Should You Stain Before or After Laser Engraving?

Engraving and finishing wood is a tricky process that can lead to mistakes if not done properly. There isn’t always a clear way to accomplish it as it will usually depend on your specific application. However, there is a general rule that I have settled on after testing various staining and finishing techniques.

Staining before engraving will give you the best results. If staining is done after engraving, it is difficult to keep the stain from bleeding into the wood around the engraving. Staining beforehand will result in a crisp, clean engraving.

The best way to know for sure is to test your specific application. It could be different depending on the type of stain and finish you are using or the depth and complexity of your engraving.

I have performed many tests between staining before and staining after and I always prefer the stain-first option. You can see the tests I completed below in which I tested a simple engraving on a couple of scrap pieces of wood. You can decide for yourself which you like the best.

Example of Staining Before Engraving

Example of staining first on scrap wood

As you can see from the image above, the engraving is crisp and clean. It looks fantastic! The image is a macro shot so it’s very close to the wood. The engraving looks even better in person.

The staining was done first using an oil-based mixture of honey and natural. After staining, I engraved using my Xtool D1 Pro with Air Assist.

Without air assist, you’d have to use some transfer paper so there would be no burn marks on the engraving. The air assist is amazing and will allow you to engrave directly onto the wood without worrying too much about burning the edges.

Closeup of staining first
Staining first allows you to get a nice clean engraving afterwards

When I first started engraving with a laser engraver, I did not have an air assist. Because of this, I always engraved before staining. However, as you’ll see below, it didn’t always produce the best results. An air assist is essential in making sure your final product has crisp and clean lines with nothing to clean up after the process.

Example of Staining After Engraving

Example of staining last

The image above shows my result of engraving first and then applying the same oil-based stain as I did on the first sample.

The staining-after-engraving method just didn’t work well for me and my application. As you can see, there is a lot of bleeding of the stain within the engraved areas. This bleeding runs down into the engraved areas and then spreads horizontally throughout the surrounding wood.

Even the smallest amount of bleeding of the stain will make the engraving look fuzzy when viewing it from a distance.

Closeup of staining last
Staining after engraving allows for stain to penetrate the engraved areas

You can try to avoid this but I have found it to be hit or miss. Using less stain or working faster and carefully around the engraved areas might allow for a clean result but it’s too unpredictable for my taste. It takes a lot of time to build a product and then engrave it only for it to be destroyed by a bad staining job.

Advantages of Staining Before Engraving

Since I’m a fan of staining before engraving, there are some specific reasons I have come to that conclusion. I ruined countless projects at the beginning of my laser journey so hopefully, I can save you the headaches that I went through.

It Allows You To Focus On Achieving the Perfect Stained Finish

Staining certain types of wood can be a challenge. Pine, for example, is especially troublesome because it tends to show splotchy areas. You can always use wood conditioner but even then, there is a tendency for the wood to turn out differently than you wanted.

Once you stain a piece, you can’t go back!

Staining before engraving allows you to focus solely on this process. You won’t need to be careful around engravings or worry that the stain will bleed into engraved areas. Instead, you can fully condition the wood, stain it and make it look great before continuing on with engraving.

No Bleeding Into The Engraved Area

As seen above, when you stain the wood after it has been engraved, the stain can run into the engraved areas. Once it runs into these areas, it will likely continue its journey outward and become slightly visible on the surrounding wood.

This can cause a great engraving job to be ruined! Stain first and you won’t have to worry about this.

Clean Lines

If you have stained first and you have a laser machine with air assist, you can create some very clean engravings. Once I discovered how clean my engravings were when I started staining first, I never looked back!

Sealing After Engraving

No matter which route you go, you’ll want to seal your project after the engraving and staining are complete. It’s different with sealing as it doesn’t matter if you do this after the engraving.

One thing to watch out for is the pooling of sealant in various areas of your engraving. To avoid this, you can use the corner of a paper towel or another small absorbent cloth to carefully soak up these areas within the engraved areas. This may or may not be a problem, depending on the type of finish you use.

I typically use Odie’s Oil on my engraved projects and don’t have to worry too much about it getting into the engravings. It’s easy to wipe out excess with a brush if it does happen.

Stain and engraving samples


For best results, I have discovered through laser engraving work that I sell that staining your wood before engraving will produce the best results. After your wood is stained and dried, you can then engrave, making sure to use an air assist or transfer paper to avoid burned edges. Once engraved, you can finish with your choice of a protective wood finish.

If you do choose to stain after you have engraved, be sure not to allow too much stain to get into the engraved areas. Work quickly to ensure that the stain doesn’t spread into the wood surrounding the engraving.

The best way to know for sure is to run lots of tests yourself on scrap wood. People have different preferences so you may find a different way that works better for your needs.