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Step by Step: How to Apply Stain to Wood Floors

By Kim M. Wahlgren
April/May 2005
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A wood floor that has been sanded carefully and stained correctly has an even appearance, with no obvious sanding marks or streaks.

Staining a floor seems like a basic skill, but as many wood flooring contractors will tell you, plenty can go wrong. One contractor (who shall remain nameless) recalls the first time he was sent to a job site to water-pop a floor—he did, using a big towel that wasn't consistently wet. When he wiped off the stain, the floor had enormous streaks in it. He ended up having to resand the entire floor.

The most common problem with staining a floor is the fact that it highlights the sanding job. If the sanding was sloppy, the stain reveals every mistake. The darker the stain, the more glaring the sanding problems are. So, a floor that's going to be stained is not the place to train a new worker on how to use the edger or big machine.

The next most common problem with staining is the floor turning out to be a different color from the one the customer envisioned. All too frequently, customers choose stain from the small samples provided by the stain manufacturers. It's much wiser to stain a sample area of the actual floor or at least a test panel and have the customer sign off on the color.

A much more serious hazard while staining is the risk of spontaneous combustion. Nearly every contractor has heard horror stories of a van, shop or customer's home starting on fire due to rags that were soaked with an oil stain left in a pile.

Check out the following steps to make sure you know how to prevent staining problems—from trivial to disastrous. These are general guidelines; always follow the stain manufacturer's specific directions.

Necessary tools and supplies:

  • vacuum
  • broom
  • moisture meter
  • rubber gloves
  • stain in desired color
  • rags
  • disposal canister

Step 1:

Just as with a good finish job, the first step to a quality staining job is making sure the floor is sanded well. The next important step is cleaning the job thoroughly. Start by sweeping with a push broom.

Step 2:

Next, use a professional-quality vacuum with a brush head or a felt-tipped head to clean the floor.

Just as you should before applying finish, check the moisture content of the floor before you apply stain. If you're going to water-pop the floor, this reading will be your baseline—after water-popping, you shouldn't stain the floor until it returns to this baseline moisture level.

Step 3:

If you aren't water-popping the floor, skip ahead to the next step. If you are water-popping, which opens the grain and allows the floor to take the stain much darker, plan how you're going to get in and out of the room—you don't want to walk across the floor once you've popped it, crushing the grain back down. Here, we are using a wet rag to water-pop, but many contractors find that a spray bottle or a new pesticide sprayer applies the water more evenly.

Step 4:

Once the floor has dried, apply the stain evenly. Here, we're using rags, but some people prefer lambswool applicators. Still other contractors apply stain by squirting the floor with stain out of a (clean) condiment bottle and spreading it with a white pad on the buffer. (If you're using a waterbased stain, buffing usually is not recommended.) If you water-popped, walk on the area you already stained as you apply the stain so you don't crush the grain on the unstained floor

Step 5:

Next, wipe off the excess stain with a rag or with a clean white pad on the buffer (for oil-based stains only). Many contractors have one person applying stain as another follows behind, wiping off the excess stain.

Despite what many contractors think, leaving the stain on for an extended period of time will not make the floor darker.

Step 6:

Here you can see the difference between the part of the floor that was not water-popped (on the left) and the water-popped part of the floor (on the right). The difference in stain color is dramatic.

Before finishing the floor, carefully read the stain manufacturer's directions for recommended dry times, and take into account how the job-site conditions may affect the dry time.

Step 7:

Stain rags from oil-based stain are dangerous. Be sure to dispose of rags in a proper disposal container. If you don't have a container like the one shown, you also can spread the rags out to dry on a driveway or other paved area, hang them on a line or stuff them into a finish can filled with water.


Common Staining Problems

Sanding Marks: Here, you can see that there are still obvious marks left by the big machine—the contractor either hardplated the floor badly or didn't hardplate the floor at all. A total resand is required to get an acceptable appearance.

Inconsistent Grain Pop: This is a typical problem when contractors use rags to water-pop the floor—the rag was not consistently wet, so parts of the grain popped, and others didn't. These areas show up as streaks across the floor.

Crushed Grain: Here's a problem that can happen after water-popping—something was dragged across the floor before the stain was applied, knocking down the grain. Now this area shows up as a light streak on the floor. Contractors usually stay on the job site or tape it off between water-popping and staining to prevent people from walking on the floor before it's stained.

Kim M. Wahlgren is editor of Hardwood Floors.

