Whether 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.
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.
Founder & Senior Editor
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.