Homeowners apply wood stain to beautify their furniture, but sometimes the wood will not accept the stain regardless of how well you apply it. Why does this happen and what to do next?
There are different possible reasons why wood won’t accept stain. The usual culprit is the surface has been sealed. A sealant will form a moisture-resistant layer that will repel the stain. In this case, you must remove the sealer first.
Another possible reason is you are working on tight-grained or softwood. Softwood is not as porous, so it will not absorb the stain.
Why Does This Happen?
Here are the most common reasons why this happens:
1. Fake Wood
If you have fake or synthetic wood, its surface won’t absorb any liquid (including wood stain).
Wood stain is a finish that can only be used on natural or real wooden surfaces because it has to penetrate and soak into the pores after application. Real wood is porous – this means it allows water and air to pass through, and as such can be stained.
Fake wood isn’t porous because it doesn’t have pores. It is man-made and contains synthetic materials that give it a waterproof surface. Since it’s not porous, it won’t take stain.
Many people can’t tell the difference between real and fake wood because manufacturers make them look and feel the same.
Here are a few tips to tell the difference between them:
- Check the weight – Natural wood is heavier.
- Are there carvings on the surface? – This means it is real wood. Fake wood like Veneer and Laminate can’t be carved.
- Inspect the pattern – Real wood would have an irregular grain pattern but fake wood has the same grain pattern repeated throughout the entire surface.
How to fix
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to fix this. If it’s not real wood, it can’t be stained. An alternative to try out is to paint it, as paint doesn’t need to penetrate a surface to stick.
2. Sealed Surface
It’s common for wooden surfaces to be sealed after construction either with a sealer, paint, or waterproof coat. The purpose of this is to cover its pores so it doesn’t absorb moisture. In other words, to make it waterproof.
If the surface has been sealed, it won’t accept a topcoat until you remove the sealer coat.
To know if a surface is sealed:
- Point a flashlight to it. – Does it look shiny? If yes, it’s sealed.
- Sand lightly with fine sandpaper – While sanding, do you see sawdust or clear coat shaving? If you see sawdust, there is no sealer. If you see clear coat shaving, the surface is sealed.
- Sprinkle water over it – If the water is absorbed after a few minutes, there’s no sealer. If the water remains on top of the surface after a few minutes, there’s a sealer.
How to Fix:
To fix this, you have to remove the sealant from the surface. There are a few methods you can use to do this — you can sand it off or use a paint stripper.
To sand it off, use 80-180 grit sandpaper to abrade the surface. You should put on a pair of gloves as this will take some effort. If you are working on a large surface, it’s better to use a random orbital sander.
After sanding for a few minutes, inspect the surface to see if the sealer coat is off. Once you start seeing sawdust, stop sanding because you have removed the sealer.
To strip the sealer off, use CitriStrip or any other paint stripper but ensure the stripping compound is compatible with wooden surfaces. Some chemical and solvent-based strippers can damage the wood, so stay away from them.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to know how to use the paint stripper. If you are using CitriStrip, you need to apply thick coats on the surface and leave for 30 minutes before scraping it off with a paint scraper.
3. The Pores are Clogged
Many people don’t know this but sanding too much or using ultra-fine sandpaper can stop a surface from accepting stains properly.
When you sand with ultra-fine sandpaper, you cause the tiny sawdust to clog up (fill) the pores. Since the pores are already full of sawdust, the stain won’t be able to penetrate or stick.
How To Fix
The best way to fix this is with more sanding, but this time, use medium-grit sandpaper (150-180 grit).
These grits are not too rough or too fine and are perfect for opening pores. Sand the wood for a few minutes and remove dust. Then reapply the stain and see if it’s absorbed.
You can also clean the surface with a damp cloth. But, this only works for a small amount of sawdust.
4. Softwood or Tight-Grained Wood
Softwoods like Cedar, Spruce, Pine, and Fir have tight grains (or pores) that make them non-porous. As such, wood stains can’t penetrate their pores and won’t stick properly.
