First of all, you have to know what kind of water-based stain you're dealing with. All water-based stains have essentially the same ingredients — pigments and binders that are suspended in water. Now we all know that water soaks into wood pretty quick. That's what leads to the pigment drying before it can be wiped up. To get around this, stain makers take one of two approaches.
Most stains use a two-part process. First, you apply a wood conditioner (more on that later) to the project. The second part is brushing on the stain. These stains have a very runny consistency. They flow easily and penetrate quickly, as in the photo at left.
But I've found one stain manufacturer that approaches the problem of controlling the penetration in another way. General Finishes EF (Environmentally Friendly) stains are a lot thicker — about the consistency of maple syrup.
Being thicker, this type of stain doesn't penetrate as fast. So it sits on the surface of the wood longer. This gives you more time to work it across the project before wiping off the excess. While this gets around using a conditioner, the drawback is you'll end up applying more stain and you'll have to wait a few minutes longer for the full color to develop.
Preparing the Surface
Before you open the can of stain, youH need to take a couple of steps to prepare the surface of the project.
SANDING FOR A SMOOTH FINISH. First, I sand the project one grit higher than I usually would for oil-based finishes. I'll go to 220 or 300 grit. This step further smooths and slightly burnishes the surface, which helps to even out the penetration of the stain to reduce blotching.
RAISING THE GRAIN. The next step addresses the problem of raised grain. The way wood reacts to water-based finishes is different from oil-based finishes. With water, the wood fibers swell and lift. After the water evaporates, the fibers stay raised like a five o'clock shadow. Dealing with raised grain depends on the type of stain you plan to use.
When using a thicker stain, it's a good idea to raise the grain prior to staining by lightly spraying on some water after sanding, (Step 1). Once it's dry, you can feel "whiskers" on the surface. Smooth it out with a quick pass with the same grit sandpaper used for final sanding.
DOUBLE-DUTY WOOD CONDITIONER. If you plan to use a thin stain, you can skip the water. Instead, you'll need to apply wood conditioner. The conditioner is simply a sealer that soaks into the wood and slows the penetration of stain, giving you time to apply the stain and wipe down the excess.
3 Apply the stain to a small section of the project with a foam brush. Then you can wipe off the excess stain with a dry brush or clean rag.
17o raise the grain before applying thick stain, first lightly mist the project with water. When it's dry, sand down any raised "whiskers."
And since it's water-based, it raises the grain so you can knock it down with sandpaper before staining.
The wood conditioner I used looks like skim milk, as in Step 2. Apply it liberally with a foam brush making sure to cover the entire surface. It dries clear and is ready for stain in about 30-45 minutes. Again, lightly sand off any raised grain.
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