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Have you tried to apply a water based stain in the past, but the results were blotchy and uneven coverage?

If so, then you’ll want to scroll down and read this post.

After our own struggles with a water based stain, and many hours working with stain, we’ll share the tips you need to know to get professional results the first time.

Applying water based stain is different from an oil based stain.

Water based stain dries much faster and so you need to follow certain steps to get the beautiful result you’re looking for.

As part of the built in entertainment center for the basement family room, we installed a stained wood top and mantle.

The stained wood top warms up the space and makes it feel inviting.

For quite a few years, it seems like painted wood was the popular choice.

I love that natural wood finishes are showing up more and more in home designs, I believe it really adds a cozy feel to any room.

In fact with Ellie’s bedroom makeover, once we stripped the paint from her dresser we had to let the natural beauty of the wood shine through.


How to Prepare Wood Before Applying Water Based Stain

All wood surfaces require preparation before applying water based stain.

And if you’re in a hurry and skip this essential step your finish may fail.

Fill Holes and Seams

How to apply a water based stain - All purpose wood filler container setting on the raw wood surface.

First apply a stainable wood filler and fill in any small cracks, seams, or holes that might be in your wood.

Make sure you use a product that is a stainable wood filler and not just a paintable wood filler.

Sand Wood Surface

How to apply a water based stain - Woman's hand holding purple fine sandpaper lighty sanding the wood surface after the stain is applied.

Then once the wood filler has dried, sand open-grain wood such as oak, ash or mahogany with 120 grit sandpaper, followed by 150 grit, then 180 grit.

And for closed-grain wood like cherry, pine, maple, birch or alder sand with a 150 grit sandpaper followed by 220 grit.

In addition, you’ll want to take care not to over-sand with fine-grit sandpaper.

This will close and seal the wood grain, preventing the proper color absorption.

Also, do not use steel wool with water-based finishes, the particles will get trapped in the finish and rust.

Once your piece is all sanded remove dust with a vacuum, tack cloth or a damp rag.

We like to vacuum the piece then use a tack cloth.

A tack cloth is very sticky, so it will pick up dust that you can’t even see.

While you can technically stain wood without sanding, your results will vary.

Without sanding, your stain will be more blotchy, it’ll darken any scratches or dings in the wood.

However if you are looking for a more rustic look to your stained piece then you can skip the standing step.

Apply a Pre Stain Wood Conditioner

How to apply a water based stain - Woman's hand holding a paint brush, applying the water based wood conditioner before applying the stain.

I feel applying a pre stain wood conditioner is the most important step to take before using a water based stain.

First, it will improve the uniformity of the color or your stained piece.

In other words, you’ll have less blotchiness and uneven coverage, which is very common with soft woods such as pine.

However, we still experienced uneven coverage with our oak.

How to apply water based stain, examples of different methods of applying stain to the oak plywood board, with descriptions on each section.

Before we applied the water based stain to our tops for the built in entertainment center, we experimented with the stain on scraps of oak.

We applied the stain with a paint brush and with rags.

And experimented with just the water based stain on the sanded wood and also using a pre stain conditioner.

In addition, we experimented with the length of time we allowed the water based stain to sit on the wood.

And our conclusion after our experiment was that the pre stain wood conditioner helps with uniformity with the overall coverage.

Also we concluded that allowing the stain to set on the wood for 5-10 minutes per the directions on the can resulted in a streaky finish even when using the pre stain wood conditioner.

Our best results were applying the pre stain wood conditioner according the the directions on the can and wiping off the stain within a minute after applying it.

While applying the water based stain with a rag gave us the best results with our experiment, but when working with a large surface we chose to use a staining applicator pad.

In addition, a water-based pre-stain wood conditioner also raises the grain which means it will minimize the grain from being raised once the stain is applied.

This will allow you to have the smoothest surface possible for your finished product.

How to Apply Pre Stain Conditioner

First, stir the pre stain wood conditioner thoroughly.

Then use a nylon or nylon/polyester brush or a saturated clean cloth and apply liberally to all areas of the wood surface including edges.

Allow to penetrate between 5-10 minutes, and then wipe off any noticeable excess with a clean, dry cloth.

Finally allow Pre-Stain to dry for up to 20 minutes before applying
Wood Stain.

How to apply a water based stain - Woman's hand holding purple fine sandpaper lighty sanding the wood surface after the stain is applied.

Last but not least, sand lightly prior to staining to remove any grain raise.

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Apply Water Based Stain

White gloved woman's hand holding a stain applicator, applying the water based stain to the wood surface.

While there are many pros to working with a water based stain like low odor, easy soap and water clean-up and dries in 1 hour.

