A good choice of wood stain can do an excellent job accentuating the grain. But sometimes, you can be out of luck and will not get the desired results no matter how well you apply the stain. This can happen when wood won’t take stain. 

Why can wood fail to absorb stain? Is there a way out of such an outcome? Read along to find out what you can do about this kind of situation.

Why is my stain not penetrating the wood?

Wood can fail to absorb stains for various reasons. These include when you stain without removing the old finish, staining an exotic wood with high oil content, sanding too finely, and working with less porous woods with tight grains. One or more of these factors might be the reason your wood won’t stain. Here is a detailed look at the possibilities that might prevent your wood from staining.

You Stained Without Sanding—The Wood has a Sealant on it 

It is pretty common for anyone new to woodworking to skip an essential step or two. One of these steps is proper wood surface preparation. 

Usually, you need to remove any coating on the piece of wood you want to stain. But if you are working with a piece with a clear coat on it, you can quickly fail to notice the sealant and go straight to staining it without sanding. 

The product will not reach the wood since the sealant coat will block the surface, making it impenetrable. 

Notice that any penetrating wood stain needs to enter the pores in your wood to color it. Any sealant covering the wood surface makes this essential process impossible; hence the wood won’t stain. 

Is there a solution to this problem?

Yes. First, you need to let the surface dry thoroughly, then give it the sanding it requires. Clear topcoats like varnish are pretty hard and will require stripping with a chemical stripper. 

After stripping the layer of varnish or polyurethane finish (as we will show you in the next section), you can sand the wood. Sanding helps open up the pores in the wood, letting it absorb the stain. 

How to tell if the wood has a sealant on it?

Visually inspect the wood for a hard surface. If it looks glossy, the chances are that it has a sealant like polyurethane or some other clear coat on it. 

Most protective finishes will make a table or timber feel smooth to the touch. However, if you try to sand it, the debris coming off will be a clear-colored material and not sawdust—time to use that chemical stripper first. 

You did not Completely Remove the Old Finish

At other times, you may have prepared your wood for staining by sanding or stripping it. Still, if you don’t do this process correctly, some of the finish may remain on the surface blocking the stain from penetrating the grain.

You can tell when the old finish is only partly removed if some wood parts won’t take the stain. 

Check if there are some spots where the stain won’t soak into the wood. The chances are that these sport have traces of the old finish keeping the stain from getting through and penetrating the grain. 

You will have to let the wood dry and sand it down a little more to remove the remaining old finish to solve this problem. Again, clean the wood before staining.

You Sanded too Fine 

Sanding is essential for staining, but you must do it correctly. If you go too fine with your choice of sandpaper, it might close the wood pores. With the pores blocked (especially on softwoods), the wood stain will not penetrate and deposit the colorant in your wood. 

While sanding, you want to watch out for the grit of the sandpaper you are using. Usually, you can start with 80 to 120-grit sandpaper for the initial surface preparation. Then switch to 180 grit or 220 grit sandpaper for the final sanding.

If you go too fine to use a 320-grit or even 400-grit sanding pad, the ultra-fine sawdust you produce might clog the wood pores. Such wood would be impenetrable to stain. 

Sometimes even the 220-grit sandpaper can be too fine for staining. So the safe thing to do is cup your choice of fine sanding at 180 grit. 

Related: Can you stain MDF?

The Wood is Dense with Tight Grains

Tight-grained hardwoods like maple are generally less porous and struggle to absorb the stain. With such limited porosity, there is little room in the wood to accommodate the stain. 

Therefore, when staining woods like maple, it would be safer to avoid going for penetrating or wiping stains. It just won’t penetrate. 

Such woods work better with a glaze or gel stain. Wood glazes are oil-based or water-based stains with a thick consistency and a whole lot of pigment. 

Gel stains are equally thick, with varying amounts of pigment. They both work by sitting on top of the wood surface rather than penetrate the grain. 

You Applied a Wood Conditioner, Blocking the Pores 

Pre-stain wood conditioners are designed to penetrate and temporarily seal the wood to absorb oil-based stains evenly. This should make oil-based stains cure into a more uniform coat of stain.

However, different woods behave differently with various stains. Therefore, applying the wood conditioner can be counterproductive by making it harder for the wood to absorb the stain at all.

So, while it is intended to ensure uniform staining, it can block the pores and make it impossible for the stain to enter the wood. This is a common problem with hard-to-stain woods like pine.  See our best stains for pine wood reviews.

You Used Exotic Wood with High Oil Content 

Exotic woods like rosewood and teak are high in structural oil. While the oil makes them exceptionally resistant to moisture, water, and other elements, it blocks their pores. The high oil concentration in these woods means little room left for the wood stain to seep into.

For such woods, staining is not always the best option. But if you must use stain on them, you will want to seal them first with a de-waxed shellac-based wood conditioner like Zinsser’s Sealcoat.

The undercoat will prevent the oil content from messing up your coat of stain, creating adhesion problems. Then, you can use a non-penetrating stain like gel stain to achieve your desired finish.

Alternatively, you could use dyes and Tung oil mixture instead of gel stain if your endgame is to get a darker rosewood. 

The Wood is Not Dry 

Like the high oil content in some exotic hardwoods, high moisture content blocks the pores in the wood. 

If you attempt to stain a moist or damp wood, the wood won’t take the stain because it has water occupying its pores. Often, the stain may take too long to cure or remain tacky for good. 

It is best always to check the moisture content of any wood you want to stain beforehand. This can save you from having to redo the entire project afresh. 

It is Not Wood 

Many wood alternatives in the furniture market today look so much like natural wood. Good examples are medium-density fiberboards and other laminates. 

These alternatives and natural wood can be hard to tell apart if you are not a professional woodworker. 

