Yes, you told me staining is a headache… but I’m going to try it anyway.

You’ve read our article, “Let me talk you out of staining tour 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):

First: 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 out all evidence of the sanding process itself, using all the grits in the recommended sequence for both the drum and edger.

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) and change your paper frequently.

Even when you’re done with the 100-grit, get down close to the wood and check for scratches using a light held right on the floor itself. If you find any, use 100-grit sandpaper and your own arm strength (no palm sanders since these can over-polish small areas) to sand with the grain until you can no longer see any cross-grain scratches.

Second: Learn to use a buffer to reduce “picture-framing.”

Once you are sure there are no visible scratches left from the drum and edger, you’ll want to do a light sanding to blend everything into one even texture. Buffers are perfect for this because they can sand right up to the wall and reduce the “picture-frame” effect that can be caused by over-edging or palm-sanding your perimeter.

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 175 rpm floor machine, 13 or 16″ in diameter.

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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 window mesh encrusted with fine minerals, have less abrasive in contact with the floor than sandpaper and will be much more gentle than sandpaper.

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.

Third: Be skeptical of stain conditioners or finishes that contain pigment

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.

Woodworkers will use a stain conditioner to help control this problem.

A stain conditioner is simply a protective coat of some kind that has been deliberately thinned down, so that when you apply it to your wood, it establishes a very thin, clear barrier over the wood.

After it dries, you apply your stain over this barrier, so your stain doesn’t sink as deeply into your wood as it would if it were raw and bare. This allows the stain to be more even, but much less intense. Once the stain dries, you apply better, thicker layers of protection over it, effectively sealing a layer of color between layers of clear coat.

It sounds like such a clever idea, but we have found it allows only limited improvement in actual use. Because of this Pete’s does not sell any brand of wood conditioner. If you try one, we would encourage testing under your chosen stain it in a closet or other hidden area before applying it to an entire floor.

There are some one-step brands of urethane that are tinted, effectively by-passing the need for a separate stain step. Again, Pete’s doesn’t carry finish of this type because the effect is never as pleasing as manufacturers’ samples suggest.

Tinted polyurethane tends to give floors an artificial, almost half-painted look because the color, suspended in the finish, hovers over the wood, rather than embedding itself in the grain.

They may help reduce blotch, but can also make your floor look like it has a bad spray-tan. And lap lines are a much greater risk with tinted urethanes because anywhere they are overlapped or left too thick, the color will appear darker – a whole new form of blotching.

Fourth: 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.

Contact Pete’s, we 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.

Fifth: 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.

Can you see how noticeable the swirl is in the unpopped, lower half of the board? The same swirls are present in the darker upper half, but the water-popping swells the wood fiber enough to cause some of those scratches to close.

Read all about the pros and cons of water-popping!

Seventh: Apply your stain carefully.

Stain is normally applied on hands and knees with a wipe-on, wipe-off process. We recommend applying stain in columns 3-5 boards wide from wall to wall without stopping.

Stain is cumulative, 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.

And finally: 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.

A customer’s stain success story.

Well, we had to eat our words on this one. The customer was adamant about staining. We begged them not to. But they persevered and sanded with painstaking care, hand-sanded all swirls, buffed everything for uniformity, water-popped, and applied without stopping to avoid lap lines. And it worked.

You can see areas of dark and light color in the stained floor, but that reflects the natural variations in porosity in a maple. This is one gorgeous stained floor.

Pete’s Bonus Tips

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.

Learn on the equipment you rent.

Pete’s is the only shop that offers a free, hands-on, personal lesson (though in this time of Covid, we require that you schedule all lessons in advance - no walk-in lessons) with every equipment rental.

Our lesson is not just reviewing the low-budget training video that came with the sander, no.

Available only at Pete's storefront in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, this training takes place on a real hardwood floor with the actual machine you are renting. Taught by an actual hardwood flooring contractor, it will address the particular floor project that you are facing. Bring photos of your project.

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.

Store hours during COVID:

  • Monday - Friday: 9-5
  • Saturday: 9-3
  • Sunday: Closed