How To Fix a Bad Stain Job

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A bad stain job can turn a beautiful piece of wood into an eyesore. Don’t despair — there are many ways to fix a bad stain job, whether the stain is too light, too dark, streaky, blotchy, or simply the wrong color. In this article, learn why stain jobs go bad, and how to fix them, as well as how to avoid problems with stain. We’ll also teach you what to do when your stain doesn’t dry within the advertised time.

How to Fix a Bad Stain Job

The steps for fixing a bad stain job are consistent, no matter what caused the damage. 

  1. Evaluate the damage. There are several different ways to botch a stain job. Use the list below to identify the problem you have and the corresponding solution. 
  2. Try a removal or cover up method. Two-part wood bleach, oxalic acid, and thinners are used to remove color from the wood. Stain or paint can be used to cover up a color that didn’t turn out how you intended. You can also sand down to bare wood. 
  3. Wait overnight. It’s tempting to keep working on the wood until you see the color you desire. Resist the urge. Wait to re-stain or try another solution until the wood is completely dry. 
  4. Check your work. In a well-lit area, inspect the surface of the wood to see the results of the solution you chose. You can try another option if the results aren’t what you’d hoped for. 

Stain Problems and Solutions

Once a stain job has gone bad, you may be tempted to simply discard the stained object and start fresh. Save yourself the expense of replacing your badly stained wood by identifying the issue on the list below, then choose an appropriate solution to salvage your stained wood project.

1. Stain Is Uneven

A piece of wood that has not been thoroughly sanded will have an uneven surface. Some areas of the wood will soak up more stain than others. These areas will have a darker color than rougher or unsanded areas. 

With a seriously uneven surface, your best bet is to sand the wood down. Make sure the stain is dry before attempting this method. 

Man sanding a piece of wood before applying gel stain

Sanding off all the stain means removing a significant amount of material. Start with a coarse grained sandpaper, and work your way up to an extremely fine grain. 

Depending on how deeply the stain penetrated, it might not be possible to remove all the stain without planing the board. If you like the color, you don’t have to remove every scrap of stain. Just make sure you have an incredibly smooth surface and re-stain the lightest areas. 

Allow the stain to soak into the surface, then wipe the entire work piece with a cloth. This helps blend the stain and achieve a uniform appearance. 

If you’re happy with the look of the darker areas that have absorbed more stain, apply another coat, skipping the dark spots. Use a rag or brush to apply stain only onto the lighter areas. Wait for it to dry, and evaluate your results. 

If you’re trying to match the lighter areas, use thinner to wipe away some of the color in the dark spots. Work very carefully, as thinner will remove color from whatever it touches. Start in the middle of the dark areas, using a small amount of thinner.

Work your way outwards. Change the part of the rag you use frequently and check the rag to make sure you are removing color.

When you come to the edge of the dark spot, where it meets the lighter portion of wood, use a clean rag to feather the edges for an even blend. Allow the surface to dry, then sand it thoroughly and try staining again. 

2. Stain Won’t Dry

If you’ve waited the required amount of time and the stain is still wet or tacky to the touch, something has gone wrong. The most likely culprit is applying penetrating oil stains too thickly. These products seep into the wood and form their barrier below the surface, rather than on top. 

Penetrating finishes are not buildable like film-forming finishes. Once the top layer of wood is saturated, there’s no need to apply additional coats. If too much penetrating finish was applied, the stain will never dry. 

The solution to this problem is counterintuitive – apply another coat of the same stain. This will blend with the stain already on the wood, making it less solid and more liquid. You can then wipe away the excess with a rag, and your stain should dry naturally. 

Wood with a bad stain job

If you’re sure you didn’t apply too much stain, or you’re working with a water-based stain variety, the weather is probably to blame. Applying stain when it is too hot or humid can prevent solvents from evaporating, keeping your stain wet or sticky. Check the forecast and consider waiting a few days. If you don’t have that kind of time, remove the majority of the stain by wiping it down with mineral spirits or naphtha. 

You can use the same technique if you discover that the can of stain you used was old or had become separated. 

3. Stain Is The Wrong Color

If you dislike the color enough that it can’t be salvaged by lightening or darkening techniques, you’ll either have to remove the stain or cover it up.  