If you have a table or board that is not taking stain, it might be a laminate. Since these laminates do not have wood grain or pores in their composite structure, they usually don’t absorb stain too well. 

Your best bet is to use a gel stain that does not need to penetrate any pores to color your piece. Unfortunately, you cannot use a penetrating stain on this kind of material.  

How to tell if you are working with wood and not something similar   

Though fake woods can be confusing, you can always identify them if you know what to look for and where to look. So here is something to point you in the right direction. 

  • Check for wood grain at the bottom of the tabletop. If you have a wooden table with veneer, it will likely not have it on the underside. The manufacturer will usually bother only with the top-facing, more conspicuous parts of the furniture. 
  • Inspect the piece for end grains. Natural wood will always have grains. So if you can find their ends, you can be sure it is indeed wood that you are staining. 
  • If the piece has drawers, check them for dovetail joints – Real wood tends to be expensive and often goes hand in hand with top-quality craftsmanship. One aspect of such craftsmanship is dovetail joints. If you can see these, you can be sure it is natural wood.

Another possible reason is that you are working with an expired wood stain. But can wood effectively take expired stain?

Exercise caution, as expired stains might compromise color and quality, leading to uneven application and unsatisfactory results. Prioritize a patch test to assess compatibility before proceeding with the entire project.

What to do When Wood Won’t Take Stain 

Wood stain products can be unpredictable. So, learning how to fix wood stain mistakes could help you avoid repeating some errors in your project.

That said, there are various solutions you can try out for any failed wood-staining project. 

1. Switch to a stain that sits on top of the wood

Whenever wood fails to absorb stain, the easiest fix you can consider is to use a gel stain instead of the penetrating stain. Gel stain works by sitting on the wood surface so it will not rely on wood pores. 

This is an excellent solution whenever wood won’t stain because the wood type and surface condition have little impact on gel stain.

In any case, it is better to err on the side of caution. So begin by sealing the wood with a suitable shellac-based wood conditioner. This undercoat comes in handy, especially if the wood is high in structural oil that could cause adhesion issues. 

After applying the pre-stain product, follow the gel stain per the manufacturer’s instructions to get the best results. Ideally, keep the coats of gel stain thin and light to let them dry appropriately.

2. Power wash the logs to remove the mill glaze if you are staining a cabin home.

If you are working on an existing cabin home, the boards are likely to still have mill glaze in them. The glaze can prevent the stain from penetrating the boards properly. 

The solution here is to remove the mill glaze by power washing the logs. Let them dry thoroughly, then sand them with an orbital sander before you apply the stain.

Always wear a safety face mask and protective goggles when using the power sander. You don’t want to inhale the fine wood duct.  

3. Remove the old finish. 

Protective finishes make wooden surfaces impervious to moisture and other weather elements, including the sun’s UV rays. But they can be an impediment when you want to stain the wood. You must first remove the rusty old finish to give way to the stain. 

Method 1: Use a chemical stripper 

When removing lacquer from wood, your best bet is to use a chemical varnish stripper. The viscous liquid will react with the sealant on the wood surface and soften it, making it easy to scrape away with a scraper. 

You can then clean the surface with mineral spirits and wipe it with fine-grade steel wool to prep it for a new coat of stain.

Method 2: Sand down the old finish  

If you want to remove paint or polyurethane finish, sometimes you can go ahead and sand it down. 

Either of these finishes usually stays on the wood surface, and sanding will be sufficient in removing them. However, this approach may be time-consuming and requires a bit of care. 

4. Use the correct sandpaper grit

If the problem is the sandpaper grit, there should be an easy fix. For example, if you sand the wood too fine and the pores are clogged, one easy solution is to sand the wood again using the correct grit sanding pad.

Sanding with a coarse, then medium coarse sandpaper will open the clogged wood pores and prep the wood surface for re-staining.

5. Read the instructions

Not all brands of stain products are created equal. Make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions on how best to apply it with an applicator that matches their recommendations.

For example, if they recommend you spray rather than wipe – use an airless sprayer. Some stains require paint rollers or even specific brushes and tools. Therefore, do some research beforehand. Here are the best brushes for staining.

You can avoid many problems by reading the instructions before using your stain.

Are you staining your Aspen wood and finding difficulties? Here’s a better way to stain Aspen wood.

Read Also: What is the Best Stain for a Log Cabin


Can you apply too much stain on wood furniture?

Wood will only absorb as much stain as its pores can contain.  Any excess stain will come off when you wipe it off, leaving only the stain that penetrated the wood. If you leave the stain without wiping it off, it will become tacky and may never dry until you remove it from that surface.

Is gel stain the same as a glaze?

Gel stains may look similar to a wood glaze, but they are not the same thing. A wood glaze equally contains pigment, but it is usually dissolved in a varnish or shellac base. This means wood glaze will harden on top of a pre-existing finish.

Should you Add Dye to Darken Wood Stain?

Yes, dyes can make the stain darker on wood. Add dye directly onto the stain and let it sit for an hour or two before wiping off any excess with paper towels. This will cause some staining in return, so make sure not too much gets on top.


Wood stain can be a great way to get your desired look, but it’s not always possible. Knowing why wood won’t take stain can help you troubleshoot the issue and find an alternative solution.

You may even discover that a different type of wood might create a better finished product — something that’s not as prone to this kind of problem and has other features you desire.

Experimenting with different finishes and techniques, such as heat treating or whitewashing, can also provide interesting results. With creativity and the right kind of knowledge, you can overcome any obstacle in achieving the ideal finish for your project.

Reading our post on “how to darken pine wood without stain” will give you further insight into all the valuable options available to make your work shine like never before. Together we’ll find something that brings out the beauty in your creation.

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