Stains can help preserve your furniture, paneling, or floor’s natural color by preventing the wood surface from fading. But with different stain types to choose from, it can be challenging to decide what is best for your woodworking project – wiping stain vs penetrating stain.  

Since penetrating stain is best for use on unfinished, interior wood surfaces while wiping stain is suited to a wide variety of wood and non-wood surfaces, the latter can be a better choice for your woodworking project. Let’s look at wiping stain vs. penetrating stain in detail. 

Penetrating Stain vs Wiping Stain Product Overviews

What is Penetrating Stain

Penetrating stain is generally a traditional oil-based wood stain formulated to enter the pores on wood surfaces. By getting absorbed into the wood, the stain can enhance the natural beauty of that wood by making its color appear more vibrant.

This kind of stain is suitable for use in three major scenarios:

  • Interior wood surfaces
  • Unfinished wood surfaces. 
  • Previously removed finished wood surfaces.

Penetrating stains tend to work best for staining unfinished hardwoods such as mahogany, ash, walnut or teak hardwood.

Related: Zinsser vs Kilz Primer 

Best Penetrating Stain

What is Wiping Stain

On the other hand, Wiping stain is suitable for use on a more broad range of wood and non-wood surfaces. You can apply it on:

  • Previously finished wooden surface
  • Fiberglass, 
  • Unfinished wood,
  • Metal surfaces. 

This kind of oil-based stain is thicker in texture than penetrating stains and tends to work best for woods such as maple, cherry, birch, poplar, and pine. 

Because of its heavy body and more dense texture, wiping stain may resemble gel stain and stay on the wood surface without penetrating it. For this reason, the stain is more resistant to blotching. 

When you apply a wiping stain on wood, it will tone the wood to the desired shade without necessarily getting absorbed into the wood. 

Best Wiping Stains

Wiping Stain Pros and Pons


  • It is more resistant to blotching
  • The stain does not necessarily require you to strip off an old finish to use it. Instead, it can sit over a previous wood finish to change the tone color.  
  • It allows for more control over the stain color. 
  • It is versatile and can work on fiberglass, metal, and composition surfaces. 


  • The stain hides wood grain more because it sits on the wood surface 
  • The stain takes longer to dry 

Penetrating Stain Pros and Cons


  • This stain hides wood grains, which can be appealing to those who love the natural wood appearance. 
  • The light texture ensures quick drying times after application 
  • The stain is easy to apply 


  • It can experience blotching on new woodworking projects. 
  • The stain is unsuitable for use on outdoor projects.

In-Depth Feature Comparison

Wood can be spectacular in its natural state indeed, but it may not match your home’s décor in that color. Adding a bit of wood stain may enhance the look and make it more in sync with your home’s décor and overall theme. 

This section provides a side-by-side analysis of how two of the most popular wood stain types – wiping stain and penetrating stain – compare. Read along to find out what might work best for your project between the two contenders. 

Related: Oil based stain vs water based stain

1. Ease of Use  

Wiping Stain vs Penetrating Stain comparison
Image courtesy of Minwax

Both wiping stain and penetrating stain allow for multiple methods of application. 

You can use a lint-free cloth, brush, or spray to apply generous amounts of wiping stain on a surface until it is completely wet. 

Then, let it sit for approximately 5 to 15 minutes before wiping off the excess with a soft cloth. 

You can use a cloth, brush, pad, roller, or sprayer for a penetrating stain, but wait for a shorter time, about 2 to 5 minutes, before wiping off the excess stain with a cloth. 

You’ll notice that wiping stains have longer wait times between application and wiping because it is heavier and takes longer to dry than penetrating stains. 

However, both stains need wiping with a soft cloth – first across the grain and then within the wood grain. 

Also, you need to add a layer of stain for both types of stain after the first layer is dry if you want a darker tint. Each time, ensure you apply the product in the direction of the wood grain for better results.

While wiping stain has a rich, thick formula, penetrating stain tends to be lighter, but both allow for easy application.

Verdict: It is a tie. 

2. Versatility 

As already mentioned, wiping stains are thicker with a dense body resembling a gel stain. This rich formulation allows for superior color control to achieve a rich, uniform color surface with just one application.

You can apply a wiping stain on a fresh new surface or top of a previously finished wood without removing the old finish. This characteristic gives you more freedom of choice if you are looking to adjust or modify the wood tone. 

Additionally, wiping stain can serve as a conventional wood stain on new wood and a graining glaze for various wood types. This way, it is much easier to coordinate and match colors to achieve the desired shade. 

Verdict: The winner is wiping stain. 

3. Range of Applications 

Penetrating stain is limited to unfinished, interior wood surfaces or surfaces with a previous finish already removed. 

