Wiping Stain Vs Penetrating Stain

Last Updated on October 14, 2023 by Ernest Godia

Stains do an excellent job accentuating the wood’s color and outlining the grain, making it pop. But with so many different types of stains to choose from, it can be challenging to decide what is best for your next wood project.

Various stain types are more suitable for specific projects due to their unique characteristics and how they work. Understanding these differences can help you determine which stain is best suited for your next project. 

This article compares wiping stain vs penetrating stain to help you choose better. Read along to learn when to use which.

Wiping stain versus penetrating stain

Wiping stains doesn’t seep into the wood, which makes it perfect for use on bare wood, finished wood, metal, and fiberglass. On the other hand, penetrating stains are designed to soak into the wood. This stain is limited to use on interior surfaces, bare wood, and previously finished stripped wood.

What is a penetrating stain?

Penetrating stain is a standard oil-based wood stain that soaks into the wood pores–this is how it applies the colorant to the wood. Once it’s absorbed, the stain adds color and vibrancy to the wood, making the grain pop.

In addition, this penetrating stain is best applied on porous interior wooden surfaces, including unfinished wood and previously finished wood stripped to bare wood.

Penetrating stains are most suitable for unfinished hardwood species such as ash, oak, mahogany, and walnut that naturally accept stains well.

Pros of penetrating stains

  • The stain is easy to apply.
  • It enters deep into the wood, protecting it from the inside out
  • Since the stain penetrates the grain, it does an excellent job outlining the grain pattern and enhancing the wood’s surface character.
  • It has a light texture that dries fast upon application.
  • It’s easy to control the depth of color on wood.

Cons of penetrating stains

  • Penetrating stains are only limited to indoor use.
  • The stain can become blotchy, especially on new wood that has not thoroughly dried.

Example of penetrating stain

Several reputable brands are producing penetrating stains today. But these penetrating stains from Old Masters are a good example.

Penetrating stain (wiping stain vs penetrating stain)

This product is a traditional oil-based stain available in a wide range of rich, vibrant colors. The stain penetrates the wood, tones it, and accentuates the grain.

With a gallon of Old master’s penetrating stain, you get coverage of approximately 500 square feet. It’s also a relatively fast-drying stain, needing only 2-4 hours between coats. 

In addition, you can get custom colors to suit your needs by intermixing different stain colors. This stain is ready to use, do not thin. If you make a mess, you can easily clean it up using mineral spirits.

When to Use Penetrating Stain

What Projects are Ideal for Penetrating Stain?

  • Wood Floors: Penetrating stains are excellent for hardwood floors, showcasing the natural beauty of the wood.
  • Antique Restoration: When restoring antique furniture, penetrating stain helps maintain the wood’s character.
  • Fine Woodworking: For intricate woodwork and fine detailing, penetrating stain offers a more authentic look.

How to apply penetrating stains

This section aims to give you pointers when using penetrating stains. Remember that your results depend on the amount of prep work you do on the surface and the porosity of the wood. 

Step 1: Prepare the wood surface.

Strip the existing finish, if any, and ensure the surface is clean and dry.

Begin by sanding with medium grit sandpaper to even out any bumps. Always sand with the grain and not against it. Finish sanding with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out any scratches from the previous sanding.

Collect the sanding dust using a shop vacuum or a broom, and then wipe further using a tack cloth or a lint-free rag. 

Step 2: Apply wood conditioner.

Brush a generous coat of pre-stain wood conditioner, wipe the excess and let the surface dry before staining. Conditioning the wood will help you avoid blotching.

Step 3: Prepare the stain.

Stir the stain to distribute the color evenly. Also, ensure that you have your stain applicator; this could be a sprayer, natural bristle brush, or a lint-free cloth.

Step 4: Apply the stain.

Apply an even coat of the stain to the prepped wood. Let the stain penetrate the wood for about 2-5 minutes. Wipe off the excess product using a lint-free cloth, first across the grain and then with the grain. 

Wiping the excess stain is essential in helping to avoid adhesion and curing problems.

Step 5: Let the stain dry and then recoat.

Let the previous stain dry completely before recoating. Depending on the color depth you want to achieve, 2-3 stain coats should do the trick. 

