How to Apply Stain to a Hardwood Floor: Step By Step Guide

This article is intended for hardwood floor professionals. We recommend that homeowners who would like to stain or refinish their hardwood floors consult a professional if they don’t have formal experience with these processes. Click here to use our Find a Contractor system to find a trusted hardwood floor professional in your area. 

Here is some of the equipment you will need:

  • Sander
  • Random orbital buffer
  • Edger or palm sander
  • Hardwood floor stain
  • Applicator (if you’re not using a buffer to apply stain)
  • Carpet pads (if you’re using a buffer to apply stain)

How to Apply Wood Stain

Refinishing and staining a floor can be a great way to breathe new life into it. Here are the steps to stain a floor.

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  1. Ensure that the floor will take the stain well. Certain species, such as maple, birch, fir, and pine typically do not take well to stains.
  2. Test it out. Test out the stain in an inconspicuous area on the floor. However, keep in mind that the test will never 100% match the end result. However, this process might show you some things you can adjust. If you’re planning to water pop, make sure you do this on the section you’re testing as well because water-popping usually makes the stain appear darker.Risk factors for spontaneous combustion | City Floor Supply
  3. Sand the floor. This step is crucial to perform correctly because the stain will oftentimes reveal any sanding/screening imperfections once it dries. The grit you start out with will depend on how damaged the floor is and what is needed to get down to smooth, bare wood. Usually you’ll want to do this in three passes, with a less aggressive sandpaper grit each time, making sure to follow a proper sanding sequence. Use an edger to smooth out toekicks and other hard to reach areas that you can’t reach with the sander and buffer.An overview of 3M abrasives
  4. Screen the floor. Screen the floor with a random orbital buffer. This process smooths out any scratches left by the sander and ensures a more even final appearance.
  5. Clean up the dust. Vacuum up the dust with a shop vac or backpack vac such as the ProTeam MegaVac, then wipe down the floor with a rag or microfiber cloth and mineral spirits. It’s important to take your time with this step and to be thorough in order to ensure that there’s no dust left behind, which would alter the appearance or adhesion of the stain to the wood.
  6. Optional: Water pop the floor. Do not do this if you plan to finish the floor with water-based polyurethane. Also known as popping the grain, this process can help you ensure that the appearance of the stain is even. It’s less likely to be blotchy because it opens up the pores of the wood. This is an especially good idea when working with darker stains or if you want your stain to appear darker. To water pop a floor, use a t-bar to apply water evenly to the floor. Allow the floor to dry for between 1-4 hours, or longer if the humidity is particularly high. It’s safest to use purified/distilled water during this step, because chlorine and other chemicals can interact with the solvents of the stain and alter its appearance. The floor will be gritty after this process. Make sure that the water was applied evenly to the floor or you risk having a blotchy stain.
  7. Apply the stain. First, it’s important to ensure proper ventilation so the vapors aren’t trapped in the room. Also remember to wear proper gear, such as a mask to protect yourself from the fumes. Apply the stain with a buffer and carpet pad, or a lambswool applicator. Work in small sections and wipe away any excess with a rag before moving on to the next section. Try not to let the wet edge dry. It’s best to do this part with someone else who can use a rag to wipe up the excess behind you, or go back over the floor with a rag underneath your buffer to mop up the excess stain.

  8. Let the stain dry completely. We recommend allowing the stain to dry/cure for at least 48 hours––72 hours is even better. If the humidity and other conditions are outside of the range of the manufacturer’s specifications, it could take even longer for the stain to cure.
  9. Finish the floor. Apply finish to the floor. Make sure it’s compatible with the stain. 

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