A two-part wood bleach solution is great for removing stain. You’ll need to combine the two parts in a new container. Make sure to wear gloves and eye protection to keep your delicate skin and eyes from being damaged by drips and splashes of bleach. Follow the instructions on the container.

For best results, spread a thin, even coat over the entire surface of the wood. Allow the bleach to work for 30 minutes. Then, make a solution of one part white vinegar to one part warm water.  Apply this mixture to the wood to neutralize the bleach and stop the lightening process. 

For smaller pieces such as furniture, using a brush is the easiest application method for both the bleach solution and the neutralizing vinegar/water blend. For wood floors, you can spread the solution using a mop. Wipe the wood with water to remove the vinegar water and any remaining traces of bleach. 

Allow the wood to dry overnight and evaluate the color in the morning. Note that wood bleach may also lighten the natural color of the wood. Sand and re-stain the wood. 

If you don’t have the time or patience to remove the stain you already applied, you can always cover it up. Using a dark semi-solid stain will hide most mistakes. Apply as many coats as necessary to obscure the old stain.

Paint will also completely cover stain. For best results painting over stained wood, use a primer first. This will lock the color beneath the surface and provide the perfect base for paint adhesion. 

4. Stain Is Too Light

This is probably the easiest problem to fix. Applying another coat of the same stain should darken the color.

If you’ve applied several coats and the stain is still too light, you may have chosen the wrong color stain. You can layer a darker stain on top of a lighter stain as long as they have the same base. Make a test board before re-staining to ensure you’re happy with the end result. 

5. Stain Is Too Dark

For stain that is too dark, you may be able to lighten or even remove the color using an appropriate thinner. If you have the container of stain, look on the label to see what thinner the manufacturer recommends. 

Man with a can of paint thinner, plastic cup and wood stain on a table

Paint thinner or mineral spirits work for oil-based stains. Oxalic acid will lighten either oil or water-based stains, and works best on lighter woods. This substance is purchased in it’s crystallized form, then mixed with water and brushed on. Plant-based thinners work just as well as caustic alternatives, and are safer and more environmentally friendly. 

6. Stain Is Streaky

If the stain is streaky, remove the stain while it’s still wet if possible.

  • Use lacquer thinner for water-based stains.
  • For oil-based stains, use an abrasive pad and naphtha or mineral spirits. Scrape the streaky areas to remove them. Then, recoat with a new coat of stain. 

7. Stain Is Blotchy

Pockets of sap can prevent wood from taking up stain evenly.

  • Use lacquer thinner or mineral spirits to scrub the surface of the wood.
  • Then, make a very thin shellac mixture and wipe it onto the wood to seal the surface. Wood sealed with shellac works best with stains that are 100% pigmented, rather than a mixture of pigments and dyes. 

Avoiding Bad Stain Jobs

Even experienced woodworkers sometimes end up with a botched stain job. That being said, there are a number of things you can do to improve the likelihood that your stain job will come out the way you expect. 

1. Choose The Right Wood

Highly porous woods such as oak and cedar take up stain easily. Less porous woods with tighter grains, such as maple and birch, are harder to stain. Choosing a material that will easily absorb stain is a wise move. 

2. Work With An Even Surface 

Sanding the wood prepares it to evenly accept stain. Start with coarse sandpaper, such as 60 or 80 grit. Increase the grit of the sandpaper with each successive pass, working your way up to a very fine grained sandpaper, such as 320 grit. 

Use a vacuum or tack cloth to remove all traces of sawdust and other debris from the surface of the wood before staining. 

3. Follow The Instructions

The manufacturer should have provided instructions on how to apply the stain for the best result. Following these instructions is critical if you want to avoid a bad stain job.


Use the tips in this article to avoid a bad stain job. If that isn’t possible yUse the tips in this article to avoid a bad stain job. If that isn’t possible you can remove stain using the steps above, then restain to reach your desired color. You may choose to remove the stain entirely, or simply bleach the blotchy, streaky, and unevenly colored areas before reapplying the original stain. An easier option for fixing a bad stain job is to cover it with a darker finishing product.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.