How to Prepare Wood for Staining

Last Updated on October 18, 2023 by Ernest Godia

Staining wood is a timeless way of protecting the surface while adding a pop of color and accentuating the wood grain. However, you must know how to prepare wood for staining to achieve a flawless finish.

Wood stains do very little to hide the imperfections on wood. If anything, they highlight them. Nobody wants a poorly stained surface to be the focal point of their home. That’s why it’s essential to do the prep work and do it well.

This blog post will guide you through the process of preparing wood for staining. 

Why do you need to prepare wood for staining?

Prepping wood will help the surface absorb the stain better and highlight the natural wood grain. Basically, wood prep ensures you get a flawless finish.

The preparation directly affects the quality of your finished wood project. That’s to say you can’t skimp on the prep work and expect a magnificent finish; it doesn’t happen.

How to prepare wood for staining

First, ensure that you fill any holes or cracks using wood filler. Next, sand every inch of the wood and remove the sawdust. Finish by applying a pre-stain wood conditioner, and you’re good to go staining your wooden surface.

If you’re ready to start the wood prep, here’s a list of the tools and materials you will need for the process.

Tools and materials you will need

  • Sandpaper (120, 150, and 200-grit)
  • Sanding block or belt sander
  • Hammer/screwdriver
  • Putty knife
  • wood filler
  • Rags
  • Mineral spirits
  • Wood conditioner
  • Paintbrush

The Procedure

Follow the guided steps below to help you get the desired results.

Step 1: Make the necessary repairs.

This step majorly applies to a wood surface that’s fairly aged. First, look out for any protruding nails or screws on the surface. Use a hammer to countersink the protruding nails and a screwdriver to drive the screws back into the wood.

Next, inspect the wood surface and underside for defects such as cracks, holes, or splinters. If you notice any of these, you need to fill them out before going to the next step.

Buy grain filler from a local hardware store or Amazon. Ensure the wood filler matches the wood color and is stainable. Also, ensure it is meant for either indoor or outdoor use, depending on the surface you’re prepping.

Scoop the filler using a putty knife and push it into the void. Slightly overfill the void so you can sand down the excess instead of trying to fill the divot. Once dry, sand down the overfill flush with the surrounding wood.

Step 2: Clean the surface of the wood

If you’re working with a block of new, unfinished wood, use soapy water with a scrub brush to get rid of dirt on the surface.

However, if the wood is fairly old and faded or discolored from exposure to the elements, you may need to use a bleach solution. Use Trisodium phosphate to eliminate grime buildup, kill mold spores, and brighten the wood. Rinse thoroughly and let the wood air dry.

If the wood in question was previously painted, stained, or finished in any way, work on stripping the existing finish first. You can use a paint stripper or power sander to remove the finish. After that, clean up thoroughly and let the wood dry completely.

Step 3: Sand the wooden surface smooth

Sanding helps to even out imperfections on the surface, whether the piece of wood is assembled or not.

If you can disassemble furniture before sanding, do it. But if you can’t, cover the padded part, if any. However, if sanding a wooden floor, ensure you seal off the vents and any other parts of the house that you don’t want to be covered in dust.

  • Start sanding using 120 grit sandpaper and work in the direction of the grain. If sanding the floor, it’s more practical to use a belt sander. But if you’re prepping a piece of furniture, wrap the sandpaper on a sanding block and sand away.
  • Clean up the sawdust using a shop vac or a soft bristle brush. Scribble a pencil on the surface and then sand using 150 grit sandpaper. Continue sanding in the direction of the grain until the pencil mark comes off completely.
  • Clean up the sawdust and run your palm on the surface to assess the newfound texture. 
  • If you’re satisfied with the look and feel of the wood, stop here. If not, sand further with 180 or 200 grit sandpaper to eliminate tiny scratches left by the previous sandpaper grit.

Vacuum the sawdust off the surface and wipe further with a tack cloth. In place of a tack cloth, soak a cloth with mineral spirits and use it to eliminate every grain of dust on the sanded wood.

how to prepare wood for staining

Step 4: Apply wood conditioner to the wood

Apply a pre-stain wood conditioner to the clean and sanded wood. The wood conditioner will partially fill up the wood pores and help the wood absorb stain more evenly.

This product is watery, and when applied, it will raise the wood grain. Stir the conditioner, dip your foam or paint brush and apply it to the wood. 

Spread a thin and even layer of the conditioner to every inch of the wood. Keep spreading the product and avoid it pooling in one area. The conditioner should dry out in about 15 minutes but allow more time if needed.

Notice that you can use water to raise the grain in place of a wood conditioner. Simply dampen a rag in water and wipe it on the surface; the dampness will make the grain pop in readiness for the stain.

Step 5: Sand down the raised grain

Once the surface is completely dry, scuff sand the raised grain with 180 grit sandpaper and wipe off the dust.

Step 6: Stain the wood

The staining process is the easiest once you’ve done the prep work diligently. Stir and apply the stain using a stain pad or high-quality bristle brush. Ensure you allow sufficient drying times between stain coats.

What to consider when prepping wood for staining

People hardly wake up and randomly decide how to stain unfinished wood or to take on a refinishing project. This is to say that having a plan is essential. 

