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3 Reasons Your Wood Stain is Sticky (And How to Fix It)

The very first time I tried staining a wood project, it was a disaster. I stained the piece on a hot summer day, and the wood stain turned sticky before I even had a chance to wipe it off. It was my very first lesson on wood stain. The takeaway?

Wood stain is intended to be wiped off immediately after application. If the wood stain remains on the wood, liquid solvents in the stain will evaporate, leaving sticky pigments behind that will never fully dry. To remove tacky wood stain, firmly scrub the piece with mineral spirits.

There are a couple of other reasons wood stain doesn’t dry properly, as well as some other useful techniques for removing partially-dried wood stain, so keep reading!

Wood Stain Becomes Sticky When Not Wiped Off

Is your wood stain still sticky? Come learn what went wrong, and why your wood stain won't dry, as well as how to clean up that tacky wood stain!

The most likely reason your wood stain didn’t dry properly is there was too much excess stain on the wood. Traditional oil-based wood stain contains dyes and pigments to add color, and solvents to keep the stain in liquid form.

The wood stain works when the pigments and dyes soak into the wood. Stain is not intended to sit on top of the wood, which is why most stain manufacturers recommend wiping any excess off stain off the wood shortly after application. I rarely wait more than a minute before wiping my piece with a rag.

In fact, I often apply the stain to the piece with a rag, that way there isn’t any excess stain, and I’m more in control of how much stain the wood absorbs.

In contrast, when stain is left to sit on the wood, the solvents that make the stain a liquid will eventually evaporate. However, the pigments remain behind, creating a sticky mess on the top of the wood.

That sticky pigment mess will never dry, no matter how long you wait. This is why it’s crucial to wipe off any excess before the solvents evaporate.

If you’re in situation where it’s too late for that, keep reading! I detail how to remove tacky wood stain later in the article!

On Hot Days, Wood Stain Dries Too Quickly

In my first staining disaster, my issue wasn’t that I didn’t wipe off the stain. It was that I stained my piece on a hot summer day in direct sunlight. The stain dried almost immediately after application, and I wasn’t able to wipe it off before it became sticky.

Wood stain should be applied in the shade during temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, the stain may dry too quickly, preventing you from wiping off the excess, and creating a sticky mess that will need to be removed.

Other weather factors, particularly humidity, can also impact dry times, so finishing pieces on mild, low-humidity days is always the goal.

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Exotic Woods Can Also Cause Sticky Wood Stain

Some exotic woods, such as teak and rosewood, have heavy oil contents already. Therefore, wood stain isn’t inclined to soak into these types of woods, and may just sit on the top of them.

Alternatively, wood stain might soak into the exotic wood, but then be pushed back out again after you’ve walked away.

Either of these situations would once again cause the stain to sit on the top of the wood, and become tacky. Are you sensing a trend here?

If you’re interested in staining an oil-y wood like teak or rosewood, you might want to try water-based stains instead. Additionally, before finishing the piece, you should coat the wood in Zinsser’s Sealcoat, which will prevent the oil in the wood from reacting negatively to whatever finish you apply.

Removing Wood Stain That Won’t Dry

Let me answer your first question: Yes, you have to remove wood stain that didn’t dry. You cannot just leave it on the piece. The reason for this is that excess wood stain will never fully dry. Applying wood finish on top of tacky wood stain can result in a murky finish that obscures the wood of the piece.

Instead, remove the excess wood stain. There are actually a couple of methods for removing wood stain.

  1. Mineral Spirits – Apply mineral spirits to the piece, and scrub vigorously. This should dissolve the remaining pigments, and allow you to wipe them off the piece. Let dry 15 minutes, and then see your wood is still sticky.
  2. Using More Stain – Apply another layer of stain to the piece. Allow it to sit on the wood for a couple minutes (obviously not long enough to dry and cause more issues,) then wipe the stain away. By letting the stain sit, it will have time to dissolve the prior stain, so when you wipe the stain away, it should result in a smooth and dry piece.
  3. Sanding – Grab some sandpaper and an orbital sander, and sand the un-dried stain off the piece. You want to be using low grit sandpaper (I’d start with 60,) else the stain pigments will clog the sandpaper quickly. Once you’ve gotten all of the stickiness of the wood, sand with increasing grits until you’ve reached 240 grit sandpaper.

Sticky Water-Based Wood Stains

The majority of this article has focused on traditional oil-based wood stains. If you’re not sure what type of wood stain you’re working with, it’s probably oil based, but you can confirm that by reading the can, and noting if it recommends cleaning up with water, or cleaning up with mineral spirits.

It probably goes without saying, but water-based stains can be cleaned up with water, oil-based stains require minerals spirits.

Note: There is also another type of product on the market that is a combo finish/stain (such as Minwax Polyshades.) If your working with this, know that it is more similar to a wood finish than it is a wood stain. If you’re having drying issues with Polyshades, they’re frequently solved by warming up the room.

Regardless, water based stains can also run into drying issues. They also contain pigments that become sticky once the solvents have evaporated. One difference between oil-based stains and water-based stains is that water-based stains dry faster.

That means it’s even more crucial that you wipe the stain off of the wood quickly. When working with water based stains, I typically apply the stain in small batches, so I can make sure I have the opportunity to wipe off any excess stain before it starts drying.

Final Tips For Avoiding Wood Stain Drying Issues

It’s been a long time since I’ve had trouble with wood stain; here are some tips I’ve found help things go smoothly:

  • Apply wood stain with a rag instead of a brush. I’ve found that helps control the amount of stain the wood absorbs, which leads to a more even application, with the side effect that it’s impossible to have too much stain on the wood.
  • Only apply one coat of stain. A second coat of stain rarely changes the look of the wood, and it increases the probability that excess stain will remain on the wood. If you’re not happy with the look of your wood after one coat, grab a darker stain instead and try again.
  • Be sure to apply wood stain during ideal weather; low-humidity days between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Always test your stain on some scrap wood before you start. That way, you know exactly how it will look before applying it to your piece, and can make any changes before you start.
  • Mix your wood stain thoroughly before starting. Pigments frequently sink to the bottom, concentrating the stain at the bottom, and weakening it at the top. Failing to mix the wood stain can result in uneven application.

For more tips, and to make sure you finish your wood projects perfectly, check out my Fabulously Finished Reference Bundle. It walks you through exactly how to choose, apply, and troubleshoot every major stain and finish on the market, and ensures you’ll love the finish on every project you make!

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