Stain Is Not Penetrating Wood (Here’s What To Do)

Staining wood isn’t always easy, I have had projects completely turn upside down because of issues related to wood stain. The issue with wood stain is how unpredictable it is, you can apply it to one project and you will see the beautiful grain coming through, or you can apply it and not realize the underlying issues in the wood and then everything looks unpleasant.

There are a number of reasons why a stain may not be penetrating a wooden surface but the easiest fix is to use a gel stain rather than a penetrating stain. Gel stain does not necessarily penetrate the wood, it will sit over the surface making it appear stained, which is the perfect solution if wood won’t take stain.

Below I will go into some reasons why wood isn’t taking stain, but using a gel stain should fix any issues you are having. If you are wondering what is gel stain you should read our Gel Stain VS Regular Stain | What’s the Difference article, it explains how both types work and the advantages/disadvantages of each.

Test Things First

A quick tip before we jump into the reasons why your wood isn’t taking the stain. If I am unsure of what the grain is going to look like when I apply stain I will do this test. Using mineral spirits and a clean rag I rub mineral spirits over the entire surface to see what it would look like. Not only is it cleaning the surface, but this also shows me if it will be blotchy and if it will not take in certain areas. If that’s the case, you should sand or scrape a bit more to get rid of any remaining finish that could be causing any issues.

4 Reasons Why Stain Isn’t Penetrating Wood

1. There’s Still Finish!

A very common problem for wood stain to not penetrate into a surface is it still has finish, also known as a top coat. First, if you are a beginner you need to know that when using a penetrating wood stain you must remove any old finish, this includes the clear topcoat and any paint. Paints and top coats are like a repellant to wood stain, the problem is that they can be difficult to remove.

I have a few methods of how I remove the old finish:

  1. You can apply a paint/varnish stripper, which is like a liquid formula you lather over the full surface, and then use a wide scraper to strip it off. I like to use a 15-minute stripper, you apply it and after 15 minutes it bubbles up, and then it’s ready to come off. It may take 2 coats. Then you clean it up with mineral spirits and 0000 steel wool to remove any stripper residue or old varnish. Once it’s completely dry you can sand it down with 180-220 grit sandpaper.
  2. Another method is using a carbide scraper or a card scraper. I have both, and I think they both have their pros and cons, but I must say I like the 2 inch carbide scraper for removing old finish. I also use it to remove finish that a stripper has left behind, using both methods together is not a bad idea. I like to do both honestly.
  3. You could just sand the old finish off, but this is only a good idea if you are working with solid wood (not veneer) or if the veneer surface is dried up and the old finish will quickly sand off. Sanding veneer is dangerous, not to you but to your project. It is super thin and you can quickly sand through it and then your stain will look pretty bad.

Even after removing the finish, at least thinking you did, there can be small amounts deep into the wood grain causing the stain to not penetrate. This is where it gets tricky, I guess you can try using smaller tools to scrape out any remaining finish deep in the grain, however, I would just use gel stain at this point if my penetrating stain was not doing the trick.

2. It’s The Type of Wood

woo types for stain

It’s all about the pores. Wood has pores and the larger (more porous) the easier it is to penetrate with a penetrating wood stain. This means that with smaller pores it limits the amount of stain that can enter into the wood surface, causing the wood to be more difficult to stain.

Wood Types With Large Pores (Better for Staining)

  • oak
  • cedar
  • ash
  • chestnut
  • mahogany (with a darker stain)
  • walnut

Wood Types With Small Pores (Won’t Stain Well)

  • maple
  • birch

3. Using Incorrect Sandpaper Grit

Did you know you could sand your project so smooth that the stain won’t absorb into it? Yes, you can, that’s why there are recommended sandpaper grits to use before you add stain. I like to start with 100-120 to remove any old dirt, but sometimes I skip the 100-120 and just used 180 up to 220 grit to finish it off clean. If you go higher into the 300 grit plus range you will sand the wood surface so smooth the wood pores become tight and it will not absorb properly.

Just make sure you sand correctly or you may have this issue.

Another issue with sanding is that you may sand too much leaving no wood to absorb into. This isn’t really an issue with solid wood surfaces, but veneer you can see this more often. You can sand right through veneer in no time, and then your project is toast, but even if you don’t sand through it you may be close. This means the wood sheet is so thin your stain is having trouble penetrating it because it has barely anything to sink into. Using a gel stain should do the trick here too because it doesn’t have to sink into it.

4. It’s NOT Wood

I hope this isn’t the issue you have run into, mainly because now you can’t see the process of the wood grain popping out. But if you did find a laminate surface, but you thought it was wood don’t be embarrassed. In one of my earlier table projects, I thought I bought a wooden table, but I started sanding to realize its top surface was completely laminate. My sander literally was just spinning and I was super confused.

If you have found laminate or any other fake wood surface you can’t use a penetrating stain. It would basically just sit on top like water. But I did have a small laminate surface on an end table that I used gel stain on, it wasn’t super durable but it worked! Take a look at can you use gel stain on laminate furniture article here, it goes into all the details and steps including one of my YouTube videos.

Applying Gel Stain to Wood That Won’t Take Penetrating Stain


You know it’s pretty cool that we have these options, someone realized that wood stain wasn’t always successful. When I think of gel stains, I think it is like a mixture of paint and stain, you apply it like a stain but it sits above the wood like paint. As we know, not all wood is going to take a stain but applying a gel stain really gives it no chance.

I believe using gel stain while having issues with penetrating wood stain is your best option. But what’s the best way to approach this situation.

At this point in time you likely already tried staining, it may have stained the wood a small amount. You could let it sit there or you can remove it. I would take mineral spirits to remove it and a rag, the worst-case scenario I would strip it off, but try to avoid going back that far.

If it’s not blotchy and the regular stain barely did anything, just get started with your gel stain. The gel stain should cover that stuff up no problem.

Applying Gel Stain

It is basically the same process as a penetrating stain, apply the stain with a rag or foam brush, then I would wipe it off within minutes of applying it. I use a clean lint-free rag, an old t-shirt is great too. The thing about gel stain is the time it takes to dry. You must make sure to not leave clumps or thick amounts of gel stain, or it can take days and even weeks to dry up. I wipe as much as I can, but don’t apply pressure to make streaks in the stained surface. Wait 12-24 hours for the coat to dry.

If it isn’t dark enough or you want to mix up colors you need to apply a thin layer of shellac between coats. Adding another coat will make it darker, the shellac between coats prevents the first gel stain coat to become reactivated, if the reactivating was to happen the coats would mix and you would basically be wiping the same amount as you did in the first coat. This would look no different.

Once your gel stain dries, you can apply a topcoat to ensure it lasts a long time. You can apply polyurethane in many different ways, you can use a wipe-on poly which is popular in woodworking projects, but many will spray poly or spray lacquer. Whatever option will work, just be careful you do not wipe anything on before it dries or you may see streaks.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide about stain not penetrating wood will help you fix your problem you may be having. As I said, I have been using more gel stains lately because oil-based penetrating wood stains have been causing some problems, after using gel stain things seem to be going good. Gel stain hides things better and prevents the issues from happening, which is a time saver.

In the end, I hope this guide helped, if you have had staining issues with wood not taking stains and you found a different solution reach out to my email at furnitureflippa (at) gmail (dot) com. Or feel free to ask me a question and I will see if I can help.

Take care and good luck with your next project.