How To: Prep Wood For Stain

By Scott Sidler • July 13, 2015

how to prep wood for stainWhether you’re refinishing your floors, making a table, cabinets or any other project that requires finishing, it’s useful to learn how to apply stain properly and make your projects really shine.

Applying stain is a pretty easy process that doesn’t need more than a couple sentences to explain (which I’ll go into at the end of the post), but how to properly prep wood for stain is a whole other thing.

Certain woods like pine, maple and others either have a difficult time accepting stain at all or they become so blotchy when stained that the results are a mess. To avoid that, I’ve tried lots of techniques over the years to help my projects take stain evenly.

We refinish a lot of wood floors, many of which are difficult woods like pine, which take a little extra work to make the stain look right, but it’s not as complicated as you might think. I’ll show you my secrets on how to prep wood for stain right here!


How To: Sand Wood Before Staining

It all starts with sanding. You need a smooth surface with no blemishes because stain will highlight scratches and dings in the wood. Always sand down to clean wood (if you have enough meat left of the wood) before applying any stain.

Look out for any swirl marks from orbital sanders which may be hard to see initially, but they will pop out like a sore thumb after you apply stain if you miss them.

A lot of folks make the mistake of sanding to either too fine of a grit or not fine enough before applying stain. Too fine and the wood won’t be able to accept the stain. Too rough and the wood will be very dark almost to the point of being black.

So, what’s the right grit? Generally speaking, for woods like oak and pine, I don’t like to go any finer than 120-grit or any rougher than 100-grit. Stay close to that range and the wood should look great.


My Secret for Smooth Staining

Once you’re done sanding, make sure you’ve gotten rid of ALL the sanding dust before you do anything else. Use a good vacuum and then a tack rag to wipe the surface clean of any contaminants.

The next step is the trick here. Wipe the surface thoroughly with a a wet cloth. Not damp and not dripping, but somewhere in the middle so that every inch of the wood is wet, but with no puddles.


“Popping” the Grain

The technique of wetting the wood down before staining is called “popping” the grain. What it does is open the pores of the wood to allow it to take the stain evenly and deeply.

When you water pop wood, you won’t have to do multiple coats of stain either. The wood grain is so open that in one coat you should be able to get the look you want.

Even with difficult woods like pine, I have had great success in getting even stain coverage without the common blotchiness that happens so often. If you are working on a pine project that you plan to stain, this is the only way to go.


The Biggest Mistakes to Avoid

The biggest mistake I see when water popping wood is that people either leave puddles or missed spots. When you miss areas those areas will not take the stain as deeply and look much paler, so make ABSOLUTELY SURE that you hit every area equally.


Applying Stain

Once the water has completely dried, you are ready to apply your stain. Don’t rush this! Wait until every trace of water has evaporated before putting any stain down.

As for how to apply stain properly, it’s pretty easy. You wipe it on and wipe it right off. Apply a generous amount of stain to the floor or project and work it into the grain and then wipe it right off. Don’t leave any puddles or wet spots. Wipe it with a clean rag until the surface is relatively smooth.

If you do find you need a darker color, wait until everything has dried and then go back with another coat. Dried stain on wood should leave very minimal color rub off on a rag or socks if at all. That’s how you know it’s ready for finishing.

Make sure when you are applying stain that you have plenty of lint free rags like old cotton shirts. You don’t want to run out halfway through and have nothing to wipe off your excess stain.

That’s the whole enchilada when it comes to stain as far as I’m concerned. Stain is a great way to make creative projects. You can mix and match as many different colors as you want to make your own custom colors. Just make sure you keep water-based stains with water and oil-based stains with oil. I personally prefer oil-based stain.


What about wood conditioner?

I’m sure some folks will ask this and for them I’d say that wood conditioner works much the same way as water except that you pay a whole bunch of money for something that just as easily could have come out of the tap for pennies.

Save your money for the big projects and don’t waste it on wood conditioner. And that’s my 2 cents.


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92 thoughts on “How To: Prep Wood For Stain”

  1. I am forced to refinish a Federal/ Regency (circa 1800) folding card table. It was chipped, the lacquor was like treacle… water rings, etc. Unfortunately I sanded through one area of the veneer and now have a patch of light base wood… (Type unknown)
    The table is valued at $5,000+ and I have the top leaf, and the one beneath which folds into a double size surface.
    How do I address the over sanded area to create a uniform red mahogany stain?

    Also have pair of solid mahogany “Lyre” motif arm chairs (Duncan Phyfe) style.
    They are early 20th century, and rescued from dumpster! After sanding the decrepit finish off, I found the chairs are machined where different colors/ grains of mahogany were glued together in their manufacture.
    What ideas do you have to match the stain to compensate for variants in the construction material?
    I refinished a $10 Goodwill victorian Pembroke side table, and matched it with a $5 red ceramic and brass Stiffel lamp!

