How do I ‘water-pop’ my hardwood floor?

What Does “Water-Popping” Mean?

Yes, we should explain.

Waterpopping is deliberately and evenly wetting wood with water and allowing it to dry. This causes the grain to raise, making the wood feel rough, but also making it more absorbent. This allows stain colors to more easily penetrate the wood so the color appears deeper and darker. The increased texture can also help protective finishes bond better to wood.

Why would I do this?

When you are trying to reduce the natural blotchiness of woods like pine or maple.

To increase the amount of stain that the wood will hold to make the color darker or more intense.

To provide harder, close-grained woods like maple or hickory with some texture or “tooth” so they hold more finish which helps the finish bond, allowing it to perform better and last longer.

To help swell the grain enough that some of the visible scratches from the edger are reduced, especially when using stain or pigmented products.

To reduce the stripey “zebra” look that some woods like oak and ash get when stained because the pigment penetrates so easily into the spring wood, but is resisted by the denser late wood. Water-popping allows that dense wood to open up and absorb more stain, so it will be closer to the darker color of the spring wood, and just generally look more uniformly colored.

How do I do it?

Remove all dust from you wood by vacuuming and dry-wiping with a soft microfiber cloth.

Using a spray bottle or clean pesticide pump-style sprayer, evenly mist distilled water over your entire wood surface until the water beads. This ensures that everything has been thoroughly and evenly wet.

Use a fan blowing onto the floor to completely dry the surface before you proceed with your stain or color coat. If you have access to a moisture meter, test the wood moisture before you water pop and only proceed after the floor returns to the original, pre-popped moisture level.

Keep foot traffic to a minimum after the popped wood has dried. You don’t want to smooth down the raised grain in some areas because they will not take your stain as deeply, leaving “negative” footprints.

What could go wrong?

Water-popping can not only increase the roughness of floor boards, it can cause them to distort in other dimensions:

Hardwood floor boards have lots of edges.

Water can cause board edges to curl. If you water-popped your floor before staining, your boards all have slightly raised edges, but low spots in the middle. If you apply a coat of finish over your stain and then need to sand it, you will have a big problem: light sanding between coats or even regular foot traffic will have more contact with those high ridges, which can remove color there. We’ve had this happen on our own jobs, running the buffer between coats of finish on top of stain, watching with horror as little white lines of now-unstained wood appeared at long side edges of each board.

Shake or lifting.

Wood can have all sorts of interior tensions that are invisible, until the face is wet and the grain raise lifts up long, thin splintery edges. It is not common, but it is a pain to fix when it happens.

Uneven stain

If the floor is not water-popped evenly, i.e. some areas didn’t get enough water, while others were properly saturated, your stain will be lighter in the under-popped zones.

That roughness; it’s a double-edged sword.

It can help with color control, but some people are really bothered by the increased texture. Your finish coats will help to soften it somewhat, as will just the friction of living on the surface – it certainly won’t stay rough forever. But if you are expecting a perfectly smooth-to-the-touch surface from day one, you could be disappointed.

Need some advice?

For a small fee of $25, we can provide the wisdom and knowledge that you need to complete your hardwood flooring project. When you don’t know what you need to do next, that’s when it’s time to call Pete’s Hardwood Floors Help Hotline.

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