Let me talk you out of staining your floors.
So you want to know how to stain a wood floor?
Let’s make sure that is really what you mean. Here is a typical conversation we have in the shop several times a week:
“How can I help you today?”
“Well, I’d like some advice on staining my floors.”
“Very good. Can you tell me what species of wood your floor is, because there are some woods that don’t take stain well. And it would be helpful to know how you plan to sand the floor, because stain pigment can reveal sanding imperfections…”
“No, you don’t seem to understand what I’m doing. I want to varnish the floor.”
“Oh, you aren’t trying to darken the floor? You just want to seal it against water and wear?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said: I want to stain the floor.”
Words matter: Stain vs Finish.
Part of the misunderstanding here stems from the fact that in the wood flooring industry stain has a very narrow meaning. Stain refers to solid particles of pigment suspended in a solvent, applied to wood to darken or change its natural color.
Wood flooring professionals tend to assume that everyone knows that stain is quite different from finish (varnish is one class of finish used on floors, but not the only one). Finish is the generic term for any substance that can seal the porous surface of wood and provide a layer of protection and reflective sheen.
Don’t assume that your floor should be darkened.
But semantics are only part of the problem; the real foundation of this misunderstanding is the widely held assumption that all wood floors should be darkened or colored and that this is a routine and simple part of do-it-yourself floor finishing.
Most of our customers think that staining a floor is like painting a wall. How we wish that it were so.
Floor staining is difficult, finicky work, with unpredictable results.
Even flooring professionals lose sleep over this process because there are dozens of variables that can make staining go wrong. And when it does go wrong, the only solution is to re-sand the floor and start all over from the beginning. Staining floors, especially for first-time do-it-yourselfers, is a tricky business.
That’s why we do our utmost to talk you out of staining your wood floors. Here are four big reasons why:
1. Stain makes sander scratch shockingly visible.
The most important reason to think carefully about staining is that it accentuates even minor flaws in your sanding job—flaws that would be undetectable in a clear or natural-finished floor. Remember, stain is made of fairly large particles of color, called “pigment.”
Bob Flexner in Understanding Wood Finishing puts it this way: “Pigment colors wood by lodging in depressions, such as pores, scratches and gouges. The larger the cavity, the greater the amount of pigment that will lodge there, and the darker and more opaque the cavity becomes.”
Unfortunately, inexperienced sanders (the very people who are most likely to want to stain their floors because they assume it is easy to do) tend to leave many such deep cavities, scratches and gouges in the floors they sand. When the stain is rubbed into the wood, the color is absorbed more deeply along the scratch lines than in the surrounding wood. In other words, staining a floor sanded by a beginner is a lot like putting a big, ugly tattoo on your floor.
To make things worse, the edger (see Pete’s rental sanding equipment in MN) is particularly prone to leaving cross-grain scratches that, when filled with stain, are still more obvious because they run against the main grain direction of the floor.
There is no greater proof of an amateur job than edger swirl and cross-grain scratches that have been highlighted with stain.
2. Some wood species are not meant to be stained.
Before applying stain to your wood floor, you need to know what species it is. Floors made of maple, birch, and coniferous woods (especially pine or fir) are all very difficult to stain evenly. Maple and birch are tight-grained woods with very small pores, and the density of the pore wall fibers varies drastically.
In other words, the particles of stain pigment have fewer places where they can wedge themselves and those places are not regularly spread through the wood.
Pine has the same variations in pore wall density, but to make matters worse, coniferous wood fibers contain resin or sap that actively resists stain. Even though stain manufacturers provide sample chips of stained maple or pine, do not be fooled. Those sweet little chips are easy to stain precisely because they are little. Over a large, uninterrupted area like a floor, blotching and mottling will be much more apparent.
Red oak and white oak floors absorb stain more uniformly. But be aware that there is a difference between the density of earlywood (or springwood) and latewood of these species. As you can see from the photo above, the more porous springwood stains considerably darker than the dense latewood. This gives the boards a distinct zebra-striped look.
Once a customer understands the ramifications of staining a floor, the idea of a clear-coat finish starts to look very attractive.
However, if you are one of those stalwart types who, despite all the warnings, declares that you are ready for the challenges of stain, there are some things you can do to make the process easier and more successful.
Proceed to the page Yes, I Know Staining Is a Headache…I Am Going to Try It Anyway.
3. Bleedback is ugly.
Stain is applied differently than almost any other finish: it is usually rubbed onto the wood with rags and then immediately wiped off. The amount of stain that a floor can absorb is finite; the floor will not get darker if you flood it with an excess of stain or apply a second coat.
Using excess amounts or applying multiple coats of stain can cause the stain to ‘bleed back,’ where it wicks back up to the surface of the board as solvent begins to evaporate.
