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In my first attempt on a woodworking project, I am trying to spruce up a dresser made of raw pine wood.

I stained it using Varathane oil stains. After it dried completely over a couple of days I applied a single coat of the water based Varathane matte clear finish poly. I sanded the wood lightly before applying the stain and before applying the finish coat.

The matte clear coat is however tacky and sticky after 48 hours. It could have something to do with the recent humid weather. However, I got worried and sanded with 220 grit sand paper. The stickiness and blotchiness remains after I wiped it down with wet rags.

I wanted to know how I can clean the wood (without removing anymore of the stain) and should I apply an oil based top coat? Alternately, should I just wipe on another coat of the oil based stain and leave it be? If the stain is allowed to cure for some time without being touched, will it bleed? (The reason I applied the top coat was because the stain was bleeding after drying up and would leave oily residue when touched)

What would be the best way forward to salvage the project?

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  • Hi, welcome to StackExchange. "The reason I applied the top coat was because the stain was bleeding after drying up and would leave oily residue when touched" It wasn't dry yet. As I think the instructions specify you should wait for it to be fully dry before overcoating with a clear finish (especially a waterbased one). You do have to overcoat stained wood to have the colour protected BTW, so that step isn't one to skip (although some people do). But it's vital with oil-based stains to let them dry fully.... however long that takes.
    – Graphus
    Jul 2 at 16:34
  • Thank you for viewing my query and responding! What do you recommend as next steps in this situation?
    – user10672
    Jul 2 at 16:56
  • You might have to just wait it out if the weather is especially humid and you're wiping it down with wet rags, etc. It could be a week or two. Maybe longer if the stain was still "moist" when you put on the poly. You can't put more stain over the poly--sticky or not--so don't try that. Jul 2 at 18:30
  • Understood, even after sanding on the poly?
    – user10672
    Jul 2 at 19:03
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    If your poly is sticky after two days there's a chance it will never dry properly. This is something you can confirm by contacting the maker, which is often advisable if something goes amiss with a finishing product (assuming the company doesn't have an FAQ that covers the problem). Even if the tackiness reduces to tolerable levels there's a good chance the finish will remain softer than it should have been.
    – Graphus
    Jul 3 at 1:14
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If the stain is allowed to cure for some time without being touched, will it bleed?

Many stains will rub off unless covered in something, and oil-based stains in particular tend to sit on top of the wood rather than being fully absorbed into the surface as with waterbased and alcohol stains (which are chiefly dyes, by comparison oil-based stains are primarily pigmented).

So as I mention in the Comments you really have no choice but to use an overcoat of some kind after staining, as I'm sure the stain instructions specify. In addition to the protection afforded this usually makes the wood look much better too.

The reason I applied the top coat was because the stain was bleeding after drying up and would leave oily residue when touched

This indicates the stain hadn't finished drying1.

As with all things finish-related, when it comes to drying and curing it's necessary to wait as long as needed. When it's cool, and especially humid, oil-based finishes can take much longer than the instructions indicate to get dry enough to proceed2.

Alternately, should i just wipe on another coat of the oil based stain and leave it be?

No definitely don't do that. All conventional stains ("gel stain" is an exception, because it's varnish not stain) require direct access to the wood surface to work as originally intended.

What would be the best way forward to salvage the project?

There's a chance that the waterbased finish will never dry properly. Even if the tackiness reduces to tolerable levels or goes away completely there's a chance the finish will remain softer than it should have been if it had dried at something like its normal rate.

This is something you can confirm by contacting the manufacturer (often advisable if something goes amiss with a finishing product, although check that they don't have an FAQ that covers the problem already).

If I'm correct then you have no choice but to remove the poly, and by this I mean strip it off, not sand it off. Sanding is the worst way to remove finish anyway, but it's nearly impossible to effectively sand soft and sticky finishes because they almost instantly clog the paper.

Either way though, removal will undoubtedly damage your stain job I'm afraid. As it's difficult to impossible to do touch-up staining and get it to blend in it's usual to go back to bare wood (and here you will have to sand) so you can begin again, that is unless you're willing to try to hide the inconsistencies by going much darker, e.g. to a Dark Walnut, Tudor Oak or Espresso colour.


1 Oil-based stains can be slow to dry, it's one reason they're so user-friendly. They give lots of time to apply and futz about, but with the resultant downside that you have a relatively long wait after you're done until the next step.

2 Many instructions give dry times based on ideal drying conditions, where the humidity is relatively low and the temperature perhaps 70°F (21°C) which I personally think is laughably unrealistic, even for the US. In the UK humidity is basically never low, and it's rarely above 20°C, ergo stains and clear finishes over here are made for those conditions.... so it's not at all difficult to formulate finishing products that work well in a wider range of conditions.

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  • Footnote #2: In many parts of the US, the temp is rarely as cool as 70°F (in the summer), and for large swaths of the country "low" humidity is relative (pun intended) and could be 75% because the norm for the last 3 weeks was 95%. That said, I did grow up in a wonderful part of the country where temps could be in the upper 80s F during the day and below freezing at night and 10% humidity was considered damp. Sadly, I don't live there anymore...
    – FreeMan
    Aug 4 at 11:40
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    @FreeMan, yeah it's hard to make useful generalisations for the US when you have the Pacific Northwest and the Eastern Seaboard on two sides and Arizona and Nevada (plus a few matching parts of California, Texas and other states I can't think of) to the south! And let's not even think about Alaska. And I guess, Hawaii!
    – Graphus
    Aug 5 at 6:44

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