    FYI… Bought an old Dutch Colonial house that was a mess… The green shag carpet hid 100yr old Birds Eye Maple floor!
    When I sanded it, it turned bright yellow like a basketball court, and didn’t match the built-in buffet and China cabinet. I used red oak minwax stain and three coats of poly, and it shines like glass! Biggest issue I had was efinishing a drop leaf Victorian solid cherry dining table with two leaves (seats 8, paid $50) is dust/ particles that are statically charged, and the poly would form tiny dimples around the dust specks. I must have reapplied/ sanded 8 coats minwax poly satin, and still can’t resolve the ‘meteor strike’ dust motes. Any thoughts on which poly/spar/ varnish top coat to apply? I never used oil based finishes, and have rescued a house, several tables and chairs with good success (incl humidor and several teak and cedar chests). It is a labor of love but I find it a rewarding hobby to refurbish old solid antique pieces that were either sun-bleached, water-ring blemished, or painted latex white! (Gawd)
    Great insights from you prompted this missive… My dad was a master French Polisher, but I never knew how that process worked. Do you ever use beeswax/carnuba or run-on poly?

  2. Hello Scott. Hoping I can get some direction from you concerning refinishing an Oak outside door. It was originally stained very light color and I sanded it down with 80 grit. Did not pop it before staining it with a natural color stain and now I have quite a few blotches. One panel that doesn’t want to take stain at all. Should I start over with 120 grit, pop and then stain with a stain with a little color? Thanks! Marcus

  3. We have newly wrapped beams. I followed these instructions for staining but it still turned out blotchy. Do I have to strip? Should I try another coat? Should I try to sand again and stain?

  4. Hey Scott, I’m not sure if your still responding to this thread or not but I’ll try anyway. I see your busy and I am adept in construction/remodeling (finish carpentry for 4+ years, currently an apprenticing in HVAC as a tinner) so hopefully this will be short. I final sanded my project with 220 grit (final sanding was by HAND so i wont have swirl marks hint hint people). I’ll rough it up a bit with some 150. Do you recommend using a fine grit to sand the stain into the wood? I’ve seen contractors doing this. Do I need to use any type of steel wool at some point in my project? Last, you didn’t mention anything about finishing in any detail. Linseed oil? Lacquer? It’s a coffee table. It will be cleaned often and used daily as rough as daily life is lived. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thank you!

  5. Scott can I use kerosine or lacquer thinner to remove dust on oak parquet floors before doing the water pop than the stain

  6. I’ve just stained a table and it has not accepted the stain well. I finish sanded to 320 and did not water pop. I can’t sand down to bare wood now. What can I do to fix this?

  7. Hi there! We were doing a master bath, and tracked water drops and shoe prints across our “naked” freshly sanded floors… after the bath was finished my husband stained the floors… we now have dark spots where the water was, round marks from the orbital sander, and shoe marks… so we re-sand, water pop, then restrain the floors? Thank you in advance.

    1. We have a maple dining room set and was given the advice to sand with 100,150,220, and then a 400. Have we sanded it too fine. I have done 6 chairs and really don’t want to mess this up.

      1. Should be fine you would normally want to do 120 150 and finish with 180. You would use the 400 after you lacquer it, to knock down any bumps and lacquer again for smooth finish

  8. Any suggestions on removing the last bits of paint residue that seem stuck in the wood grain, before staining? Is plain steel wool best? Thanks

  9. Hi, my name is Jerry and I’m staining an old office desk. I’ve sanded it down with 120 & 180, I then sanded it with 220 using both an orbiter and a str8 bck & forth sander for the corners. I then proceeded to blow off the access sawdust and pass a few tack cloths over it, funny thing is that as i cleaned it there are like my fingerprint all over it.. and my palm print as if I had oil in my hand but i don’t. Will that come off once I “pop” the drawer??? Was the 220 to fine for a drawer? Thanks for your time

  10. So I sanded all my hardwood floors and they looked great. I added an extra step and added the conditioner before staining but now the stain didn’t absorb into the wood and three days later still tacky. Is my only option to strip the floor with mineral spirits and start over. Sand starting low 36 60 100. I have never had this problem but normally don’t use pre conditioner. Please help.

    1. Hi Scott
      I have a Norfolk Island pine log that I’ve carved into a chair
      I’ve treated with mould intergain tts mould treatment and linseed oil so far
      I’m after a natural finish to allow the timber to age
      Will a wax polish be suitable to keep the timber in a raw state

  11. Thanks for this great info. I’m refinishing 100 year old douglas fir floors and trim. I’d like a nice medium brown. I’ve tested a number of oil-based pigment stains and everything turns orange! No blotching, but horrible colours, The grain, or springwood takes a nice brown but the summerwood turns orange. Will the water popping address this issue? I’ve done some reading on dyes. Any insight into whether dyes will produce better results? Thanks so much.

