It possible that I have messed up more stain jobs in my career than many people have ever attempted. I count myself as fortunate to have learned my lessons and gotten my Ph.D in D.U.M.B. Now you get to benefit from my mistakes, and if you’re smart you’ll learn and avoid the same wood stain mistakes.
Staining wood is both an art and a science and if you neglect either you will pay for it. I have analyzed the mistakes I’ve made and boiled down them down to five categories which I’m calling the 5 worst wood stain mistakes because any one of these can easily ruin a project. Let’s dive in!
1. Blotchy Botches
We all want that super consistent stain color across the wood grain when staining a project and it’s not unthinkable that you can get that, but it’s not without some serious attention to detail. There are several reasons you may get blotchy stain on a project and they require different solutions.
Woods like pine, poplar, doug fir, birch, maple, Accoya, and cherry are some of the most problematic woods concerning blotchiness. These woods are unevenly porous, so they don’t soak up stain consistently across the surface of a board creating an unpredictable uptake of color.
If you’re planning to stain one of these woods then it’s best to start with a pre-stain conditioner which helps evenly open up the grain and allows for more even staining.
Do a test on a scrap board first because different species and ages of wood can change the response to stain dramatically. Wood conditioner isn’t a cure all and has a variety of effectiveness depending on the species of wood you’re using, but I’ve never seen an occasional where it doesn’t help improve the evenness of wood stain.
Let’s say you’ve got that piece of wood perfectly prepped and you grab your favorite stain and start wiping it on only to notice there are fingerprints or sections that don’t accept stain. How did this happen? Contaminants. Something got into the grain of the wood after your prep and before staining. I’ve seen a hardwood floor magically reveal footprints as I applied stain because someone had walked over the wood after I prepped it with sweaty socks!
Moisture, oils from your skin, glue residue, dust, can all affect the uptake of stain. Best solution is to finish your prep and immediately stain before someone has a chance to mess with your work. That and keep your workspace extra clean when staining.
2. Sanding Snafus
Sanding too much causes stain problems. So does sanding too little, and skipping abrasive grits. So what’s the right way to sand?
On stained projects I recommend sanding up through every grit if possible without skipping any, but if you need to skip a grit only skip one at a time. For example, sand 60-grit, 80-grit, 120-grit, skip 150-grit, then finish with 180-grit. Don’t skip both 120 and 150.
Each successive grit removes the swirl marks of the previous grit and skipping too many means you’ll have swirl marks that show up once you stain.
Sanding Too Much
For stain projects I recommend sanding up to no more than 220-grit sandpaper. If you get too much finer the wood has a hard time taking in the stain, or it will not be true to the color on the can. After your first coat of finish you can sand finer and finer if you want a baby smooth finish like I did for my coffee table refinishing project, but prior to staining don’t go much further than 220-grit.
Sanding Too Little
Yes, you can sand too little too. If you only sand to 60 or 80-grit you’ll likely see a ton of swirl marks and get an extremely dark stain color. The color won’t be true to the can either (likely showing darker then it’s supposed to be). You have to move past these initial low grits before any wood is ready for stain.
3. Runs, Pools, and Laps
Staining vertical surfaces can result in runs of stain, so a lighter application with multiple passes to allow the wood to continually soak the stain in work better than just drenching it and leaving it for a few minutes. If you see any runs deal with them promptly and don’t walk away from a stain application until you have wiped away the excess and are ready to leave it to dry overnight.
Most stains perform best when you flood the surface with a heavy but even application of stain, but after about 5 minutes of application you need to wipe the surface clean of any remaining stain. Some sections will absorb more stain than others so wiping away any excess is an essential [part of the process to even out the stain uptake. If you go grab a sandwich and forget to wipe it off it will show.
This is one of the most common application errors for large projects. When you have a big project like a wood floor or deck be careful to avoid lap marks which occur when you stain a portion of the deck and let it dry a bit too long before staining a bordering section.
The overlapping applications results in areas that have gotten a double application of stain and others that have gotten only a single application. The result is a total mess like the picture above. The fix is to maintain a wet edge on all stain applications and wipe off as you go. If you need a helper, get one.
4. Drying Time Disobedience
We’re all in a hurry, I get it. But staining is like cooking with a crockpot not a microwave. You have to give the stain some time to cure before you star applying a finish overtop of it. If the manufacturer says wait 8 hrs before finishing then…wait 8 hrs. Follow the instructions on the can (I’m talking to all my fellow male woodworker and restorers here). Bottom line is don’t rush it or you can have adhesion issues for your finish later on.
5. Mixology Mishaps
Stain is essentially a pigment suspended in a carrier like mineral spirits or water depending on the formula. That pigment will settle while sitting on the shelf, so the stain needs to be shaken and mixed thoroughly before and during use to make sure you get the color you purchased.
You may be saying yeah I know that, but did you also think to mix all the cans of stain together for a larger project? Any project that requires multiple cans of stain (think hardwood floors) can easily give you different colors in different areas.
For large projects you need to mix all the stain together into one big batch and then you can disperse the stain into smaller containers as you do the job if you need. Not every can of stain is exactly the same from the manufacturer and I have seen many wood floor refinishing projects ruined by application of a couple fresh cans of stain and one old can that was sitting a bit too long. If you mix everything together you create a cohesive color, and you won’t be able to see where one can ends and the other begins.
If you can avoid these 5 worst wood stain mistakes you’ll come out ahead of most amateur woodworkers and restorers out there. Sure you’ll make other mistakes, but these wood stain mistakes cover about 85% of everything I have seen go wrong.
What am I missing? What other mistakes have you found that will destroy a staining project? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.