I did some test staining on pine scraps, and I ended up with a cross grain arc that's darker than everything else. Where did I go wrong? (Or is it just the pine?)

(Related to this question, as a follow-up. I realized I had already accepted an answer to the original, so this should be a separate question.)

I recently built a pine bench, and I'm trying to figure out the best way to stain it. My wife and I decided on Minwax Hickory Gel Stain because we wanted a darker finish. The Home Depot paint/stain department employee also recommended it along with Minwax Wood Conditioner for staining pine.

I applied the Minwax Wood Conditioner (oil-based) to a scrap 1x12, and then 15 minutes later I applied the Minwax Hickory Gel Stain (also oil-based) with a foam brush and wiped it off with a rag 5 minutes later. I noticed there was an arc of darker color going against the grain on the test scrap. Any ideas how this happened?

I made very sure that I sanded with the grain (by hand), starting with 100 grit, moving to 150, and finally 220. The only thing that I can think of is I wiped the sawdust away with a very slightly damp rag, without paying attention to grain direction. Then about 15 minutes later I applied the wood conditioner. Could the be the cause of the streaking? I'd like to figure out the cause before I move onto staining my actual project.

Also, I applied a second coat of stain 8 hours after the first. I let it sit for about twice as long before I wiped it off this time. I didn't notice much of a difference in color from the first coat. Is there something about gel stains that it doesn't matter number of coats/how long it's left on?

EDIT: Here's a photo (the streak starts in the bottom left and goes toward the top right): alt text The random little spots running in a line vertically are test distressing marks I applied, to see how they would turn out when stained.

  • Is there a knot anywhere near the dark spot?
    – Niall C.
    Nov 23, 2010 at 22:47
  • I'll check when I get home, but I'm pretty sure that there isn't. It looks like the streak was wiped on - a wide band with several smaller bands on either side, all against the grain. Hmmm, maybe I'll just post a photo.
    – Doresoom
    Nov 23, 2010 at 22:50
  • I would do the distressing AFTER stain is applied. If you do it before, the marks will tend to absorb a different amount of stain, so they may appear as dark spots. Real dings happen AFTER the piece is finished, so put them in at the very end.
    – user558
    Nov 24, 2010 at 14:10
  • @woodchips: Don't you run the risk of having unstained wood show through then? Or maybe I'm underestimating how deep the stain penetrates.
    – Doresoom
    Nov 24, 2010 at 14:24
  • You may have caused the streaking with the damp rag, as you suggest. The water would probably take longer than 15 minutes to dry from the wood, and the stain will seal it in to create a dark spot. When you make a damp rag to wipe the sawdust instead of using water you should use alcohol or mineral spirits because these have very high evaporation rates. They will be wet for a few seconds and then disappear from the wood, leaving no trace.
    – Bob A.
    Nov 28, 2012 at 18:24

5 Answers 5


Staining will highlight any imperfections in the wood. From the photo it looks like something has been wiped across the grain. That could be when you wiped the sawdust away or possibly if you wiped the stain across the grain.

Having a good surface to stain is pretty much essential as the stain will highlight even the smallest imperfections.

Applying thin coats as John suggests is the best way.

Also, don't forget that the wood will age - especially for something left outside - so any imperfections you see now will blend over time.

  • I'm positive I didn't cross sand it. I very carefully sanded it by hand, with the grain.
    – Doresoom
    Nov 24, 2010 at 14:23
  • @Doresoom - The only other thing it looks like is if you wiped the cloth across the grain - or perhaps it was the wiping off the dust.
    – ChrisF
    Nov 24, 2010 at 14:27
  • I was careful to apply the stain and wipe it off in the grain direction as well. I'm pretty sure it was wiping the sawdust off the wood. That was my suspicion. I didn't realize it would be that finicky.
    – Doresoom
    Nov 24, 2010 at 14:52

I prefer to use a thin, almost watery, stain applied with a cloth. Two or three coats, with a light sanding between coats gives a good finish. Maybe it's just the way I apply it but I can't get thick stain to go on as evenly as I'd like. I also haven't found any huge difference between similar products form any of the leading brands, so I don't have any preferences n that score.

  • +1 This is the way we were taught in my grandpa's shop (he owned a custom wood furniture biz). Apr 14, 2011 at 16:43

Ditto on most of the previous advice, except that I've been working with pine for furniture/cabinetry I've built over the last 35 years and my routine is to use a 3M scrubbing pad (green type, like the kitchen) to apply any type of stain that I use; circular motion to apply it, straight strokes with the grain to finish up. Recently I have started using sanding sealer before staining if I feel the wood I'm using might have a bit more resin in the grain (newer wood from the lumber yard), or if the shade of the stain I'm using will show the grain more, i.e., dark walnut versus cherry. If the first stain coat isn't to your liking, you can gently remove the offending stain with mineral spirits and a rag, then do a second coat. Pine can be VERY forgiving if you take your time, and actually is much easier to produce an "antiqued" or distressed appearance. If you're not in love with polyurethane, try a Tung oil finish; I know I hear alot of groans out there, but I have pieces I finished with it 25 years ago or more that still look great. Good luck with your work!


Looking at your picture (good pic btw) tells me that there was a previous scuff on the wood at several locations on the piece. Hand sanding an old or abused piece of wood will never remove enough material evenly enough to do a good staining job. You need to use a DA or palm vibrating sander with 100 or 150 grit first then step down to 220 grit or finer to be sure to remove all the cross grain imperfections. Once you apply the stain, it is too late to fix any marks, like I see in your picture. Gel stain is very over rated. It's only advantage is that it is water rather than oil based. Apply a good oil stain liberally , let it stand a couple of minutes then rub it in good with a stain soaked lint free rag to evenly distribute the color, followed by a final rubdown with a clean rag. This will give you the smoothest most even result. The piece in the picture will need to be sanded down to bare wood again and start over, it can't be improved by adding more stain etc. If you want to "distress" the piece, make your dents etc after you stain. If white wood shows in the distress marks, use a Q Tip and a little drop of stain to color the white wood. Good luck.

  • Actually the gel stain I used was oil based.
    – Doresoom
    Nov 29, 2010 at 3:23
  • regardless of the stain you use, proper prep is 95% of the job to get good results. Nov 29, 2010 at 23:20

Blotching is caused by some areas of the timber taking up more stain and other areas soaking in less. You will find that this happens a lot with pine and other softwoods which have a faster rate of growth and are less dense (not necessarily softer though!)

The key is to prepare the surface as much as possible...

Start by sanding up through the grits and don't skip numbers. Going up to 320 or 400 should be enough for most applications. By sanding properly you get rid of any milling marks, dents and other aberrations.

Secondly, clean the surface. I usually wipe it down with some methylated spirits to clean up any oil residue. This will also highlight the areas prone to blotching and will show up any areas which might require further sanding.

Third, before applying the stain, if the wood is likely to blotch you can apply a type of sanding sealer to it. Stain and oil seeps into the wood. Other finishes like paints, shellac and polyurethane sit on top of the wood. By applying an extremely thin coat of thinned shellac (with meth spirits) or a thin coat of a marketed sanding sealer, you create a reasonably flat surface for the stain to work with. It will still seep into the timber because your sealing coat is so thin, but it's less likely to blotch.

Finally, apply your stain in thin even coats and you should end up with a good result.

Remember, some woods like pine are very prone to blotching so you may not be able to get away with it, but you can at least limit it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.