Yes, you told me staining is a headache...but I’m going to try it anyway.
We assume you've already read our article, “Let Me Talk You Out of Staining Your Floor” and despite our warnings, you have a legitimate and compelling reason to pigment your floors.
The following tips will help make the process a little less painful (but not much):
Be a really fussy sander.
Because stain accentuates improper sanding technique, you should strive for the most perfect sanding job you can do. This means that you must sand using all the grits in the recommended sequence. For example, if you start at 24 grit because your floor is old and damaged, you must sand with 24 grit, 36 grit, 60 grit, and 100 grit (especially on the edger).
Even when you're done with the 100 grit, get down close to the wood and check for scratches using raking light from a trouble light. If you find any, use a 100 grit sanding sponge and your own arm strength (no palm sanders since these can over-polish small areas) to lightly sand out the scratch, always rubbing parallel to the wood grain.
Learn to use a buffer.
Once you are sure there are no visible scratches in the floor, you’ll want to use a buffer to blend the now-invisible curved scratches around the edges of the room with the straight scratches left by the drum in the main field of the floor. Buffing will also help close the pores of the wood, which tends to limit stain absorption and makes it easier to control blotchiness. Buffing is done with a floor polisher or buffer, usually 16" in diameter.
Buffers are not sanders; they are lighter and have much smaller motors. They use a relatively slow, oscillating motion to drive a sanding screen, backed by a one-inch-thick, squishy white pad.
Screens, because they are essentially open-weave fabric encrusted with fine minerals, simply have less abrasive in contact with the floor than sandpaper and will, therefore, always be much more gentle than sanders. Still, the screen driven by the buffer should always be finer than the last grit that was used on the sander:120 grit is adequate for most wood species.
Remember, you are not trying to remove wood with the buffer—you only want to remove and blend scratches that might become apparent when the stain is applied. Note: if you have never run a buffer before, take a lesson on one: they can be a little squirrelly for the first-time user. Absolutely averse to running a buffer? You can use a pole sander to do the same thing, but use it over every inch of your floor and put some muscle into it.
Consider a stain conditioner or gel stain.
The major cause of blotchy, uneven stain is wood with pores that are not uniformly spaced through the wood (like maple, birch, or fir), and pore walls with inconsistent density.
If you are not trying to stain your floor very dark, there are two ways to correct for this problem: one is to apply a stain conditioner or wood conditioner to the floor which controls stain penetration by stopping up the largest and most open pores. The other is to use gel stains, which are formulated to be thick and viscous and so keep the pigment on the surface of the wood, effectively bypassing the problem of uneven pore distribution. While this sounds like an easy chemical solution, it doesn't work like magic.
Stain-conditioned or gel- stained floors can look odd and artificial because the color hovers over the wood, rather than embedding itself in the grain. Imagine someone trying to create the appearance of a tan by using a foundation several shades darker than their natural skin tone - would you be fooled?
Try adding stain to Waterlox.
Waterlox will take up to one quart of conventional, solvent-based stain per gallon as a way to very evenly add color to wood, even hard-to-stain maples. Because of the dilution ratio, you can't achieve dark colors with the method, but color achieved this way is impressively uniform. Unfortunately, the Waterlox website no longer recommends or even mentions this particularly useful aspect of their product, largely because there are so many low-VOC stains on the market that have other components that prevent them from being miscible in their finishes.
But Pete's can steer you to brands of stain that have not been modified and will still be compatible with Waterlox if you'd like to try this method.
Try water-popping the floor.
If you are trying to make the floor particularly dark and opaque (i.e., obscure the wood grain or figure), water-popping is an excellent method for opening and widening the wood’s pores and allowing them to hold more pigment. You “pop” the grain of the wood by lightly misting it with distilled water—a clean, pesticide-type sprayer works well over large areas.
The light mist of water causes the grain to swell, which both increases the surface area of the wood and makes its texture more uniform. The wood is allowed to dry, and when stain is applied, it penetrates deeply into the opened grain, which leads to a darker, more uniform stain color across the more porous earlywood and denser latewood.
This method was used on a pet-damaged maple floor and it camouflaged the pet stains enough that the house was able to sell without replacing the floors.
Try a dye.
Up to this point, we’ve spoken exclusively about applying stain to floors, but there is an alternative. Dye is also a colorant you can apply to the floor, but it works with much, much tinier morsels of pigment than stain does. According to Bob Flexner in Understanding Wood Finishing, “Each individual unit of dye is a molecule. In contrast to pigment, which colors wood by lodging in crevices, dye colors wood by saturating the wood fibers with color.”
Dyes are not as colorfast as stains and will fade in sunlight, so you might need to consider using an exterior polyurethane over your dye to protect it. Pete's does not have much experience using dye, but the photo above shows that it can be done successfully. That example is even more impressive because it is fir, a wood that is notoriously difficult to stain.
All that said, we still think that if you need floor color this dense and opaque, you could get the same effect (with less time and headache) with paint.
Apply your stain carefully.
Stain is normally applied on hands and knees with a wipe-on, wipe-off process. We recommend applying stain in whole board increments from wall to wall, which essentially means rubbining with the grain. When you rub stain in against the grain, your application lines are also against the grain and any application lines that set up quickly will be permanently perpendicular to the grain and very noticeable.
Stain is additive, so if you don't apply it consistently or if you wipe it off incompletely, you will have lap lines.
If your space is large enough to two people to be applying stain, you will have a much more consistent appearance if the same person applies the stain and the other wipes it off for the entire space. If you both do your own wiping on and wiping off starting at opposite sides of the room, you may end up with two different tones where your sections meet!
If you want to maximize color saturation and coverage, you should apply stain with a buffer (we use a round berber carpet remnant instead of a pad), followed by a pass with a clean towel under the buffer to wipe off the excess. This method tends to spray stain toward walls and trim, but it also gets maximum depth of color with a lower risk of lap marks.
Beware the phrase, “I’m planning to stain my floors to match my trim…”
Customers who use the words “color match” make us nervous here at Pete’s, especially when they are talking about stain. There are so many variables that control the final color and intensity of a stained floor that it can be difficult to replicate one particular tone, even if you know which brand of stain was used to create it originally. Which, usually, you don’t.
Keep in mind that, if you hope to replicate a color, you need to be considering woods of the same species, age, and maybe even grade. The wood species used for baseboards and window casings in your property may not match the floor.
For example, shellacked white oak trim in a house from the 1920s has a color and a patina that will be all but impossible to replicate even on an adjacent white oak floor, let alone one of maple or red oak. If precise matching is important, find some practice boards the same age and species that you are trying to stain.
Sand them, using the same grit series that you plan to use on the actual floor, and then apply various colors and formulations of stain until you find the one that comes closest.