What is wiping stain?

Wiping stain is an oil-based wood stain with a thick consistency, much like gel stains. This stain colors the wood and protects the surface without having to penetrate the grain.

This wiping stains’ dense texture makes it suitable for use on softwood species and tight or unevenly-grained hardwoods that are prone to blotching. These blotch-prone woods include pine, birch, maple, poplar, and cherry.

In addition, its texture makes it a perfect choice for staining a wide range of porous and non-porous surfaces like finished wood, unfinished wood, metals,  fiberglass, and composite surfaces. 

Pros of wiping stains

  • The stain makes it easy to change the color of an existing finish.
  • Its application ranges from wood and non-wood surfaces.
  • It doesn’t result in blotches.
  • It allows you control over the depth of stain color.

Cons of using wiping stains

  • It can conceal the natural wood grain because it doesn’t penetrate.
  • Wiping stains take significantly longer to dry.

Example of wiping stain 

The Wiping Stain by Old Masters is a classic example of a high-quality product and great value for money.

This oil-based stain is suitable for both wood and non-wood surfaces. It is easy to apply with a brush, roller, stain pad, or lint-free cloth. This stain offers superior color control compared to other stain formulations.

It is suitable for indoor surfaces, but you can also apply it on outdoor surfaces, provided you seal it with a clear top coat.

When to Use Wiping Stain

What Projects Are Ideal for Wiping Stain?

  • Furniture: Wiping stain is perfect for projects like tables, chairs, and dressers, where you want a uniform color.
  • Cabinetry: Kitchen and bathroom cabinets benefit from wiping stains, as they offer a consistent appearance.
  • Home Decor: If you’re working on decorative items like picture frames, wiping stain provides a smooth and even finish.

How to apply a wiping stain

This stain is called a wiping stain because of how you spread or remove it from the surface and not necessarily because of how it’s applied. Since this stain doesn’t penetrate the surface, it can help you conceal scratches and other flaws on the surface.

Here are the steps for applying it:

Step 1: Prep the surface.

Whether you’re working on a wooden or non-wood surface, ensure the surface is clean and dry. 

Step 2: Apply the stain.

Stir the stain to mix well. Use a natural bristle brush or a stain pad to apply an even layer of the stain. Ensure to coat every inch of the surface.

Step 3: Let the stain coat dry completely before recoating.

Let the stained surface sit undisturbed until the layer of stain dries completely before applying another coat. This waiting period can take anywhere between a few hours to 24 hours.

You probably will only need to apply 1-2 layers. Ensure the surface cures completely before heavy handling.

Key Differences

How do Wiping Stain and Penetrating Stain Differ?

Wiping StainPenetrating Stain
Sits on the wood surfaceSoaks into the wood
Offers a more even colorPreserves the natural grain
Quick drying timeLonger drying time
Ideal for beginnersRequires more expertise
Available in a wide range of colorsLimited color options

Wiping stain vs. penetrating stain side-by-side comparison

Now that we know a bit about each stain and how to apply it, let’s look deeper and compare their distinguishing features head to head. 

Read through this section with your project in mind. Hopefully, this section helps you choose the stain that best suits your project’s needs.

Penetrating stain vs. wiping stain: range of applications

You can use wiping stains on wood surfaces, whether finished or unfinished, and on non-wood surfaces like fiberglass, composite, and metal. 

On the other hand, you can only use penetrating stains on porous wood surfaces like unfinished wood and previously finished wood stripped to bare wood.

Verdict: Wiping stain wins.

Wiping stain versus penetrating stain: ease of use

Both stains allow for multiple modes of applications.

You can apply an even coat of either penetrating or wiping stain using a lint-free cloth, brush, roller, pad, or sprayer.

Even though wiping stain has a thicker consistency than penetrating stains, both products apply easily to the intended surface. 

Verdict: It’s a tie. 

Drying time 

Penetrating stain dries by soaking into the wood. Since it has a light texture, it dries pretty fast and allows for recoating in as little as 4 hours.

On the other hand, wiping stains dry from an oxidation process upon contact with oxygen. Since it naturally has a thick texture, the drying process is slow and can take up to 24 hours before it is ready for recoating. Also, the thicker the layers, the longer the stain drying times

Verdict: Penetrating stain wins. 

