The first time I ever stained a piece of furniture, I applied the stain to the top of the desk, and went to wipe it away a minute or so later, just like the internet told me to. Turns out, if you let stain sit in the sun for a minute on a hot, 90 degree day, it’ll dry into a sticky mess. Luckily, I’ve since figured out how to deal with this.
The ideal way to fix a wood stain mistake is to sand the piece down to bare wood, and re-stain. However, this is time-consuming. Applying another layer of stain, painting the piece, or evening the piece with gel stain are other methods that could produce a satisfactory result.
If there’s something actually chemically wrong with you’re stain job (it’s still sticky, or there are white cloudy splotches) you’ll probably have to sand the piece down and refinish, although check out this post on stain drying issues and how to fix them before you do.
But if your main issue with your stain job is that it’s ugly, keep reading!
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1. Darken the Stain
When to Use: When the stain is uneven or has visible drips, and you don’t mind having a slightly darker project.
Good news: it’s pretty easy to make wood darker. If you’re fine with darkening your project, you can fix a blotchy stain job by darkening the piece and blending the blotches!
There are two ways to do this: with normal oil-based wood stain, or with gel stain.
Using Oil-Based Wood Stain
To use oil-based wood stain*, purchase a wood stain that’s darker than your original wood stain. The darker it is, the less obvious the blotches will be.
If you’re hoping you might to use the same stain you already bought/used, I hear you. Unfortunately, I’ve never had success with that – applying a second layer of the same stain has never really done anything for me. The wood has already soaked in as much of that shade as it can.
But using a darker color does work. After purchasing a darker color, use a rag or a foam brush to apply the stain on the piece, wiping away an excess once the stain has soaked in.
*Note: Don’t put oil-based stain on top of water-based stain. This will never go well.
Using Gel Stain
If you’re new to woodworking/wood finishing, might be tempted to skip this section and just use the normal stain. Don’t! Gel stain is actually perfect for this application, although it is a little more expensive than normal oil-based wood stain.
Gel stain is a thicker version of normal stain, and instead of soaking into the wood, it sits on top of the wood. The key thing here is that it covers up the mistakes for your first layer of stain!
You’ll want to make sure your initial stain has fully dried, then apply a thin layer of gel stain to the piece with a rag. Just like the oil-based stain method, pick a darker stain. The darker the stain color, the better it will cover your earlier mistakes.
I used this method on this cedar chest, which had blotches of faded stain after years of use. It worked like a charm!
The nice thing about gel stain is that it because it sits on top of the wood, it doesn’t cause blotching, so it’s not going to make your problem worse. It’s the ideal stain for cheaper woods that easily blotch for this reason.
For more on gel stain, check out this article.
2. Dilute the Stain
Use When: The stain is still wet, and you wish it was lighter and more even.
Have you heard of wood conditioner? There’s some controversy about exactly how it should be used, but if you apply stain within 15 minutes of applying the wood conditioner, it essentially works by diluting the stain.
If your stain is blotchy or too dark, you can try this in reverse. By flooding the wood with a solvent, you’ll hopefully thin the stain. Note that this only works if the stain is still wet – it will have no effect on dried stain.
For normal oil-based wood stain, mineral spirits should do the trick. Water is great for water-based stains. Use a rag to apply the solvent, scrubbing firmly as you go. This has the dual effect of applying the product, and lifting off any stain particles that are at the top of the wood.
Note that is not going to produce a flawless result: it will lighten the stain somewhat, hopefully more so in areas that soaked up too much stain to begin with. But your results will depend on the exact piece of wood you’re using, and how it reacts with the mineral spirits.
3. Bleach the Wood
Use When: You wish your wood was significantly lighter, or light enough that you could re-stain it a different color.
So first, lets talk safety. If you go this route, make sure that your wood stain is absolutely, 100% dry before you apply the bleach. Otherwise, you risk a dangerous chemical reaction.
Secondly, expectations. Bleach only works on dye-based stains, not pigment-based stains. Unfortunately, wood stain manufactures aren’t terribly transparent about what’s in their stains.