Stain            Staining        Streaks            waterpopping   


I am confused about your directions for water popping. How do I stain without stepping on the water popped wood? If I begin at the entry (so I don't walk on the water popped wood), then do I need to wait for the initial stain to dry before I proceed further into the room, then stain what i can reach from there and let that dry before I proceed even further into the room? Won't this make the stain possibly uneven since it will be difficult not to have overlaps?
Elizabeth  DIY  7/15/2012 4:54:40 PM

We have cats. I kept the cats in the garage today while sanding was being finished up and stain was being applied on our entire 2100sq ft bottom floor of the house. They finished this and left at about 3pm. We are staying in a front master bedroom and are able to bypass the front door through a window until the project is finished. After the floor men left we ran an errand. When we came home we let the cats out to stretch and relieve themselves outside. That was at about 6:30pm. Later at about 7:15pm I could hear noises in the house and then the lights went out. Heaters were plugged in for one zone of the house where we are having to replace the HVAC but is not installed yet. When we went outside to investigate we found the front door open and three cats in the house. Looking through the windows we can see little dusty paw prints throughout the hall. Who knows where there are more prints. On top of that, my wonderful boyfriend wanted to get the lights back on so he took off his shoes and entered the house to fix the breaker. I can see at least one sock print of his in front of the door to the garage through the window. I am livid and so worried. I won't be able to sleep tonight. Apparently the workers didn't close the front door tight enough when they left and it drifted open. I called the company doing the work but it is after hours. How much should I be worried? Can this be fixed before they polyurethane? We have red oak down with English Chestnut Minwax stain. Please say they can fix it without an entire redo.
Cherie  Farm House  11/28/2012 9:06:12 PM

You'll be ok. The stain is almost certainly dry by the time the cats and your husband got on the floor. The dust on the floor will get vacuumed off or "melted" into the finish and abraded out before the final coat. That is a really pretty color BTW. Good choice. Sleep well
Scott Avery  Contractor  11/28/2012 11:11:17 PM

How many days after the refinishing is done should we wait to walk on the hardwood floors?
Elaine  Refinishing hardwood floors  2/8/2013 11:39:18 PM

Elizabeth: you may walk on the water popped floors after they have dried out, but be careful walking around it as to not drop or drag anything on the floors. We tape carpets to our shoes as to lessen the impact of our movements. Elaine: The amount of days depend on the finish system you used. Read the finish manufacturer's instruction, as they are very explicit on when you may resume activities on your newly finished floors.
Jimmy Nguyen  Contractor  2/11/2013 2:04:00 PM

I am attempting to refinish my hardwood floors. I have completed all the prep work. But, I applied the stain on Sunday afternoon and they are still "tacky" I worked in sections and thought I was removing all the excess stain as i worked. What do I do now? Should I try wiping more stain off at the doorway, and working my way into the whole room a section at a time? Please help. Thanks
Paula Haggard  Refinishing hardwood floors  2/12/2013 12:20:45 PM

I have a very big problem I did not know I was suppose to wipe the stain off as I put it on so I skipped this whole process what can I do now
Tracy  Staining hardwood floors  2/26/2014 11:15:53 AM

So question? I am redoing my floors and can I stain it and walk on it after it dryes for 2 days before I put the polyurethane on it or should I do it right away after the stain drys and keep off it?
Traivs  Redoing floors  2/26/2014 1:08:42 PM

Thank you for this article - exactly what I needed! I've water popped and stained, but my wood still seems to be sticking up like it's rough...will it sink back down and become smooth again before I put the gloss on?
Robert Cummings  Red Oak In Antique Brown  4/5/2014 8:38:02 PM

If you don't know what your doing why not hire a professional? What would you think if someone googling how to do your job and believing it was that easy. They are called professionals for a reason, and you get what you pay for. Good luck to all, stick to what your good at and hire other pros to do what your not.
Zach   Contractor  4/7/2014 11:40:33 PM

Zach how did you become a professional? learning from other professionals? Doing it, and learning as you go? reading? googling? There are a lot of do it yourselfers out there that would rather learn and do. And are perfectly capable of doing so. No one is saying it is easy, but there is a vast number of things that almost anyone can learn to do for themselves. That's what is great about the information sharing community that is the internet. people can learn.
Ben  student of life   6/13/2014 2:55:09 PM

Thats right di yourself if you feel the need to at my company we teach the homeowner whatever they r willing to learn or want to thats the problem with most company's these days make it so scary for someone so the price can keep racking up my company will be doing something new on our site we will have a 5 dollar video that video will show u a process of creating a beautiful hardwood floors, whether it be a level or a new install it will be on there so guess what now you will google some of the info and the detailed stuff pay a simple 5$ not 500 to 3000. Not fair to the person who decided they want to give it a try there is a contract page if anyone has any questions
Aaron Hutcheson  flooring contractor  7/27/2014 4:19:06 AM

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