Wood stains are a great way to spruce up the look of a wood piece. However, applying it comes with a steep learning curve. One of the common problems woodworkers encounter is the stain not penetrating wood. This can be frustrating and can lead to a blotchy finish if not fixed properly.
In this post, I will discuss why your stains aren’t penetrating the wood and what you can do about it. I also answered some of the most-asked questions to help you on your next projects.
Why is my wood not absorbing stains?
Stain products are designed to adhere properly to wood material. So if your wood doesn’t seem to absorb the stain properly, the following might be the reasons why:
1. It’s not real wood
One possibility here is that you’re not really working on real wood. Due to the advancements in laminated wood, it has become harder to identify real wood from synthetic ones. If you’re working on old furniture, you should check if it’s made of real wood.
First, look for the end grains of the wood. End grains are the grain that you’ll see when the wood is cut across its growth rings. It exposes the character of the graining and wood rings.
Next, you should check the bottom of the tabletop. Most manufacturers won’t spend time veneering this portion. So if the bottom has a different characteristic than the tabletop, there’s a high chance that you’re not working on real wood.
Take note that wood veneer isn’t real wood, so it can’t take stains. Nevertheless, it still has a very thin layer of wood (the veneer itself), which you can stain with a darker color. However, there’s no guarantee it will absorb or hold the stain.
2. The wood is already sealed.
If the wood is already sealed, there’s no way the stain can penetrate through the pores. If the wood looks glossy, shiny, and smooth, it usually has a sealing coat.
Try sanding a small portion of the wood to see if you’ll get sawdust. If what you’re getting are specks of clear coating, you have to remove the seal first.
3. You sand too much
Sanding is a very effective method of removing just about any wood finish. However, overdoing it can cause the wood pores to close, thus blocking the absorption of stains.
You have to avoid using sandpapers with grit higher than 180. This is because the tiny dust from fine sanding can clog and block the wood pores. When that happens, there would be no spot for the stain to enter the wood.
4. You’re working on tight-grained wood.
Tight-grained woods like cherry, birch, maple, and yellow poplar are known to have small pores. With this, they take a long time to absorb stains and only in small amounts.
In this case, you may need to use a different stain, preferably a gel type. Unlike traditional stains, gel stains sit on top of the wood and don’t require too much absorption to adhere to the material.
5. The wood has a high oil concentration.
Lastly, some wood types like purpleheart, rosewood, teak, and cocobolo have very high oil content. This characteristic makes them difficult to glue and treat with stains.
Staining oily woods can be challenging since I haven’t known any product that can increase stain absorption on these wood types. So you’re better off not staining at all.
How to fix a stain that’s not penetrating the wood
If you’re bent on staining the wood, here are some options you can try to increase the absorption level. Take note that the efficacy of these methods will vary across wood types and conditions:
Prepare the wood first
Whether it’s new or old wood, you need to prepare it prior to finishing. Applying the stain straight to the wood won’t always yield the best results.
Start by sanding your wood with 80-grit sandpaper. You can work all the way up but never go beyond 180-grit. After sanding, vacuum the dust and make sure the wood surface is clean.
Remove the current finish.
For those working on repurposed wood, there’s a high chance that the material has a type of finish on it. You can power wash the logs to remove the mill glaze, paint, or varnish on them. You can also try scraping the surface if there are multiple layers of finish already present.
After that, you can use an orbital sander to smooth out the surfaces before staining.
Dry the wood first
If you power-washed your wood, make sure that it’s dry before staining. The moisture and cold temperature will prevent the stain from penetrating the wood grains.
Generally, you’d want your wood to have less than 20% of moisture content. This way, the moisture won’t interfere with the finish.
Read the stain instructions.
Sometimes, it’s not the wood but your manner of applying the stain that affects its penetration. To get the best results, read the instructions indicated on the stain product’s label. This will save you from a lot of trouble.
Most of the time, the stain product will have particular instructions on the method of application. For example, you may need to use an airless sprayer instead of a brush.
Control the humidity
Many wood stains will react negatively to excessive humidity. You can consider drying the wood inside a humidity-contained room. You can also wait for a few more days to allow the stain to penetrate the wood and dry completely.
Stir your stain
While staining a wood piece, make sure that you mix the stain in the can. This ensures even composition as well as proper penetration to the wood.
If you notice your stains being uneven and blotchy, a poorly mixed stain product might be the reason why.
Back-brush the stain
After applying one coat of stain, you should back-brush the wood right away. You can ask someone else to do the back-brushing while you cover the rest of the material with the stain. Doing this will push the stain into the wood pores for better penetration.
Dry after each coat
After finishing a coat, let it dry before applying another one. Applying a second coat when your stain is still sticky will not allow for proper penetration. Staining requires a lot of time and patience, so you shouldn’t rush if you want good results.
Why does my wood stain still feel tacky?
If your wood stain feels tacky even after days of drying, you probably applied too much. Any wood material can only absorb a certain amount of stain. Once the grains are filled with the stain formula, the rest will sit on top of the wood.
You need to wipe this excess to allow the stain to dry completely. After that, you should have a nice-looking finish as long as the staining is performed properly.
Another potential culprit here is excessive humidity. You should bring your stained wood somewhere where it could dry properly without the humidity interfering with the process.
Can you stain that’s already been stained?
Yes, it’s possible to stain wood that’s already been stained. However, this is only possible if the wood isn’t sealed with a top coat yet.
If you wish to change the color of sealed wood, you can use oil-based paint. The only downside here is that the paint will hide the grains of the wood.
But if you have the time, you can sand the wood to remove its old stain. This way, you can put on a fresh coat with the color of your choice.
Why does my wood stain look blotchy?
A blotchy stain happens when the wood has different densities on several areas. This means that the varying density will absorb the stain at different rates. It will result in a blotchy look, with some areas darker than others.
To know whether your wood has varying densities, you can wet the surface first. You’ll see which spots absorb more moisture than others.
It can be challenging to even out these variations, but you always use a stain controller. You can find pre-formulated stain controllers in the market, but you can also make your own.
Do you need to seal the wood after staining?
It’s not really required to apply a topcoat after staining. Still, doing so will protect your stains from scratches, which will allow them to last for a long time.
You can use a polyurethane finish or other coating that matches the stain color you have. The best application method is a spray can for an even and glossy look.
How long does it take wood to dry after staining?
Most wood stains will take between 24 and 48 hours to dry fully. However, the humidity level, type of wood, and other factors will affect the speed of curing.
To make stain drying faster, make sure that your wood isn’t too moist or oily. You should also keep it in a dry area to avoid excessive humidity. Proper airflow is also necessary to dry the stain and prevent it from being too tacky.
If you’re in a rush, you can use a dehumidifier to suck out excessive moisture in the air. This will also make stain drying quicker.
A stain not penetrating wood is a common problem among woodworkers. It can be frustrating, but there are workarounds you can try to fix the problem. Just make sure that you’re actually working on real wood and not some wood veneer material.
Aside from that, you should choose high-quality stains that penetrate wood pores properly. Proper application and drying are also key steps in achieving good results.
Have you ever encountered wood staining issues before? How did you fix it? Share your tips with us!