    1. Dyes have a tendency to actually obscure the grain in my opinion. You might try sanding to different grits and see if that makes a difference. Or try a different line of stains.

    2. If you use dye make sure it’s a lighter color, apply to wood let dry, then apply stain. We have this issue with eucalyptus and white oak(streaking) some take the stain and others don’t leaving the wood looking light and dark, dye is other thing that will help(water based stain)

  12. Thank you for an interesting, thoughtful post on the technique. I have a couple of questions. First, after sanding maple plywood with 120 grit and then carefully cleaning and using a tack cloth, I proceeded to “pop” the grain as you directed. I did half of the test board this way, the other half I left sanded and cleaned. After the piece was thoroughly dry, I then applied one coat of gel stain to the entire piece. The treated end was much more uniform. However, there is a noticeable difference between the smoothness of the two halves with the water treated being slightly rough. I wonder if the clear coat will take care of this. Secondly, on the “popped” section there is a place where there was obviously a branch in the tree. This turned out darker than elsewhere. Suggestions on how to either fix or avoid these results?

  13. I have a few night tables I am going to clean up and restain, do I have to sand down to completely bare wood or can I just sand and testing over what was previously on there

    1. Hi Judy!
      You can always try a tiny spot on what’s already existing and if it works, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of work! But in most cases it seems that sanding is typically required. But there’s definitely no harm in giving it a shot on a test portion!
      Thanks for reading our blog and I hope you’re having a great week!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  14. I’m redoing wood floors in a house that’s 100 years old. They have been very poorly taken care of. Painted, had carrier over them for years. Lots of pets at some point. It seems to me like they are very dry. Want sure if after some sanding to remove paint and poly if i can oil them? Then do another sanding? Then the water popping technique, then stain? What will the oil do to my stain application? I just want to take good care of my floors. Lol

      1. Hi , I have had my cabinets sanded down at our salon and I asked them to use a 220 grit to make sure it was nice and smooth . The wood is cherry and I fairly new . Would you recommend water popping on this project also or wood conditioner? Should I llighrly rough up the wood first because of the smooth surface before I start ?

        1. If properly sanded, it seems a shame to stain cherry which creates its own patina over time. 220 grit is a bit too smooth for stain absorption. A lot of what is considered to be cherry today is actually another species such as birch which has similar grain and is stained to look like cherry.

  15. I appreciate you providing some tips on how to prep wood for stain such as sanding it first and foremost. It is important to find a smooth surface as the stain would definitely highlight the damage to the wood such as scratches and chips. I personally don’t know much about sanding but this article should come in handy if I ever need to sand my own wooden table. Thanks for sharing this.

  16. I have pine trim I am stripping the shellac off and attempting to stain (Old Masters American Walnut). I stained some pieces (a different color Old Masters stain) and didn’t like the color so I stripped and sanded the wood back down, the problem now is that I can’t get it to take the stain well- without blotching(if I sand and stain a test portion of freshly de-shellac-ed trim it is fine). What Can I do to get this pine that I have messed with (too much) turn out like the others? Is there any way to reset the wood?

      1. On pine trim/baseboards/window casings/doors what grit do you recommend finishing at before water popping the grain and staining? And should I wipe on stain and wipe off quickly?

  17. Hi-
    I’m curious about the time to leav.e the stain on a project. All the mini wax cans say leave it on for 5 – 15 minutes, and if I am understanding you correctly, you are suggesting wiping stain off right after it is applied.

    Please clarify the amount of time to leave stain on a wood project.

    Thank you

  18. Is a couple of hours sufficient to letting the water dry? To the touch and eye the water looks absorbed but I’m paranoid that I’m “rushing” it?

    1. I did the water popping and after applying 2 coats of gel stain I applied polyeurothane. I allowed a good 24 hours to let the stain dry. It looked a little rough in spots so I lightly sanded it then applied the polyurethane. I used a paint brush like I have always done & never had problems until now. After I applied the polyurethane I noticed right away a lot of bubbles started forming all over the top. I left & came back a couple hours later & it was terrible. It was so rough & the bubbles stayed & made it look like crap. I waited a couple more hours then tried lightly sanding it. The polyurethane was coming off & gumming up all over. The only thing I did different was using 120 grit sandpaper instead of 220 in the beginning wood prep stage & I wiped the top with a damp rag, barely damp to pop the wood. I’m sure that’s what caused this big problem. Now I gotta sand it all off. I’ll never do this method again.

      1. Your issue here may be the use of gel stain as opposed to traditional stain. traditional stain sinks into the wood whereas gel stain sits on top of it so wetting the wood to open the grain would provide no benefit to gel staining.

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