I have stained hardwood floors many times in my lifetime. And it turns out that I am pretty good at it. But even the best of us make mistakes sometimes.
Recently, I stained a floor in our living room and, unfortunately, made a few errors – the result was an ugly, blotchy mess.
With my previous experiences and the errors that I made, I have come up with a list of the top mistakes that should be avoided and can be worked on when staining hardwood floors.
If you have already made any of these mistakes and are trying to fix your staining project, or if you just want to avoid them, this detailed article will help you a lot.
Wood Stain Mistakes
First of all, accept it – staining the wood is a tricky job, and not all of us are experts in this field.
Not only on hardwood floors, but mistakes can happen when staining your furniture piece, cabinets, decks, or fences. But with a bit of practice and know-how, you can easily avoid making these common mistakes.
1- Blotchy Surface
Not sanding the wood properly before staining is the first reason for a blotchy stain job. If the wood is not sanded evenly and with uniform pressure on the entire surface, the stain will not be absorbed evenly, and you will end up with a blotchy, uneven surface.
Blotches and dark spots on the surface also generally happen when you stain over wet wood or timber that has not dried completely. Because moisture and water particles get trapped inside the wood fibers, they can cause blotchiness over the freshly stained surface, which can be hard to fix later.
Dust, dirt, grime, and debris are the third culprit that can lead to a blotchy stained surface. If you stain the wood without proper cleaning, these particles get trapped inside the coat ruining your efforts and creating a dappled surface.
Lastly, the varying densities of the wood fibers can also lead to problems. If you are working with hardwoods like oak, cherry, and walnut, for example, they will absorb the stain well. But the timbers like birch, pine, and poplar are less dense and have spongy areas that don’t absorb the stain evenly. In fact, they tend to absorb more stains than other hardwoods, creating a blotchy surface.
The best way to fix or prevent the blotchy stain problem is by:
- Allowing the surface to dry properly (for at least 48 hours) before applying the wood stain.
- Sanding the wood properly before staining with uniform pressure throughout the surface using fine-grit sandpaper.
- Cleaning the wood thoroughly with a tack cloth or vacuum cleaner to remove all the dust, dirt, and debris.
- Testing the stain on a small, inconspicuous area before applying it to the entire surface.
- Applying a pre-stain wood conditioner before staining which will help even out the absorption and prevent blotchiness.
If the blotchiness has appeared even after trying the above methods, the only option left is to sand the entire surface and reapply the stain.
2- Sticky Stained Surface
Even after 2-3 days of staining the hardwood flooring, if the surface still feels sticky, it can be a big problem as it will attract dirt and debris, and you won’t be able to clean it easily.
The main reason for the surface feeling tacky is applying the topcoat too soon, where the stain will not completely dry from the inside and will take longer to dry than expected.
Applying an excessive amount of wood stain and thicker coats can also lead to a tacky surface that’s hard to dry – especially if your area experiences high humidity levels.
Another reason for the sticky stained surface is the incorrect application of two dissimilar materials, like applying a water-based topcoat over an oil-based stain. This usually happens when you don’t pay close attention to product selection or read the labels carefully.
Unfortunately, water-based and oil-based stains are incompatible with one another and thus take much longer than usual to dry, leaving the surface feeling tacky.
To fix the sticky wood stain problem, you need to:
- Allow the stain to dry completely before applying the topcoat. This can take up to 48 hours, so be patient.
- Do not mix water-based stains with oil-based stains. Choose a single product that is best suited for your project.
- Apply only thin layers of stain, and do not coat the wood too much. 2-3 coats will be more than enough for most projects.
- If the surface is tacky after 48 hours, sand it lightly and apply another thin layer of topcoat.
3- Uneven Staining on the Surface
If you observe light and dark spots, an unattractive cloudy finish, or unwanted streaks all over the stained surface, chances are that an uneven application of stain, improper sanding, and lack of prep work is to blame.
Another potential culprit could be inadequate stirring before use, because of which pigments tend to settle at the bottom of the container resulting in inadequate coverage.
A mottled look all over the surface can also happen if you have used any old stain contaminated with other products, have not cleaned the stain container properly before use, or used a dirty brush.
All of these can be quite a hassle, as it detracts from the overall aesthetic effect.
To solve this issue, you need to:
- Mix the stain properly before use to ensure the pigments are evenly distributed.
- Sand the surface lightly and evenly before staining. And remove all the dust particles.
- Use a new clean container and a clean, soft brush (or roller) for application. Do not use any old products that may be contaminated.
- Apply 2-3 thin layers of the stain evenly and in a single direction. Do not go over the same area multiple times to fix the mess, as this can lead to uneven absorption.
4- Improper Sanding and Curing
Dark spots or marks can sometimes cause if you have not sanded the surface properly before and during the stain application process.
This also sometimes leads to improper drying and curing times which means the stain gets dried too soon, right after the application, without penetrating deep into the wood.
