.

Red pigments are notorious for fading, even when using a light-fast stain. I have used red tone stains frequently and really like the result, but if the boat is left outside for extended periods of time, the color will change and fade. I’m not sure how much of a problem this is as unstained wood will also change color when left in the sun too long.

Stain on Stitch-and-Glue Plywood Kayak
The late day sun makes the colors really pop on Dave Lind's S&G Night Heron


Staining is a good way to add a little extra “pop” to your boat. It does complicate the building process. If you are not comfortable in your ability to juggle tricky tasks while working with fast-drying materials, you may be better off sticking to the natural beauty of wood.  If you don’t mind a challenge, the results can be striking.


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Mohawk Ultra Penetrating Stain