Wiping Stain vs Penetrating Stain

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Deciding whether to use wiping stain or penetrating stain on your next project is a tough choice to make. Get help and gain confidence in your choice by learning about the properties of these two products. We’ll even give you examples of when to use each product, and our view on which is better. 

What Is Wiping Stain?

Wiping stain is a liquid product intended for use on fiberglass, metal, composite surfaces, and finished or unfinished wood. It is thicker and heavier than water-based stains, but thinner than gel stains. 

It’s purpose is to change the appearance of the surface to which it is applied, specifically altering the color and tone. 

Usually applied with a brush, roller, or rag, wiping stain should be rubbed into the wood after application, using a circular motion. Excess product is then wiped off, moving the rag in the direction of the grain. 

Wiping stain easily colors nearly any wood, including wood with a previous finish, provided they are properly prepared. It is prized for its ability to color even difficult to stain wood, such as those with a low tannin content or close, dense grain. 

Man using a penetrating stain can

The highly versatile nature of wiping stain is due to one of its ingredients. Instead of traditional pigments, the color of wiping stain comes from nano particles. A nanoparticle is defined as something between one and 100 nanometers. A single nanometer is equivalent to one-billionth of a meter. 

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While some stains settle in the cellular structure of wood, wiping stain (and the nano pigments it contains) clings to the surface of the material. This allows it to achieve excellent color and depth in just a single coat. 

Wiping stain is an aesthetic product that does not provide protection to the surface it covers. It is often topped by a protective clear coat. 

Learn how to thin your wood stain for the perfect finish.

What Is Penetrating Stain?

Penetrating stain is a wood finishing product that alters the color of wood. It is a pourable liquid that dries through the evaporation of solvent. 

The ingredients that make up penetrating stain are:

  • Oil, which penetrates the surface of the wood
  • Pigments or dyes, which are suspended or dissolved in the oil, and impart color to the top layer of wood
  • A solvent, usually mineral oil, which keeps the stain in a liquid state until it dries through evaporation. 

Penetrating stain is applied with a bristle brush, rag, or lambs wool roller, and then rubbed in with a rag. Usual dry times under good weather conditions range from six to eight hour, with up to 24 hours required under less ideal conditions. 

Penetrating stain cannot dry if the weather is very cold (below 50 degrees Fahrenheit) or very humid (above 70% relative humidity.) 

The stain must be absorbed into the cellular structure of the wood to impart color. This makes it tricky to use on woods with a very tight grain, such as maple. Blotching and patchiness will occur in most cases, although there are techniques to increase the efficacy of penetrating stain. 

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Two to three coats of penetrating stain should be sufficient to achieve your desired results. It is non water-soluble, so clean up involves the use of a solvent such as mineral spirits to remove the stain from your applicator. 

Wiping Stain vs Penetrating Stain

To choose between these two products, you must understand both their commonalities and the differences between them. Then, you’ll be able to evaluate which is right for your particular situation. 

Similarities

Wiping stain and penetrating stain are similar in the color and depth they provide, as well as the way they are applied. 

Man wiping stain on a piece of wood

Color

Both wiping stain and penetrating stain change or enhance the color of the surface to which they are applied. The available colors are usually meant to mimic natural wood tones. 

Depth

Sawn wood has an exposed cellular structure. The texture and pattern of the cell structure is referred to as the grain. Stains, such as wiping and penetrating stains, allow the depth and complexity of the grain to shine through. 

Application

Both wiping stain and penetrating stain can be applied with a variety of tools. Foam or bristle brushes, cloth, and lambs wool rollers are all appropriate choices for applying these two products. 

Differences

Despite their surface similarities, wiping stain and penetrating stain differ in important ways. Their mechanism of action is different, as are the surfaces to which they are suited. Their dry time, protective qualities, ingredients and number of coats required are also significantly different. 

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Penetration

The most obvious difference between wiping stain and penetrating stain is that one penetrates the surface of the wood (penetrating stain), while the other (wiping stain) does not.

Applicable Surfaces

Penetrating stain can only be applied to wood. Not only that, the wood must be new (never finished) or bare (stripped of finish.) This is because penetrating stain must sink into the surface of the wood in order to adhere and change the color. 

Wiping stain can be used on fiberglass, composite, and even metal, helping match the color or tone of stained wood surfaces. It is also suitable for use on wood. 

Refinishing

To use penetrating stain, you must completely remove all traces of existing finish from wood. 

Wiping stain can be applied over existing finishes, since it does not need to absorb into the wood. Proper preparation for wiping stain includes lightly sanding the surface with fine grit sandpaper, and removing the dust with a tack cloth. 

Ingredients

Penetrating stains contain dyes, pigments, or a combination of both. 

Wiping stains make use of nanotechnology, specifically nanoparticle-sized pigments, which are able to cling to a variety of surfaces, including close-grain wood. 

Number of Coats

For penetrating stain, two or three coats are usually required to achieve adequate color and coverage.

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Wiping stain, which does not offer protection, is a one-coat product. 

Different types of wood stain cans

Dry Time

Oil stains can take up to 24 hours before they lose their tacky feeling, though six to eight hour dry times are more common. 

Under perfect conditions, wiping stain can dry in under an hour. 

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When to Use Wiping Stain

Use wiping stain on surfaces that have previously been finished, without the need to remove the old finish. 

It can also be used on fiberglass, metal, or composite surfaces. 

Wiping stain is appropriate for use on any unfinished wood. It is particularly recommended for unfinished hardwoods that are considered difficult to stain, such as birch, maple, cherry, and poplar. It also works well to stain pine. 

When to Use Penetrating Stain

Use penetrating stain on unfinished wood. Existing finishes must be completely removed, or the stain will not be able to penetrate the surface of the wood. 

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Penetrating stain performs well on unfinished hardwoods such as oak, ash, and mahogany. It can also be used for changing the color of softwoods, with the exception that it does not play nicely with pine. 

Which Is Better, Wiping Stain or Penetrating Stain?

Penetrating stain is better for unfinished hardwoods with open grains, and softwoods other than pine. 

Wiping stain is the superior choice when staining fiberglass, metal, or composition materials. It also does a better job of imparting color to hard to stain woods like pine, poplar, cherry, and maple. 

When you’re in a rush, wiping stain is the best choice. It dries in as little as 30 minutes under perfect conditions, and multiple coats are not required.

Penetrating stain takes at least six hours to become dry to the touch, and usually requires several coats, extending the total time of your wood finishing project. 

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.