On the other hand, wiping stain tends to have a broader range of uses. You can apply it on both unfinished and finished wood surfaces and non-wood surfaces, including fiberglass, metal, and composition surfaces. 

You can choose to remove a previous finish with a wiping stain before applying it or simply use it on top of the previous finish. 

Verdict: Wiping stain is more versatile. It wins.  

4. Staining New Wood Surfaces

When staining a new wood surface, you get more stain color control with a wiping stain. The stain adheres to the surface better because of its heavy texture. Usually, a single color will be sufficient as it gives a high-quality sheen on the surface. 

If you prefer a darker tint, it is much easier to achieve that with a wiping stain. You just need to allow the first layer a few hours to dry completely, then apply another layer. Ensure you apply a more generous amount of wiping stain if you desire a darker color.

You want to use a brush, preferably softer white china bristled, one less likely to leave brush marks on the surface for such a heavy application. 

Light applications, on the other hand, can use a rag. You may still need to use a brush to stain any nooks and crannies that the rag cannot sufficiently stain. 

Because penetrating stain gets absorbed into the wood, they are more prone to dark blotching and suction spotting, making color control challenging.  

Verdict: Wiping stain is the winner. 

5. Staining Previously Stained Woodwork.

To apply a wiping stain on previously stained woodwork, all you need to do is prepare the surface for re-toning. 

For this project, you will not have to strip off the old finish. The only caveat here is, the color can only get darker and not the other way round. By introducing the stain, you’re adding an additional layer of color not to be lighter, only darker. 

When using a penetrating stain, you have to remove the old finish first. This means you have more work to do when the penetrating stain is involved. 

Verdict: Wiping stain wins 

6. Drying Behavior 

Penetrating stain soaks into the grain of the wood as it dries. Because of its light texture, this stain can dry pretty fast compared to the heavier wiping stain.

You will need to allow more drying time for wiping stain to dry after application. The pigment-based stain largely stays on the surface, so it may need more time to dry depending on the thickness of the layer. 

Verdict: Penetrating stain wins. 


Gel stain vs wiping stain

When comparing gel stain vs wiping stain, a few things stand out. Gel stains (sometimes referred to as masking stains) are thicker than wiping stains. And they sit on the surface more. Whereas Wiping stains have a greasy feel. So it’s easy to control the desired tint depending on how fast/slow you wipe it during application.

See an in-depth comparison of Gel Stain Vs. Regular Stain.

Do you have to Remove the Old Stain Before Re-staining?

No, you don’t. You can stain over an old stain without necessarily removing the previous layer of stain if you’re applying a dark stain over a lighter one. Letting the old stain stay is also fine if you do not mind getting a darker tint in your final color finish. 

Can you Stain Over Stain and polyurethane?

Yes, you can stain over a polyurethane-finished surface, just as applying poly over stain. However, you should only use a gel stain or wiping stain. Wiping stain or gel stain act like opaque paints, so if you want to change the color of your woodwork without stripping the previous layer, wiping stain or gel stain can do it.

Read: Can I stay over polyurethane?

Can you mix wiping stain and penetrating stain?

Yes, you can mix wiping stain and penetrating stain. However, the results won’t be satisfactory because the wiping stain seals the surface leaving the penetrating stain to rest on the surface.

Should I Sand Between Coats of Stain?

No, it is not necessary to sand between coats of wood stain. However, sanding can help provide a better finish. Ensure you allow the coat to dry completely before sanding, and use 240- or 220-grit sandpaper for the exercise. Alternatively, you can use extra fine steel wool to give the surface a light sanding. Caveat: do not sand the surface after applying the final coat.

Related: Varnish vs Stain

Penetrating Stain vs Wiping Stain Conclusion

Wiping stain vs penetrating stain, which is best? Here, you will need to consider the nature of your project to determine the best stain between wiping stain and penetrating stain. In this case, all you have to do is go over the side-by-side comparison in this guide and make your choice based on your project requirements. 

Read: Wood stain vs Dye

Penetrating Stain Verdict

Overall, penetrating stain is best for use on interior wood surfaces in which the previous finish has been removed or unfinished interior wood surfaces.

Use penetrating stain when staining unfinished hardwoods such as walnut, oak, mahogany, and ash.

Wiping Stain Verdict

On the other hand, wiping stain is suitable for various surfaces, including unfinished wood, previously finished wood surface, metal, composition surfaces, and fiberglass.

Ideally, use wiping stain on projects involving woods such as maple, cherry, pine, poplar, and birch.

Here’s a guide on the best stain for pine if you’re looking to refinish your pine furniture, deck or floor

In any case, ensure you test the stains on an inconspicuous spot on the item you wish to stain before you go all in. This strategy will help you avoid surprises by ensuring you have the correct stain colors for your woodworking project.

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