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How To: Prep Wood For Stain

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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100 thoughts on “How To: Prep Wood For Stain

  1. Hi! So my knotty pine kitchen cabinets need to be resealed but since they’re actually in serious need of some TLC/repairs before they could be resealed I decided that I want to stain them a shade or 2 darker at the same time (I absolutely LOVE the depth, character, and all that is knotty pine so I refuse to even consider painting them). But I’ve been trying to strip the old finish(es) for over 6 months now and cant seem to be able to get down to the bare wood, so wondering if you have any tips or tricks that maybe I haven’t tried yet. I’ve tried just about every type of striping method available because as soon as one chemical/method starts to work well, it then stops doing anything and I have to move on to something else – seems like I’m having to cycle through all the different chemicals over and over again along with some sanding attempts mixed in so is it possible that they’ve just been recoated multiple times over the last 50 years with every different type of finish out there? Or has the finish possibly penetrated too deep within the wood so it can’t be completely removed? Or am I doing something completely wrong? I’ve stripped and refinished many furniture pieces in the past but nothing has ever been as difficult and down right uncooperative as these cabinets are being LOL! I need help!

    1. Kelly,

      Thank you for your question. Generally you can see the seam where the veneer meets the table top’s edge. Also, you can take a look underneath the table to see if the wood species matches what’s on top. If they don’t match, then it’s probably veneer.

      Hopefully this helps.

      The Craftsman Blog Team

  2. Are we talking water based stain or oil based stain? So I should wait until the water completely dries (popping the grain) before using my oil based stain?

  3. We’ve been using black gel stain on trim and even a bi-fold closet door. We use it like paint. Brush on a thick layer and let it cure. Then we use a wipe-on poly. It looks really nice, letting the wood grain through, and looks better and seems more durable than just using black paint.

  4. 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?

  5. 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

  6. 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?

  7. 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!

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

  9. 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?

    1. You used to fine of a grit before sanding. The pours are to closed off to accept it. Stop at 100 or 120 before stain.

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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

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