Your stain may contain dye, pigment, or both. So the bleach will probably do something, but it won’t leave you with a perfectly fresh surface.
Regardless, if you want to lighten your stain job, you can test the bleach on an inconspicuous part of your project to see how the bleach effects the wood. That way, you have a decent idea of what will happen before you apply bleach to the entire piece.
Once you’re satisfied, apply bleach to the entire piece with a spray bottle. Let it sit for a few minutes and work, then dilute with water. Finally, wipe the water/bleach mixture off with a towel, and let the wood dry for a few days before applying more stain or a topcoat.
Just like at the beginning, you don’t want to inadvertently create a dangerous chemical reaction.
4. Even the Wood With Gel Stain
Use When: You like the color, but the wood is blotchy.
I know, I’m going on about gel stain again. But it really can work miracles, because it’s so easy to control.
If you have a blotchy finish where some areas are significantly darker than others, you can use gel stain to darken the lighter areas to match the darker sections.
Chances are, if you purchased a mainstream wood stain (Varathane, Minwax,) they sell the exact same shade of wood stain in gel stain. Purchase that shade, and use a rag to apply it to the areas of the piece that you wish to darken.
You can apply multiple coats of the gel stain until you have the desired appearance, but note that the more layers of gel stain you apply, the more you obscure the wood underneath. Obviously, follow the directions on your gel stain for the amount of time to wait between coats.
Once you’re happy with the look of your piece, wait at least 24 hours before applying a topcoat. I would not apply a water-based topcoat – shellac or an oil-based topcoat are the way to go here.
5. Sand and Re-Stain
Use When: You want a perfect piece, and have the time and energy to do things right.
The best way to fix your wood stain mistakes is to sand down the piece and re-stain it. I know it’s a hassle, but it’s the only way things will really look flawless.
It’s also worth noting that if you have a good orbital sander, sanding down a flat surface to bare wood is actually a really quick process. Under 10 minutes, in my experience.
And sanding down the flat parts while painting the curvy/bumpy parts is a great option. While these nightstands were a furniture flip, not a staining disaster, they’re the perfect example of how nice a two-toned look can be.
To sand down the piece, start with a low grit sandpaper (I usually use 40 grit so things move quickly!) Sand off all of the stain, then draw a scribble on the wood, and grab the next highest grit. Sand until your scribble is gone.
Repeat this process until you hit 180 grit sandpaper. Then you’re ready to re-stain! If you want to make sure you avoid your original mistakes, check out my guide on staining wood.
6. Paint the Piece
Use When: You’re so done with this project, and just want it to be over.
Remember that when things crash and burn, painting is always an option, no matter what those internet haters say about covering up good wood. Admittedly, if you spent $100 on a nice slab of walnut, that probably physically hurts, but if that’s the case, you probably aren’t trying to stain it anyway.
You don’t need me to tell you how to paint, although remember a good primer helps adhere the paint and cover up any knots that may bleed through the paint over time.
Bonus: Avoiding Mistakes
If you ended up on this page, chances are something went very wrong while you were staining. Here are a couple things to remember when you’re staining wood:
- Weather is important! Try to stain somewhere between 70 and 80 degrees with moderate humidity. Trust me, I know this isn’t always possible (especially since you should also be staining in a well-ventilated area,) but if you can try to wait for a nice day.
- Wipe off the excess stain. Stain does not dry on its own.
- Wood stain can go bad! If you just bought it, this shouldn’t be the case, but if it’s been sitting in your basement for half a decade, you might want to check out this post about how to determine if it’s still good.
- Gel stain is your friend. If you’re staining cheap wood, or staining something vertical where drips are likely, gel stain will make your life so much easier. That’s what it’s made for! Check out this post for all the details!
- Cheap wood stains poorly. There are a bunch of things you can do to make it stain will (including gel stain, but that’s far from the only option.) If you’re staining anything you bought at Home Depot other than oak, you should be taking some extra precautions to make sure it stains well. Read about those here!