The key things you need to focus on to avoid or fix this problem are:
- Sand the surface evenly with the right sandpaper grits before and during the staining process. Start with a coarser grit (60-100) and move to a finer one (150-220).
- Focus on applying even pressure while sanding so you don’t create uneven sanding marks.
- Use a tack cloth or vacuum cleaner to remove all the dust particles during the sanding and staining process. This will help the stain to adhere correctly to the surface.
- Follow the recommended drying and curing times for the specific stain you use.
- For most wood types, allow at least 2-3 days to complete drying and curing. Do not put rugs or mats on the floor during this time, as it can cause re-soiling.
5- Uneven or Wrong Color Shade
You have purchased an expensive stain product and expect a beautiful even color shade on your flooring. But unfortunately, you end up with an uneven or incorrect color tone that doesn’t match the shade card you have looked at while purchasing.
This can be very frustrating and usually happen due to not mixing the pigments properly, using a non-reliable brand of stain, or the wood being too old.
Sometimes there can also be variations in the grain structure and density of timber along the flooring. Some areas might have a higher number of pores that absorb the stain quickly, while others might be denser and take longer to absorb it.
To fix this problem, you need to:
- Use a reliable brand of stain with good reviews to provide even coloration.
- Mix the pigments properly and test the color on a small area before applying it to the entire floor.
- If the shade is not per your liking, you can either tint the stain to get the desired tone or replace it with the one you like.
- Use a brush, roller, or sprayer to apply the stain evenly on the surface and always apply a second coat to get the desired shade.
- If the wood is too old or it already carries some finish, you might need to prep carefully, sand it down to bare wood and then perform the staining process.
6- Stain Appears too Dark or too Light
If you’re considering staining your floors, this frequent issue may arise because of the factors like wood type, age and prior finishes.
Some exotic wood species, such as cherry, mahogany, and walnut, are naturally very dark; so if you use a light-colored stain on these woods, it will appear too light. On the other hand, if you use a dark-colored stain on lighter woods such as maple or oak, it will appear too dark.
Age is also a determining factor how the stain will look on the flooring. If the wood is too old, for example, the stain will not penetrate deep into the pores and will appear lighter. In contrast, newer wood absorbs the stain more readily and can appear too dark.
Additionally, some types of wood contain naturally high levels of oil that will prevent the even absorption and proper application of oil-based stains and finishes. This can lead to an uneven appearance with places taking on a darker or lighter shade than desired.
To fix this problem, you need to:
- Choose a stain that is closer in color tone for your project. For instance, apply a white or light-colored stain if you’re aiming to create something with lighter undertones and try out dark stains such as chocolate brown when going for deeper shades.
- If the wood is aged, sand it down to its bare surface before you commence staining for optimal results.
- If the wood you are dealing has a high oil content, you can enhance your results by utilizing a water-based or gel stain. These types of stains are less likely to be rejected by the wood itself and will give an even color throughout.
Even after trying the above tips, if your stain comes out too light, build up the color gradually by applying a thin layer of stain until you get the desired shade. On the other hand, if it is too dark for your liking, try using paint thinner, alcohol or bleach to remove some of the excess pigment.
As an alternate method, sanding down could be used in order to strip away the layers and create a more desired look.
7- Ignoring the Grain and Patterns
Wood varieties each have their own distinctive grains and delicate patterns, making it essential to consider them while applying the stain.
If the grain isn’t fully filled or if the stain is not applied uniformly, these textures will be far more visible after drying – often leading to an unsightly finish that’s difficult to remedy.
For an easy fix to this problem and get flawless staining, you need to:
- Use a pre-stain conditioner, before applying the stain, to fill the pores of wood making the grain less visible.
- Evenly and firmly apply the stain so that its absorbed uniformly into the wood, without emphasizing its grains too much.
- Always use a fresh brush or roller to apply the stain in the same direction as the grain. Going against these patterns will result in an uneven distribution.
8- Allowing the Stain to Dry Before Wiping it off
Frequently, DIYers make the misstep of not wiping off any drips or surplus stain on their wood floors and furniture right after application.
For an even finish, you must allow the stain to penetrate deeply by letting it rest for a few hours. However, if there are spots that contain extra staining product it need to be wiped away promptly.
If you don’t wipe it off immediately, it starts drying and will become difficult to remove. As a result, you will be left with an uneven and ugly finish.
To prevent and fix this problem, you must:
- Utilize a clean cloth or brush to quickly remove any extra stain immediately.
- To prevent leaving unsightly marks on the wood, always wipe the stain in accordance with it’s grain pattern.
- If the unfortunate stain has had some time to dry, use a paint thinner or mineral spirits for removing it. Remember not to apply such solvents directly – rather, make sure you soak your rag first and then proceed with wiping away the dried residue from where you need it gone.
