Last Updated on July 21, 2022 by Ernest Godia
What do you do when you have a stain job to complete, but your wood won’t take stain?
One of the challenges you’ll encounter as a woodworker is working with wood that does not absorb stain. This can result in splotches when you stain the wood, no matter how well you approach the project.
In this article, we’ll tell you why your wood may fail to absorb stains and what you can do to work around the problem.
Summary of Why Wood Won’t Take Stain
Common reasons why your stain is not penetrating wood include working with a tight-grained hardwood, wood high in structural oil, or one with high moisture content. You may have also sanded your wood too fine or failed to sand down the old finish. Alternatively, you may have applied too much wood conditioner before staining, or what you’re trying to stain is not real wood.
Why Is Stain Not Penetrating the Wood?
When wood is not absorbing stain, various reasons may be culpable. This section discusses them in detail.
1. Your Wood Is Tight-Grained
One of the common reasons why wood fails to absorb stain is because the wood is dense and tight-grained. Most hardwoods have tight pores, which provide less space for the stain to soak in.
Examples of less porous hardwoods that won’t absorb stain readily include maple and pine. When staining such types of wood, the best option is to switch to gel stain or glaze, which sits on the wood surface and doesn’t need to penetrate the grain to stain it.
2. Your Wood Is High in Structural Oil
Wood high in structural oil is also less likely to absorb the stain.
The oil not only makes the wood resistant to water and other external materials but also blocks its pores and prevents it from absorbing the stain. This mostly happens when working with exotic woods like rosewood and teak.
To stain the wood successfully, first seal it with a de-waxed wood conditioner like Zinsser’s seal coat before applying gel stain on the surface.
3. Your Wood Has High Moisture Content
Aside from structural oil, high moisture content can make your stain not penetrate the wood when staining. You’ll experience this problem if you try to stain wet wood or one that has not dried completely.
The moisture occupies the pores in the wood, leaving little room for the pigment in your stain to occupy. With the wood pores blocked, your wood will not be able to absorb the stain.
4. You Blocked the Pores with Wood Conditioner
The wood conditioner does an excellent job distributing the stain and ensuring a more evenly distributed color. However, applying too much pre-stain wood conditioner can be counterproductive.
When using pre-stain wood conditioners, it is best to apply them moderately to avoid blocking the wood pores and leaving the actual stain with nowhere to go. The stain needs some room in the wood to soak in and distribute the colorant.
If you encounter this problem, it may help to sand the wood before staining it to promote better stain absorption.
5. You Didn’t Sand to Remove the Finish Coat
Another likely reason your wood won’t take stain is that you didn’t sand to remove the coat of wood finish before staining.
The wood finish forms a protective coat that seals the wood surface, blocking the pores and preventing the stain from penetrating. It’s possible to forget to remove the wood finish if it’s clear and colorless.
If your wood has a coat of finish (e.g., varnish or polyurethane), sand it with medium-coarse sandpaper or strip it off using a chemical stripper before applying your stain.
6. You Blocked the Pores with Fine Sandpaper
Sanding helps open up the wood pores to take up the stain properly. However, sanding too fine can block the pores instead.
If you sanded your wood too fine, you likely closed the wood pores, and now the stain won’t penetrate the wood.
Always start sanding with coarse-grit sandpaper (80-120 grit), then switch to medium-grit sandpaper (180-220 grit). Any finer sanding will likely make the fine sawdust block the wood pores, preventing your stain from penetrating the wood.
7. It’s Not Real Wood
Are you sure what you’re trying to stain is real wood? You may be trying to use wood stain on something that’s not real wood without your knowledge, and that’s why it won’t absorb the stain.
Engineered wood-like products like laminates and medium-density fiberboards closely resemble real wood and may disguise themselves as one. Unfortunately, they do not have the pores or wood grain to absorb the stain. For this reason, such synthetic products won’t take the stain.
Check if the material has wood grain ends to confirm whether it’s real wood.