However that quick dry time can have it’s challenges too.

With that in mind, you want to apply the stain as quickly as possible to avoid lap marks.

Use the Proper Applicator

First and foremost, you want to apply the stain quickly and efficiently.

If you’re working on a large area, use a large staining pad, pad applicator or a roller.

And if the surface is small, you can apply the stain with a foam brush.

For contoured surfaces, you can use a good quality synthetic bristle brush or spray with an airless sprayer.

Apply Enough stain

Not only does wood absorb water based stain differently than an oil based stain, but it may take more product to saturate the wood and keep it wet.

The key to getting a flawless finish is keeping the stained area wet.

If too little stain is used, the surface can dry too quickly causing an uneven appearance.

For this reason, make sure the surface you are staining is completely wet.

Temperature and Humidity

The temperature and humidity can greatly affect the dry time of the stain.

Ideally the temperature should be about 70° with about 50% humidity.

If you’re working in a dry climate like us, your work time is reduced.

Also, you do not want to apply the stain in direct sunlight.

It will dry too quickly and will result in an uneven finish.

Use Absorbent Towels or Rags to Remove Stain

How to apply a water based stain - White gloved woman's hand holding cotton cloth removing excess water based stain from wood surface.

Cheap paper towels and t-shirt rags can ruin a water based stain.

Clearly they just don’t absorb enough stain and just push it around.

So instead, use high quality absorbent paper towels, or cotton terry cloths to remove the excess stain.

Then keep your pressure light and even, with the final wipe along with the grain of the wood.

In addition, you can use a dry natural bristle brush to remove stain from the corners.

Natural bristle brushes absorb better than synthetic brushes.

And when the brush gets saturated, wipe it on a dry rag.

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Seal Water Based Stain

Woman's hand holding a can of water based polyurethane top coat.

Definitely sealing wood after staining is essential to protect it from damage and discoloration from foods, liquids and oils from our hands.

While wood stain may seal the pores and offer some protection from moisture and water damage, its primary purpose is to color natural wood.

Woman's hand holding a paint brush applying a water based polyurethane topcoat over the water based stain.e

For our topcoat we chose a water-based polyurethane, using a high quality nylon/polyester bristle brush.

Apply a thin even coat in the direction of the grain of the wood, making sure to maintain a wet edge.

For added protection, we applied three coats of the polyurethane to our water based stained wood.

Sand lightly between coats with fine sand paper.

Remove dust with a tack cloth before applying additional coats.

After the final coat, allow 12 – 24 hours before light use.

It will fully cure in three days after the final coat.

If you’d like you can apply an oil-based polyurethane topcoat over the water based stain, just allow it to fully cure for 24 hours before applying the topcoat.

How to apply water based stain - finished stained wood for built in entertainment center, champagne gold library lights.

Tips for Success

  • Divide your project into manageable sections: top, side, drawer, door, table seam.
  • Stain one complete section at a time.
  • Apply a generous amount of stain to ensure easy workability using a synthetic bristle brush, foam brush, pad applicator or roller.
  • Work quickly.
  • If your project is large, work with a partner, one applies the stain, one removes the stain.
  • Do NOT use cotton t-shirts to wipe away stain because they will “push” the stain around and not absorb it.
  • Wipe off the excess evenly, following the grain of the wood using cloth or an absorbent paper towel. Check for missed spots and lap marks before moving to the next section.
  • Immediately correct lap marks by rewetting the entire working area with stain and wiping off the excess.
  • Pull excess stain out of corners and details with a synthetic bristle brush.
  • When staining wood, always follow the instructions on the can. Every brand and even color can have different requirements, so it’s always best to read the can first.
  • TEST YOUR STAIN- Every single piece of wood takes stain differently, so you want to test your color on a scrap piece of wood that came from the project you’re about to stain. Test your complete finishing process beforehand. The color can even be deepened with the application of the topcoat.
How to apply water based stain - finished stained wood for built in entertainment center, decorated with sailboat, books, shell, starfish, plants, candles, and wood shoes.

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Certainly there are a lot of rules that should be followed when applying a water based stain.

But a water based stain does has its benefits too.

It dries so quickly, you can stain and topcoat in the same day.

If you are sensitive to smells, a water based stain has much less odor than a traditional oil based stain.

Not to mention that you can clean up with soap and water.

Have you worked with a water based stain before?

What were you results? Did you like working with a water based stain?

If you are staining pine wood, you’ll want to check out all of our tips here.

Thank you for spending a little time with us today.

Are you ready to try a water based stain?

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PInterest image, staged navy blue built ins with a water based stained oak with large champayne gold door pulls.

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