If you are working on such wood, you’ll discover that the stain appears blotchy or uneven. Some hardwoods like Maple also have tight grain.
How To Fix
The best option for tight-grained or small pores surfaces is to use paint or a non-penetrating stain, such as Gel stain or Polyshades. These finishes sit on the top layer of the surface and stick without needing to penetrate it.
Another alternative is to use medium-grit sandpaper to graze the surface of furniture. Doing this will create tiny openings for the stain to be absorbed through. However, doing this doesn’t guarantee a smooth finish.
Pro Tip: Wood conditioner doesn’t improve stain absorption, it’s a false claim! The conditioner is an undercoat that reduces stain penetration, especially in softwood. It is used to ensure a smooth and even finish by reducing the amount of stain the wood needs to absorb.
5. Exotic Wood
Exotic wood, such as Teak wood, Bloodwood, or Cumaru, won’t absorb the stain well. This is because they contain oils, saps, and juices that make it impossible for a coating to penetrate.
For instance, Teak wood contains high levels of oils and is used to produce Teak oil. As such, any oil-based stain that is used over it will be repelled.
Also, you can’t apply water-based stains over it as it’s not compatible with oil. Bloodwood also has red juices in it that give it its distinct color. Its fluid makes it difficult for it to absorb any stain.
How To Fix
Unfortunately, there is little you can do to change this. Your best bet is to use a non-penetrating stain like Gel stain or Polyshades. Since these stains don’t need to penetrate a surface to stick, you are good to go.
Another alternative is not to stain them at all. Exotic woods have distinct features that make them beautiful. As such, woodworkers often leave their natural look and seal them with polyurethane or varnish to protect them from damage.
6. Wet Wood
If the wooden surface is wet, it won’t accept wood stain until it dries. That’s because its pores will be filled with pores, so the stain has no space to penetrate to.
How To Fix
The only way to fix this is to leave the surface to dry fully.
7. Only a Part Of The Wood is Accepting Stain
If only a part of the wood is accepting stain, it means something is blocking the other parts from absorbing it. This could be leftover finish on the surface or glue. Usually, sanding down the parts that aren’t accepting the wood stain will fix this problem, so try this.
If sanding doesn’t work, you should apply a non-penetrating stain on the surface. Also, if some parts of the wood are rotted, they won’t accept stains as well as the other parts. In this case, you’ll need to replace the rotted parts.
Other Ways To Make Wood Absorb Stain
Let’s check out other methods you can use:
1. Use Gel Stain
If a surface won’t accept regular wood stains, you can use a topical or non-penetrating stain, such as a Gel stain. Tropical stains stay on the top layer and don’t need to penetrate a surface to stick or dry properly. They are the perfect option on tight-grained surfaces.
You should apply a coat of sealer, such as shellac-based sealer, before applying Gel stain to improve the adhesion.
2. Apply Thin Coats
Applying thin coats can improve absorption, especially on tight-grained wood.
If you apply thick coats, it will take longer for them to be absorbed. So, you can thin wood stain before applying it to make its flow thinner or lighter.
3. Power Wash The Surface
If you are working on fresh furniture, glue or mill glaze may be still on its surface. So, you can power wash the surface with a garden hose to remove these leftover products. Wait until the surface dries before staining it.
You can also sand it with fine-grit sandpaper to remove the leftover products.
Back-brushing is a technique used by woodworkers to make the stain penetrate deep into the pores. Immediately after applying the stain, use a wide brush to massage the wood stain into the wood. Do this after each coat, so the stain is absorbed deeply.
Ensure to wipe off the excess wood stain after to prevent a gunky finish.
In summary, there are different reasons your furniture isn’t absorbing wood stains as it should. It’s best to inspect the surface first to see what the problem is. Usually, sanding it down resolves the problem, and other times, you’ll need more precise methods.
If the wood is sealed, you should remove the sealer or existing finish. Remember to use only the products and methods recommended for wooden surfaces so you don’t damage them. If all fail, you can use non-penetrating stain finishes, such as Polyshades or Gel stains.