You apply stain to your wood, just like always. A few minutes later, you wipe it off and find the wood hasn’t absorbed stain at all! What on earth? Why won’t the wood take the stain? I’ve been there.
There are a couple of reasons wood won’t absorb stain. These include staining sealed wood, sanding too finely, and working with tight-grained woods that don’t take stain. There are specific solutions to each problem, but generally applying a sealer and a stain that sits on top of the wood is a simple solution.
So lets dive in, and see if we can figure out how to save your project!
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Is Your Wood Actually Wood?
Lets start by getting the most basic issue out of the way. Are you absolutely positive the wood you’re working with is actually wood? Laminated furniture has come a long way in the past couple years, and sometimes it’s really difficult to tell what you’re working with.
To figure out if a piece of furniture is actually wood, there are a couple places I look:
- End grains – If you can find the end grain of the wood, that’s a pretty good bet it’s actually wood.
- Drawers – Are there drawers in the piece? Do they have unique joints holding them together? That’s a good clue that you’re working with real wood. Also, sometimes unfinished wood is used for the drawers. That’s another clue that you’re working with real wood.
- Tabletop bottom – Manufacturers frequently don’t bother to veneer the bottom of the tabletop. If it’s real wood, it should be obvious in that spot.
If your “wood” isn’t wood or wood veneer, it’s not going to take stain, no matter what you do. Paint is a great choice.
If you think you might be working with wood veneer (a very thin layer of wood,) you can still possibly stain it darker. You will not be able to make it lighter. See the next section, as in this case the wood veneer is still probably sealed.
Your Wood Won’t Take Stain Because It’s Already Sealed
Wood stain works by penetrating the wood. It is not a product that sits on top of the wood; it soaks in and dries in the wood pores. If you’re wood has already been sealed by polyurethane or another finish, the wood stain won’t work, because it can’t reach the pores of the wood.
Visually inspecting your piece is the easiest way to tell if the wood has already been sealed. Is the wood look glossy? Does it feel smooth, like it has a coating on it? If you sand a little bit, do you get sawdust, or do you get clear coating dust?
If the wood has already been sealed, you have a couple options. First off, you can remove the finish from the wood. I’ve written an entire piece on that process here.
Removing finish is easiest to do where your wood is flat. For many pieces, I’ll remove the finish from the top of the piece, and then paint the other portions. This goes quickly, and I love the two-toned look.
You can remove finish from curvy and carved areas, it’s just time consuming and tedious. The same process I linked above applies.
Only a Few Spots Won’t Take Stain?
If there are only a few splotches where the stain won’t soak in, there’s probably something preventing the stain from penetrating in those areas. It could be some remaining finish, a glue drip that soaked in while you were working, or something else.
You’ve got a couple options. If you have a good sander, try sanding down the area and testing the stain again. Sanding removes material, and as more wood is removed, it’s likely that whatever was blocking penetration was removed as well.
I’ve had better luck with gel stains, but one of the primary features of products like Minwax Polyshades and Varathane’s Stain+Finish is the ability to go on top of prior finishes, so they’re worth a try as well.
Start by sealing the wood with Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat. That way, whatever was in the wood preventing you from applying the stain in the first place is locked in the wood.
Then apply the product to the wood according to the manufacturers directions. Unlike traditional wood stains, none of these products should be wiped away after application – that defeats the purpose.
For the gel stain, make sure you’re applying in very light coats. I use a rag instead of a foam brush to make sure this is the case. Otherwise, the stain won’t dry properly. You can see me use this technique on this cedar chest.
The gel stain requires another finish applied on top of it, since it is only a stain. The stain+finish combo products include polyurethane, so that’s not necessary.
One more tip – be sure to test your stains in an inconspicuous place before you ago full-scale with your piece. In the cedar chest project I linked above, I tested my gel stains on the back first before I applied. And fun story, it actually took me a couple of tries before I found a combo that worked.
You Can Sand Too Much, Which Prevents Wood From Taking Stain
Sanding with too fine of a grain actually closes up wood pores, preventing the stain from absorbing into the wood. What happens is that the ultra-fine sawdust produced from high-grit sandpapers clogs the wood pores. Then there’s no place left for the stain to absorb.
Avoiding this problem is easy – stop sanding once you’ve reach 180 grit.
If you’ve already sanded too much, re-sand with with a lower grit sandpaper. I’d start with 80 grit, and work your way up to 180 grit. This will sand away the closed pores, and end with wood that is ready to be stained.
Pro-Tip: You can actually use this technique to get even shades when staining end grain. Sand the end grain up to a higher grit sandpaper than you sand the rest of the piece. Then when you apply the stain, less of it will absorb than usual, allowing it to match the rest of the wood instead of being a couple shades darker.
Tight-Grained Woods Struggle to Take Stain
Tight-grained woods have tight pores, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of space for the stain to soak into. Maple is the most common tight-grained wood and is known for this problem, but other woods exist as well.
Unfortunately, your best solution here is the gel stain/stain+finish option I described above, because those sit on top of the wood and don’t need to soak into the pores. Once again, just to be safe, apply Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat first to make sure everything adheres properly.
I’ve read in at least one article that wood conditioner could help open the pores. This, frankly, is false. Wood conditioner is intended to prevent stain absorption in woods that take stain unevenly. It’s not going to open up pores, because its goal is the exact opposite – to reduce stain absorption. You can read more about wood conditioner in my ultimate guide here.
Some Exotic Wood Won’t Take Stain
A few exotic woods, like teak and rosewood, naturally have a high oil concentration. This means that they tend to reject oil-based products like wood stain and polyurethane, because there is already so much oil in the wood that those products don’t absorb properly.
Unfortunately, there are not effective products on the market that increase stain absorption in these oil woods. Your best bet is probably not to stain at all, especially since these woods are pricy, and very attractive on their own.
If your really want to stain the wood, your best option is to seal the wood with Zinsser’s Sealcoat first, then apply either Polyshades or gel stain to the wood. As described above, these products sit on top of the wood, and therefore don’t need to be absorbed into the wood.
Applying Sealcoat first is essential, otherwise you risk having adhesion problems because of the high oil concentration in these woods.
Rosewood also has some natural alternatives if you’re interested in making the wood darker. Black leather dye can be mixed with tung oil to create a solution that darkens the wood.