Having a staining work plan means you know which stain to use, how to prep wood for stain after sanding, and how to apply stain to wood. The plan also incorporates testing out the products on scrap wood to get a sneak peek of the expected results.

So, the next time you see a surface that would do with a fresh coat of stain, here are a few things you should consider.

The type of wood stain to use

When it comes to wood stains, you can find them in three formulations. They are gel stains, water-based, and oil-based wood stains. Each of these has its specific and ideal applications both indoors and outdoors.

Water-based stains are the least toxic and are often preferred for interior applications. They also tend to be more expensive than the oil-based options. You will need to apply slightly more coats of a water-based stain than with other stains for better coverage.

Oil-based stains can be used indoors and outdoors as well, depending on the formulation. They are generally more durable but emit toxic fumes. So you should use them in a well-ventilated space. 

On the other hand, gel stains have a thick, paint-like consistency. They are mostly ideal for controlling absorption on softwoods and plywood. Gel stains impart the most color to the wood, unlike penetrative oil and water-based stains.

Consider the stain application method.

The type of wood stain you choose can determine the most suitable application method to use. For example, a latex paint pad applicator or foam brush is best for applying a water-based wood stain.  

On the other hand, a natural bristle brush or foam brush works well for oil-based or gel stains. Still, you can use a rag to apply the stain or wipe off the excess product.

You need to choose a top coat finish.

Your options for top coat finishes for wood stains are polyurethanes (water or oil-based) and shellac.

If the stained piece will be subjected to heavy traffic, consider using oil-based polyurethane. The advantage is that you can apply oil-based poly over a gel, oil, and water-based stain. 

The downside of oil-based polyurethane is that it takes longer to dry between coats and emits toxic fumes that can cause health problems. You will need to wait at least 24 hours before adding a subsequent coat of oil-based poly.

Water-based poly and shellac are eco-friendly and dry enough for subsequent coats in as little as 2 hours. They provide a durable seal but are best used indoors on surfaces subjected to minimal traffic.

How do you condition wood before staining?

How to Prepare Wood for Staining: FAQs

Here are some of the popular questions about preparing wood for staining.

What do you clean wood with before staining?

Clean wood with soapy water or bleach solution if the wood is slightly faded. After sanding the wood and vacuuming the sawdust, use mineral spirits to eliminate all the dust from the surface. First, dampen a rag in mineral spirits and then wipe down the dusty wood, then you can stain it.

Does wood need to be prepped before staining?

Yes, prepping the wood surface before staining is essential as it helps the stain adhere properly to the wood. Prepping the wood surface also helps remove surface dirt and peeling, cracking, or blistering in case of a previously finished surface. It further improves the quality of results by smoothing the wood and opening the pores to absorb the stain.

Do you need to clean the wood before staining?

Yes, you need to clean wood before staining to achieve a flawless finish. Cleaning wood removes dust, dirt, and debris on the surface. Applying a wood stain to a “dirty” surface will only expose the imperfections and leave you with a less-than-perfect finish.

How do you prepare wood for staining?

You can pretreat wood before staining by applying a wood conditioner. This watery liquid is meant to raise the wood grain and open the wood pores for the stain to penetrate better. You can also opt to raise the grain by wiping the sanded wood with a rag dampened with water.

How do you condition wood before staining?

To condition wood before staining, dip a clean rag into a compatible pre-stain wood conditioner and apply it to the wood surface in the same direction as the wood grain. Next, allow the wood conditioner to dry for the recommended time before applying the wood stain.

Minwax pre-stain wood conditioner

How do you clean wood after sanding before staining?

After sanding, collect the sawdust using a shop vac or brush it off using a soft bristle brush. Next, use a tack cloth to wipe it further and remove any lingering dust. Without a tack cloth, you can use a rag dampened in mineral spirits or water to remove the dust.

Should I wet the wood before sanding?

No, you do not have to wet wood before sanding. In any case, it’s easier to sand a completely dry wood and smooth out the surface. The only instance you would wet wood is to raise the grain before staining.

Do you have to sand before staining

Yes, sanding is essential before staining wood, as it directly influences the quality of the finish. Sanding also helps open up the wood pores to accept the stain better and more evenly.

What grit sandpaper should I use before staining wood?

Begin sanding along the wood grain using 120 and then switch to 220 grit sandpaper before staining. When using oil-based stains, stop sanding at 180 grit sandpaper. However, if you’re staining wood with water-based stains, you can stop at 220-grit sandpaper.

Knowing what sandpaper to use on wood before staining can significantly improve the results of your stain job.

How long does it take for stained wood to dry completely?

Stained wood typically takes 24 to 48 hours to dry completely, but it can vary depending on the type of stain and environmental conditions.

How to Prepare Wood for Staining: Final Thoughts

I hope I have covered everything you need to know about preparing wood for staining.

The wood prep stage contributes a ton to the success of your stain job. So, if you want a pro-level stain finish, you can’t compromise on the planning and preparation stage.

Does this article inspire you to start working on that stain project you’ve been thinking about? I hope it does. Please leave a comment in the section below if you have a related question or observation.

Happy woodworking!

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