11 Reasons Wood Won’t Take Stain and What To Do

When staining wood there is a lot that can happen. If you are lucky, the wood will stain perfectly and uniformly bringing out its depth and color. You can also be unlucky to find out that your wood won’t take stain. Other times the wood will take the stain but you won’t get the desired results.

This article discusses why wood won’t take stain, what to do and when to give up.

Why Wood Won’t Take Stain

If your wood won’t take stain it can be because the wood already has an old finish. Other reasons include improper sanding, not following instructions, the wood being tight-grained or oily, and the wood being wet.

11 Reasons Stain won’t Penetrate Wood

1. You are not dealing with wood

This has happened to me once

Stain Won't penetrate wood

I bought a used laminated bookshelf thinking it was made of wood. While I can easily tell wood, laminate, and veneer apart, this one tricked me.

Then I decided to stain it using an oil-based stain and it could not take in the stain.

Since oil-based stains need to penetrate the wood through the pores, this one could not work. I ended up using a gel stain since it’s a wiping stain.

If your furniture wood won’t take stain, diagnose it to know if it’s real wood.

How to know if a piece of furniture is made of real wood

●     Look for areas with a minimal finish and inspect the appearance. This can be the bottom of the drawers, sides, and the bottom.

●     Carefully inspect the grain pattern. Some types of woods such as walnut, mahogany, and oak have a very specific grain pattern.

If the surface has a perfect alternating grain pattern, it may not be wood.

●     Check if you can see the end grain.

The end grain is where the wood has been cut across revealing the growth rings. Manufactured wood has a very different end grain from real wood.

●     Assess the weight. Sometimes you can tell if an item is made of wood by weighing it. Wood items are heavier than laminate furniture.

●     Consult a professional.

2. The wood has a finish or is sealed

Another reason why wood won’t take stains is when it has an old finish. This can be varnish, shellac, dye, wood stain, or lacquer.

Why finished wood won’t take stain.

There are two most common types of stains, penetrating stains and wiping stains.

For penetrating stains such as oil and water-based stains, the stain penetrates through the pores into the wood fiber.

If the wood is already stained or finished with another product such as polyurethane, a penetrating stain will not work since the wood is covered.

To re-stain wood using a regular stain you will have to sand the wood to remove the previous finish and open the pores.

The only type of stain that does not require sanding is a gel stain. Since a gel stain sits on the surface of wood, it rests on the previous finish. However, gel stain is not always the best option for instance if you are dealing with high-quality types of wood.

How to know whether the wood is already finished

1. Do a water beading test

Pour a little amount of water on the wood and wait for at least five minutes to see if any water soaks in.

When a piece of water is unfinished, it will absorb some water after a few minutes, while a sealed piece of wood won’t soak any water.

2. Chemical Tests

A simple way to test for a wax finish is to use the side of a coin to scrape a section of the wood and see if the coin will have a buildup. 

You can also test for wax using mineral spirit or ammonia.

When a mineral spirit is poured over the wax and covered with glass, the inside of the glass will turn cloudy.

Other ways to test an existing finish include:

●     Lacquer thinner to test for a lacquer and shellac finish.

When a lacquer thinner is poured over a lacquer finish, it will dissolve, while a shellac finish will get tacky.

●     Shellac dissolves immediately when it comes into contact with denatured alcohol.

●     When a water-based finish comes into contact with toluene or xylene it will get gummy.

How to re-stain wood

After identifying the existing finish it should now be easy to stain the wood. Here is how to do it

Re-staining using a penetrating stain

As I explained earlier, a penetrating stain works by penetrating the wood. For this to happen the existing finish should be removed so that the stain can access the wood pores.

The ease of removal of the finish will depend on the type of finish. Luckily, most finishes can be removed by sanding.

Other ways of removing an old finish include using a

●     Stripper

●     Heat gun

●     paint and varnish removers

●     Drill attachments

Re-staining using a film-forming stain

Since film-forming stains don’t penetrate, there is very little prep work is required.

While you cannot apply a penetrating stain over a film-forming stain, the opposite is possible.

That’s what makes gel stains the ideal stain when you want to restrain without prepping the wood.

Gel stains are also a great option for blotch-prone types of wood such as pine.

Wood Won't Take Stain

3. Improper sanding

Did you know there is a right way to sand wood for staining?

Apart from cleaning the wood surface and removing dirt and grime, sanding can also close the wood pores preventing the wood from absorbing any penetrating stain.

When you use very fine sandpaper, the wood can fail to absorb a penetrating stain. This is because very fine sandpaper produces very fine dust that clogs the pores.

The rule of thumb when sanding wood for finishing is to start sanding with a coarse grit size, then a medium grit size, and finish off with finer sandpaper.

If you are dealing with softwood such as pine, start sanding with #120 sandpaper and finish with #180 and #220 sandpaper if you are applying a water-based and oil-based stain respectively.

For hardwood such as oak and maple, start with a #120 sandpaper and finish off with #150 and #180 for oil-based and water-based stains respectively.