9- Odor that Stays for a Long After the Stain Application
Pungent odors are a common concern with wood stains. Oil-based stains and finishes can release an unpleasant smell that may persist for days or weeks, which can be incredibly irritating in small spaces without proper ventilation.
Nevertheless, you needn’t worry too much – if the area is well-ventilated, then the odor should slowly dissipate within one to two weeks’ time.
The issue arises when a pungent odor (like rotten eggs or fish) lingers in the air, even after ventilation for weeks. This typically happens when you use an old, unusable stain that has been stored away in your garage for years. Additionally, applying the stain under extreme weather conditions, such as excessive humidity or freezing temperatures, can cause similar issues.
To avoid this problem, you must:
- Select a top-notch stain that is newly purchased and not past its expiration date.
- If you intend to use the stain again, store it in a cool and dry area. Plus, ensure you use it within a few weeks for optimal results.
- Steer clear of applying the stain in chillier climates or particularly humid places. If you can’t avoid it, make sure to do so in a room with plenty of fresh air.
- If the smell lingers beyond expectations, a dehumidifier can be used in order to reduce humidity levels and consequently eliminate any odors.
10- Gouge and Machine Marks on the Wood Surface
If you have used the tools such as orbital sanders, planers, or routers carelessly, you will end up with machine marks which typically show up in corners, edges, and on wood pieces that have been carved or milled.
If unsightly marks have appeared after you’ve completed your staining job, they can not only be incredibly difficult to remove but also ruin the look of your wood project. Additionally, some stains will make them even more noticeable and harder than ever to rectify the mistake.
Hence, it is best to take extra caution while performing a staining job in order to avoid any future issues with these disturbances marring the overall beauty.
To avoid this problem from happening, you must:
- Exercise extreme caution when operating power tools and apply gentle pressure while sanding the wood using a sander.
- Begin sanding with fine-grit paper to scrub out any marks before staining. Then switch over to an even higher grit for your final sanding pass so that no unsightly streaks or scratches can be seen once you apply the stain.
- If the marks are still visible after staining, use a wood filler to make them less noticeable, and then sand the area smoothly.
Type of Floor Stain Applicator to Choose to Avoid Problems
When it comes to avoiding the blotchy uneven stain on your floorboards, picking the right type of applicator is key. The most popular and effective types of applicators are:
These tools are perfect for those looking to coat their floor with a thin layer of stain. If you can get the hang of using sprayers, you can get beautiful, even coating on your floor very quickly.
The only problem with sprayers is that they can be a bit difficult to use if you are a beginner.
Unlike many other floor staining tools, you’ll want to experiment and get used to using sprayers—especially the airless variety—before attempting to use them on your floor to get the even blotch-free coating you want.
2- Paint Rollers
For a smaller floor area, they’re one of the simplest tools to use—simply load the roller with your preferred floor stain and get to work.
What you’ll want to look out for, is to choose a roller with 3/4-inch or thicker roller covers and having enough stain on the roller to keep a consistent even coating.
Another good option is to use a power paint roller that is electrically operated. It’s good for larger floor areas and lets you quickly stain like a pro without worrying about the refill.
3- Staining Brushes
Floor stain brushes are fairly easy to use and come in different varieties—from 6 inches to smaller 2 inches- designed to paint cracks and grooves.
For staining between floorboards, you can also choose a “crack and groove brush” that comes with a shape and texture ideal for getting into small spaces along with railings and sides of stairs as well.
4- Speed Mops and Stain Pads
The speed mops and stain pads are designed to glide effortlessly over the flooring area while providing even stain coverage up to eighteen inches at a time. They have adjustable nozzles allowing you to customize the width of your stain application. They also feature non-slip handles, which help you keep a secure grip when using them.
What makes stain pads like Shur-Line floor stain applicators great is that they hold more paint and staining material when compared to rollers and other kinds of brushes. This means that you’ll be able to get more out of your tool and that you can more easily even coat the entire floor.
5- Push Brushes or A Push Broom
When it comes to staining horizontal floorboard surfaces, push brushes and push brooms are some of the most reliable tools. They offer results that can be equated with a pad applicator but come with an added advantage – they’re more durable than pads. I personally believe this is why these stain applicators are my go-to for cleaning and staining floors.
I’m a fan of the push broom applicator as it retains more stain than a regular paint pad, making my staining job simpler and quicker. Furthermore, its bristles allow me to work between boards for even coverage in one pass. You won’t believe this—the brush is also an ideal tool for coating latticework that’s usually hard to treat.
The Bottom Line
Remember that a lousy stain job and fixing it on your flooring is not only embarrassing but can also reduce the value of your home.
Should you find yourself with an undesirable floor stain job on your hands, don’t be discouraged—there are a variety of DIY solutions depending on what best fits your budget and whether or not you want to keep the original color.
However, if you do not want to mess up or want to avoid the incredibly tricky job altogether, it’s well worth the cost to have a professional come in and do the job correctly. It can have both aesthetic and long-lasting implications that cannot be undone easily.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.