Bleedback can also occur after a finish coat has been applied to a layer of stain that has pockets of uncured stain in the gaps between the boards, in which the pigment seeps up and into the clear finish, leaving a cloudy streak.
You can also get something similar to bleedback if you coat over a dried stain with an incompatible finish. If your finish contains a solvent that can re-dissolve the binder in your stain, particles of stain pigment (even if they were fully dry to the touch before top-coating) will blotch or seep into your finish.
Using stains and finishes that are advertised as compatible (like our products) is the most foolproof way to avoid solvent interference.
4. Stain adds waiting time. A lot of waiting time.
Latex paints have set very high expectations about drying and recoat times—expectations you need to leave behind if you are staining a floor. This is because stain is just the first step in the process of finishing your floor.
Pigments alone do not provide much in the way of abrasion or solvent resistance, so most people add two or three layers of some clear, protective finish over stain.
But if your stain coat is not completely dry, it will not allow any subsequent coats to bond.
Finish that doesn’t bond will smudge and even peel off easily – sometimes it can’t even cure at all. This is a catastrophe and the only way to fix it is to sand everything off and begin again. This is a sad and very expensive circumstance. So, given the dire consequences of coating over stain too soon, we recommend that you allow stain to dry for 48 hours even under the ideal heat, humidity, and air exchange conditions specified by the manufacturer, and 72 hours is better.
All stains dry by solvent evaporation; if your windows are closed or if the heat is set too low or turned off, the solvent cannot evaporate, and the stain takes longer to dry.
Low temperatures, high humidity, using too much stain, and not wiping it off thoroughly will all lengthen the drying times.
For example, if you are staining during a thunderstorm in August, you could wait up to four days before it is safe to topcoat that stain—four days, plus a day for each coat of finish, and then a day to allow the last finish coat to cure.
This is when you ask yourself whether you want a dark-stained floor badly enough to wait a full week—or longer—before you can move furniture back into your room.
If not stain, then what do I use?
Protecting your floor with just a clear coat is perfectly acceptable. And much less stressful. Three coats of a high-quality polyurethane will allow the wood grain of your floor to just be itself. “Stain” does not add protection, it just changes the color. If this is your first DIY refinishing job, just using clear coats is the way to go. And we sell a carefully vetted selection of finishes that are easy to apply and protect floors well. When customers are undecided, our favorite go-to is PolyWhey because of its especially low-VOCs, high traffic resistance, and ease of use..
And you can buy from Pete’s right now!
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Pete’s Bonus Tips
Can I call for free advice, for free?
Yes and no.
We love educating people, but it's expensive. And we're uncomfortable taking questions about products you bought on Amazon.
So, calls are free and unlimited if you:
- bought product from Pete's
- are shopping in Pete's online shop and need help choosing between products
- currently have equipment rented from us and need advice
- are planning to rent from Pete's
But please use our cheap and splendid Help Hotline consulting service if you:
- bought a product we sell, but from a different supplier
- have a complex flooring problem you don't see addressed on the website
- have questions about products we don't carry
A stain catastrophe?
Our website is like a lightning rod for citizens all around the country with flooring problems. Unfortunately, most people come to us after the catastrophe has happened.
Ray from Pittsburgh, who very generously allowed us to use this photo, wrote to ask advice about his staining "disaster" (his word, not ours). His photo illustrates why we have such disdain for stain manufacturers who make it sound easy to stain wood floors.
This is a vivid illustration of how important it is that the texture of your wood floor be absolutely uniform and consistent before you apply your stain.
This floor was sanded correctly, but was aggressively mopped with water against the grain, probably in an attempt to remove all the dust.
The scrubbing motion, combined with the water, left irregular lap lines that trapped stain in that same irregular pattern. The takeaway here is to never use liquids to remove dust from a freshly sanded raw floor! Vacuum, then use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe up the dust the vacuum couldn't get. Yes, it will take a little longer, but you won't risk problems like the one poor Ray had.
Side note: If you are deliberately wetting your floor to water-pop it prior to stain or Rubio to intensify your color (read our water-popping philosophy) make sure you wipe with the grain.
Or better still, use a pesticide sprayer to mist the water evenly and uniformly over the floor.
Buy online, or stop by our cute store in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Pete's sells supplies online across the continental U.S., and rents equipment to Minneapolis/St. Paul DIYers. Our store at 186 Fairview Avenue North in St. Paul, MN is at the corner of Fairview and Selby.
It's just the cutest sander rental shop you'll ever visit. Call us at 651-698-5888.
- Monday - Friday: 8:30-5
- Saturday: 8:30-3
- Sunday: Closed