Wood Won’t Take Stains in Spots – What’s Wrong and How to Fix?

Once your coffee table finally gave out, you decided to get a new one. But this time, you didn’t want to buy a generic one from the store – you wanted to craft your own. Things went well until you decided to apply the stain. What was supposed to be a gentle, uniform coat turned out to be a blotched patch of spots and lines. What went wrong, and is it too late to fix it?

We’ll discuss the following 5 reasons why your wood won’t take stains in spots:

  • Material
  • Finish
  • Wood type
  • Sanding
  • Staining technique

5 reasons why your wood won’t take stains in spots and how to fix them

Staining is the perfect way to enhance the look of your wooden furniture. However, it’s more challenging than it sounds. It’s not just about smearing a paintbrush across the wood. The key to successful staining is understanding how and where you can use it. And once you grasp the basics, you’ll have to work on your technique. Otherwise, your piece will never look the way you want it to.

Here are 5 reasons why your wood won’t take stains in spots:

1) It isn’t real wood

Although you’d think you can easily tell natural wood from fake one apart, you’d be surprised. Today, manufacturers dish out a lot of furniture pieces that look just like the real deal. Some are so realistic that they fool even the most professional woodworkers. We’ve all been there.

Thus, make sure the piece you’re working with is actual wood. Most wood stains rely on wood’s ability to soak in liquids. So when you apply the stain, it usually soaks deep into the pores. That’s what makes it so durable.

However, you can’t achieve this with veneer or laminate. Synthetic materials don’t absorb liquids – they repel them. If you try to use a penetrating wood stain on such surfaces, it will pool on top of them instead of seeping in.

But in a world where imitations look so life-like, it can be challenging to tell what’s natural wood and what isn’t. So how should you go about it?

Luckily, you can check the following to tell them apart:

  • Does the wood end grains?End grains are a telltale sign of a real piece of wood.
  • What do the drawers look like?Drawers often don’t come with any finish – if they’re made of raw wood, you’ve already got your answer.
  • Is the bottom made of real wood?Furniture such as desks and tables rarely come with a finished base. This can help you determine what you’re working with.


Sadly, non-porous materials won’t hold a penetrating wood stain no matter what you do. But that doesn’t mean your situation is hopeless. You can use either paint or gel-based stain. These options don’t require a porous material. They’re your only option.

2) The wood is finished/sealed

Stain only works on raw, unsealed wood. This is because it permeates deep into its pores. Seal and finish both cover its surface. They thus act as a barrier between the stain and the pores. As a result, your stain will only hold once you remove the finish.

How can you tell if your wood has been sealed? First, check for the following signs:

  • Is the surface glossy?Although most finishes are transparent, they still add a unique luster to the wood. You can notice this the most in a sunlight room. You can alternatively use your phone’s flashlight and shine it onto the wood. If it’s glossy, it’s been finished.
  • What do you get when you sand the wood’s surface?Raw, unfinished wood produces sawdust when you sand it. If it’s sealed, you’ll get clear coat dust instead.
  • Does it hold water?Add a drop of water onto the surface. Raw wood absorbs the water. Conversely, a sealed surface will cause it to form pools on top of it.


You have two options if your finished wood doesn’t hold stains in spots.

The first one is to use a different product. Next, use either paint or gel stain to cover the piece.

You can alternatively remove the finish from the wood. You can do this by sanding it off or applying a paint stripper.

Sanding it off is arguably the most straightforward method – you don’t need much equipment to handle it. However, we don’t recommend using it on a surface with only a wood veneer. This is because you can end up damaging it.

Sanding works best for large, smooth surfaces.

Paint strippers are surprisingly effective at removing wood finishes. You only need to apply the product and scrape off the finish. It may take you several applications, but the results are worth it. Just make sure you use a product that’s compatible with wooden surfaces.

3) The type of wood doesn’t take stains well

Wood is a very diverse material – different trees are built differently. This can impact the quality of your stain.

Some wood types have naturally tight pores. As a result, they don’t hold stains as well. This often manifests as an uneven, blotchy stain. These wood types include birch, maple, spruce, fir, and pine.

You’ll also have to work hard to stain certain types of exotic wood. Wood such as teak, rosewood, cumaru, and bloodwood all contain high amounts of oil and sap. As a result, they will reject penetrating stains simply because their pores are already full.

The water-based stain won’t work either since oil doesn’t mix with water.


Sadly, you can’t miraculously change the wood type. So if you’re buying a new piece of furniture and plan on staining your wood, avoid exotic varieties. You shouldn’t buy wood with tight pores, either.

Some types that hold stains well include oak, ash, chestnut, and walnut.

If you’re dead set on staining your wooden furniture, consider using either a gel stain or paint. These are the only methods that will work.

We recommend against staining exotic wood types. Most of them look great as they are. You may accidentally ruin them if you try to stain them.

4) Too much sanding clogged the pores

Sometimes, less is more. This is the case with sanding. Although you need to sand the wood before you apply the stain, there is such a thing as going too far. The sawdust can clog the pores if you sand the wood too much. Thus, your stain won’t seep in simply because it there’s no more room inside the wood.

The same thing can happen if you use fine sandpaper grit. The smaller the sawdust, the more likely it is to clog the pores.


If your wood doesn’t hold stain in spots because of sanding, your best solution is to correct your technique.

Start by sanding the surface with lower grit sandpaper. We recommend starting at 80. Slowly work your way up but stay under 180. Gradual sanding helps remove clogged pores. It protects new ones from clogging as well.

You can use a gel stain instead if you can’t be bothered by sanding away the clogged pores.

5) It’s because of bad technique

If you’re sure none of the above is why your wood doesn’t stain in spots, the issue may lie in your flawed technique. While staining a piece of wood is no nuclear science, there are still principles that you must follow.

The first common mistake is not using a wood conditioner. This product prepares the wood for stain, increasing its absorption rate. While it might sound like extra money (and labor), it’s more than worth it.

There are two types of pre-stain wood conditioners – water-based and oil-based. Make sure your type matches your stain. You wouldn’t want to waste your hard-earned money!

Another mistake is staining your wood in small sections. This can result in an uneven spread and create dark patches where the stain overlaps. Instead, practice applying paint in long, steady motions. Cover the entire length of the piece with each stroke.

And finally, too much stain is just as bad as too little. Always wipe off excess stain. Do this before it dries. It will form glossy spots that don’t look very appealing if you don’t.


Practice your staining technique before you deal with a real piece. Make sure you paint in long, even motions. Apply a pre-stain conditioner if you can. This will improve the stain’s permeability. Once you’re done, wipe off the excess to prevent glossy blobs.

Our final thoughts on wood that won’t take stains in spots

Wood staining can add a nice touch to your wooden furniture. However, it needs to be done right.

The main reason your wood won’t take stains in spots is the material. Sometimes, you may buy laminate furniture that looks exactly like a wooden one. But while the looks may be the same, the properties certainly won’t be. Synthetic material doesn’t have pores and thus don’t hold stain.

The same goes for finished wooden surfaces. The finish acts as a barrier between the stain and the pores, preventing it from seeping in.

Some wood types don’t hold stain well, which is another thing to consider when buying furniture.

If you experience any of the above, your best bet is to use paint or gel stain to cover the surface.

Apart from that, make sure you don’t sand the surface too much and use a good staining technique.