You’ve just finished staining your woodworking project, take a step back and… you hate it. It’s just not right, whether it’s too dark, too light, too red, whatever. I hear you. I’ve been there so many times. But good news – using the wrong wood stain color can be fixed!
The easiest thing to do when you don’t like your wood stain color is to grab a darker stain, and apply it on top of the initial stain job. If you don’t want a darker shade, sanding down the piece and re-staining is also an option.
Those are the most straightforward options, but you have a few other choices as well, so keep reading!
Fix Your Stain Color By Going Darker
If you have yet to apply a finish to your piece, applying another, darker stain can change the shade of your project.
Obviously staining over stain can be a bit of gamble as to what color your piece will ultimately become. To reduce this risk, take a piece of scrap wood from your project, and stain it with your original stain. Then apply the second stain, and see what it looks like.
If you don’t have any scrap wood, try to find the most inconspicuous area of your piece, and test there! That way, you know what you’re going to get before you apply the stain to the entire project.
If you think your new test option is better than the current option, go for it!
One more bit of crucial information – make sure whatever stain you use the second time is the same type of stain you used originally. It can be a different brand, but both should be oil-based stains. Mixing oil and water based stains on the same project is asking for trouble!
Don’t Like Your Wood Stain Color? Sand Down the Piece!
The most traditional way to fix a bad wood coloring job is to sand down the piece to the original wood. This should only be attempted if you have a good orbital sander; hand sanding would require a significant amount of time.
This method is also ideal if your piece is mostly flat, such as a table or desktop. Sanding curves is tricky and time-consuming, and intricate carvings need to be done by hand. If your piece checks any of those boxes, move onto another method.
But, if you are working with an orbital sander and flat surface, sanding your piece to bare wood is easier than you think! Start with a low grit sandpaper (I usually start with 60 grit,) and sand until most of the stain is removed.
Grab a pencil, and squiggle a light line on your wood. Then with the next grit sandpaper you have (usually 80 grit,) sand until the pencil squiggle is gone.
Repeat this process until you’ve sanded all the way up to 240 grit sandpaper. Then your stain should be gone, and you’ll have a wonderfully smooth surface to work with!
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Fix a Poor Wood Coloring Job By Staining Over the Finish
If you’ve already finished your piece with a topcoat, then the first two solutions I’ve named become a lot more difficult. The easiest thing to do at this point is to color over the finish you have.
Once again, you can only go darker. The stains formulated to go on top of existing finishes sit on top of those finishes, and don’t penetrate the wood at all.
Gel stain is actually a type of stain that works well on unfinished soft woods, but also doubles as a stain that can tint finished wood.
I used two different gel stains on this cedar chest (see the full tutorial and before pictures here) which covered the fading and wear, as well as darkened the look of the chest:
To use gel stain, sand your piece with high grit sandpaper, then apply a light coat of the gel stain with a rag. A heavy coat won’t dry, so light coats are the way to go here.
Too many coats of gel stain will ultimately obscure the wood, so the most it can really accomplish is some slight tinting and evening of the finish.
If you want to significantly darken your piece, consider Polyurethane/Stain combo products, like Minwax Polyshades. They’re colored finishes that can go on top of both bare wood and already finished pieces.
Frankly, I find Polyshades difficult to work with, and have run into issues every time I’ve tried it. However, if you’re on a last resort attempt to save a piece, it might be worth it.
Fix Your Wood Staining Job With Bleach
So, safety first: if you use this technique, be absolutely sure your wood stain has completely dried first, so that you don’t end up with a dangerous chemical reaction. I recommend waiting 24-48 hours to be entirely sure.
Common chlorine/laundry bleach can remove coloring from wood. Note the word “can” here. Chlorine bleach removes dye-based stains, but not pigment-based stains. Unfortunately, wood stain manufacturers are not transparent about what is in their stains, and many use both dyes and pigments in a single stain.
Moral here: bleach will probably do something. But it’s hard to know exactly what without testing it on your piece first. Test the bleach in an inconspicuous spot of your piece before you start, so you know exactly what will happen when you bleach the wood.
To bleach your piece apply the bleach with a sponge or spray bottle. Let it sit on the project for a few minutes before diluting with water. Dry the piece with a rag or towel, and then let the wood dry for a day or two before re-staining or adding a topcoat.
Note that bleach is not an option if the wood has been finished with a topcoat. The bleach will not penetrate the topcoat, and will have no effect on the wood.
Paint Over Your Wood Stain
If all-else fails, painting the piece is always an option. In fact, consider going for a two-toned piece, where you’ve painted all the difficult-to-sand areas, and sanded down the flat tabletop. I’m thinking something like this:
You can still get the pretty wood-look (hopefully with the exact shade you’ve dreamed of if you sanded down and restarted,) but save yourself the effort of sanding all of the time-consuming places.
You could also paint the entire piece, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.
Avoiding the Wrong Stain Color in the First Place
There is a simple trick to finishing wood: test your stain and finish before you apply it to the piece.
If you’ve built your project from scratch, grab a piece of scrap wood, and apply your stain to the scrap wood. Then apply the finish you plan to use on top of it. Finish can change the look of a stain, so it’s important you apply both products to confirm you like the overall look before you start on your piece.
This also give you the opportunity to test other techniques. For example, I frequently test wood conditioner versus no wood conditioner, and using a foam brush to apply my stain, versus using a rag. All of these things can result in a different look for piece, so I like seeing all of my options and choosing from there.
I also frequently test different stain options as well, because I typically have a vision in mind for how I want the piece to look, and testing different options allows me to get as close to that vision as I can.
If you’re refinishing a furniture piece, and don’t have scrap wood to test, things get a little trickier. I typically look for an unseen area, like the back of the piece, or the bottom of a tabletop. One time, I even tested stains on the bottom of the rocking part of a rocking chair.
Regardless, it’s still really important to test your finish options before you apply them. You might not have as much space to test 15 options like you would when using scrap wood above, but you can probably still test 2-3 options and pick from there.
At minimum, you’ll know what you’re getting before you apply the stain and finish to you piece.
And if you want to entirely avoid wood finishing disasters in the future, be sure to check out my Fabulously Finished Reference Bundle. It will walk you through testing, applying, and troubleshooting every type of stain and finish on the market, so that you can skip the mistakes and create a perfect project every time!