What to Do When Wood Won’t Take Stain
If your wood does not absorb stain no matter how much you apply, you can fix it. Here are the five most effective solutions to make your wood absorb stain and achieve your desired results.
Use Chemical Stripper or Sandpaper to Remove Old Finish
As mentioned earlier, the stain may not penetrate your wood if you apply it on top of an existing finish. Clear varnish or polyurethane may deceive you into thinking the wood is ready for staining.
You’ll have to remove the old finish to make your wood take the stain. You can do this by applying a layer of chemical stripper onto the coated surface and letting it sit for 15 minutes before scraping it off. You can then wipe the surface with mineral spirit to prepare it for staining.
Alternatively, you can sand off the old finish using coarse and medium-grit sandpaper. This will not only remove the finish but also open the pores to make them absorb the wood stain.
Switch to Gel Stain
If your wood is tight-grained and won’t take stain, switch to gel stain or glaze—a stain that sits on top of the wood and stains it without penetrating the wood pores. Gel stain will also help if your wood is high in structural oil.
Gel stain will work better since it’s not affected by the type of wood, the surface, or the structural components. Pre-coating the wood with a shellac-based conditioner will help you achieve the best results. Also, remember to keep the gel stain layers thin and light for fast drying.
Sand with Coarse and Medium Grit Sandpapers
Did you sand your wood too fine before staining? If so, your stain will not penetrate the wood since the fine sawdust clogged the wood pores.
You can reverse the situation by sanding your wood again to open the clogged pores. This time, start with coarse-grit sandpaper, then follow with medium-grit sandpaper. Do not fine-sand the wood with fine-grit sandpaper again.
Coarse and medium sanding will open the pores and prime the wood grain, making it ready to absorb the stain.
Power Wash to Remove Mill Glaze
You may be working with wood boards that still have coats of mill glaze on them (especially if you’re working on a cabin home). Like wood finish, a glaze can keep the stain from penetrating the wood pores.
In that case, you can make the stain penetrate your wood by power washing to remove the mill glaze. After washing, let the wood dry completely, then sand it with medium grit sandpaper before staining.
Read and Follow the Manufacturer’s Instructions
Sometimes your wood won’t take stain because you didn’t approach it correctly. Reading and following the manufacturer’s instructions can help you use the appropriate technique with the product you are using on the wood.
Stain manufacturers may have specific instructions on how to use specific types of stain, and failure to follow them may lead you astray. For instance, some may require you to spray instead of wiping or use a stain roller instead of stain brushes.
Always read and follow the instructions carefully since all stain brands are not the same.
Why is my wood not taking stain?
Your wood may not be taking stain because it’s dense and has tight grains, is high in structural oil, or has a high moisture content. You may have also sanded your wood too fine or failed to remove the conditioner or old finish before staining.
What happens if you don’t sand before staining?
If you don’t sand before staining, the wood pores will remain closed, and the grain won’t rise. Your wood will, therefore, not absorb the stain.
How much should you sand before staining?
Stand sanding using coarse grit sandpaper (80-120 grit), followed by medium grit sandpaper (180-220 grit). Sanding finer than 220 will make the wood surface too smooth and may not stain.
What type of wood cannot be stained?
Dense or tight-grained woods like maple and pine are hard to stain since they have tight wood pores that don’t easily absorb the stain. However, using a non-penetrating stain like gel stain or glaze can make the staining easy.
Final Thoughts on Stain Not Penetrating Wood
If you’ve been having trouble with wood that won’t take stain, we hope these reasons tell you where to look. You don’t have to stop your project because the stain won’t penetrate your wood. Instead, consider using the above remedies to help you achieve your desired results.
Did you find this tutorial useful? Let us know what you think in the comment section. Also, if you have any questions or your wood won’t take the stain, let us know, and we’ll do our damnedest to help.
Feel free to share this article with your fellow woodworkers to let them know what to do if their wood refuses to absorb the stain.