Since end grains tend to soak more penetrating stains it’s recommended to use a finer sandpaper than the one you used on the rest of the surface to close the pores a little bit.

It’s also recommended to sand wood in the direction of the grain.

Pro tip– When very fine sandpaper is used the stain will be lighter, while a coarse sandpaper surface produces a darker stain.

4. You are dealing with a tight-grained type of wood

When it comes to penetrating wood stains, they work by penetrating the wood through the pores.

However, some trees are less porous and hence limit the absorption of the stain. This is not the case with porous types of wood.

A good example of a tight-pored type of wood is maple, cherry wood, bloodwood/Satine, Mexican rosewood, and Padouk.

That’s why it’s a challenge to stain maple even for professional woodworkers. 

5. You are dealing with an oily type of wood

You will also have a challenge staining oily wood with an oil-based type of stain.

What are oily woods?

These are types of wood that have natural-occurring oils. Examples of oily wood include

●     Rosewood,

●     Bubinga,

●     Wenge,

●     Cocobolo,

●     Jatoba,

●     Teak

The naturally occurring oils prevent decay since most of these grow in rain forests.

Since these woods have high oil levels internally, they tend to reject or prevent oil-based stains and polyurethane finishes from passing. That’s why the stain will either

●     Take too long to dry

●     Get tacky

●     Fail to dry

●     Peel or flake after application

●     Partial drying

If you are dealing with oily wood, your best option will be to use shellac. This is the ideal solution since it is very little you can do to remove the oils within the wood. 

6. Not following instructions on the Container of Stain

Maybe, The reason you are having trouble staining wood is that you are ignoring the instructions

Every stain brand is trying to outdo its competitor by making the most advanced and effective wood stain.

That’s why different wood stains from different brands have minor and sometimes significant differences.

Before applying any wood finish check their instructions including surface preparation, thinning, application, and finishing. If something is not clear, contact the brand for clarification. 

7. You have not prepped the wood before applying the Stain

This is a common mistake with beginners, where they fail to prep the wood before staining. This is how to prepare wood for staining.

a)   Fix defects such as holes and splits using a grain filler and remove any protruding nails.

b)   Sand the wood starting with coarse-grit sandpaper and finishing off with fine-grit sandpaper. Avoid using a very fine grit that can close the pores.

c)    Condition the wood to open the pores using distilled water or a conditioner.

d)   Apply the stain following the instructions.

8. Using a low-quality stain

 Your wood may also be failing to stain if the stain is low quality. That’s why it’s recommended to buy stains from a reputable brand.

9. Mixing wood stains

While it’s okay to mix related wood stains to get a custom color, sometimes wood stains may react with each other affecting the quality of the final stain.

While this is not common, it’s a possibility especially when you mix stains from different brands if they have different formulations. Remember you can only mix the same type of wood stain.

You cannot mix a water-based stain with an oil-based stain.

10. The wood is wet

Another reason for stains not adhering to wood is if it’s wet or damp. When wood is wet all the pores are usually filled with water which will make it impossible for the stain to penetrate.

This also applies to staining outdoor wood such as the deck after rain. Wait for at least 48 hours for the deck or any other structure to dry.

Also, make sure to use a moisture meter to make sure the moisture levels are optimum for stain application (below 15%).

11. Not letting the stain dry

This is a common problem with beginners when sealing stained wood. After staining wood you are supposed to give it time to dry before Polyurethane.

While drying and curing time for different wood stains differ, it ranges between 18 and 72 hours after application. To know the specific time, check the manufacturer’s recommended time.

The problem with applying a sealant too soon is that you will end up wiping some sections especially if it’s a wiping stain. Rushed sealing doesn’t give the first coat enough time to adhere to the wood.

You may think it’s a problem with the stain but it’s only that it has not dried.

Frequently asked questions about Why Wood Won’t Take Stain

How do you determine that the stain is not penetrating the wood

A few signs that the stain did not penetrate include taking too long to dry, and the stain getting tacky and sticky.

Why is my stain not penetrating the wood?

There are several reasons why your stain is not penetrating. First, it could be that the wood you are staining has a prior finish that you will need to remove. Other reasons include improper sanding, not following instructions, staining a tight-grained type of wood, or oily type of wood.

Can wood be too smooth to stain?

Yes, when a very fine sandpaper is used to sand wood, the dust may clog the pores hence interfering with the penetration of the stain.

How do you make wood stains penetrate deeper?

Anything that opens up the pores can facilitate the penetration of the stain. This includes proper sanding and conditioning using distilled water or conditioner.

Conclusion-Wood Won’t Take Stain

It can be disappointing when you try staining wood but the wood won’t take stain. If you are in such a situation, the first thing to do is to diagnose what could be the cause.

Are you dealing with actual wood? Are you applying the right stain and are you doing it correctly? Does the wood have a prior finish? After finding the cause, it’s easier to know what to do.

Sometimes it can be that you are not dealing with wood. Tight-grained and oily types of wood are hard to stain.