Penetrating stain vs. wiping stain: versatility

Using penetrating stains is limited to bare wood surfaces indoors while wiping stains work well on both wooden and non-wooden surfaces–indoors and outdoors.

Penetrating stains mainly color the natural wood, while wiping stains can also add color to the surface and help you coordinate the color theme in your home. 

Wiping stains allow you to control the depth of color on your surfaces. You can apply the stain and have rich, deep-colored furniture. Alternatively, you can apply a light stain coat over a finished surface and wipe off the excess product to create a glazed effect.

Verdict: Wiping stain wins. 

Stain behavior on new wood

Penetrating stains require bare wood and will quickly soak into the wood because the pores are open and thirsty. You can easily achieve a light-colored new wood with one or two coats. 

However, while trying to stain the wood darker and layering multiple stain coats, you may end up with dark blotching spots due to uneven stain absorption.

On the other hand, when you use wiping stains on new wood, it’s easier to control the depth of stain color on the wood. For example, you can apply a light coat and wipe off the excess to have a colored wood that still shows off its beautiful grain.

 Still, you can apply thick stain layers and let it cure if you’d like a dark-stained wood surface.

Verdict: Wiping stain is the winner. 

Stain behavior on previously stained wood surface

You only need to ensure the previously stained wood is clean and dry before recoating when using wiping stains. However, stripping the existing coat of stain is an option if you prefer working with bare wood.

The caveat is that staining over an existing stain will only give you a darker shade, not a lighter one.

When using penetrating stains, you must remove the previous stain from the wood surface before you can stain it with a fresh coat. This means more prep work before you get the results you desire.

Verdict: Wiping stain wins.

Wiping stain versus penetrating stain FAQ

What is wiping stain used for?

Wiping stain is used for staining unfinished wood surfaces or those with an existing finish. This stain is also used on non-wood surfaces like metal, fiberglass, or composites. Use wiping stains if you want to glaze over an existing finish or if you want dark, statement furniture.

How long should the stain penetrate before wiping?

When using penetrating stains, allow them to penetrate the wood for 2-5 minutes before you wipe it off. This waiting period enables enough pigment to soak into the pores while still wet enough to allow for wiping the excess before it becomes tacky.

Is penetrating oil the same as a stain?

No. Penetrating oil and stain will sink into the wood and protect it against moderate weather elements but penetrating oil doesn’t alter the natural wood color like stain does. The stain adds color to the natural wood, which the oil does not. 

Can I Use Wiping Stain and Penetrating Stain Together?

While it’s possible to use both types of stains together, it’s essential to consider the final look you want to achieve. Experiment on a scrap piece of wood to see if the combination suits your project.

Are There Any Environmental Considerations for wiping stain vs penetrating stain?

Yes, there are eco-friendly options available for both wiping and penetrating stains. Water-based stains are generally considered more environmentally friendly.

Wiping stain vs penetrating stain: Which one to choose?

The choice between wiping stain and penetrating stain depends on your project’s goals and the desired finish:

  • Use wiping stain when you want a more uniform, opaque finish and have time for a slower application process. It’s great for indoor furniture and cabinetry.
  • Use penetrating stain when you want to highlight the natural beauty of the wood grain and need a more durable finish. It’s often preferred for outdoor projects like decks and fences.

Wiping stain vs penetrating stain conclusion

We hope you’ve enjoyed this comparison of wiping stains and penetrating stains. Basically, wiping stain has a thick consistency, and it’s designed for surface coating while penetrating stain has a light texture and soaks into the wood pores.  

Therefore, use wiping stains when you need to stain over a wide range of surfaces like previously stained wood, fiberglass, metal, composition surfaces, or unfinished wood. Also, opt for wiping stains if you’re trying to customize the stain color, especially when dealing with softwoods that tend to blotch.

Alternatively, use penetrating stains when staining bare wood that will be based indoors. Also, penetrating stain is your best bet if you’re pressed for time and want to finish your stain project before nightfall.

We’ll be thrilled to hear your thoughts in the comments if you have any additions or related questions.

Leave a Comment