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What Is Water Popping?

One of the procedures we go through with every single hardwood floor that we stain is called “water popping”. It sounds kind of funny doesn’t it? It’s also called “grain popping” or “raising the grain”. Basically, water popping is a process used to open up the grain of wood flooring.

Water Popping Hardwood Floor

Why Is It Needed?

Well, once we’ve completed several sanding passes with various paper grits – from course to fine – the hardwood floor naturally becomes extremely smooth. The hardwood floors grain has become closed and tight, or in other words, it isn’t open or porous enough for it to accept stain properly and evenly. Most of the stain will sit on top of the closed, tight wood grain and not penetrate deep enough. Then when it’s wiped off, the majority of the stain will be removed as it hasn’t soaked into the wood effectively.

By applying water to the wood before the staining procedure, it re-opens the grain and makes the hardwood floor porous again, allowing for much better results with the staining procedure.

The water popping process has a number of benefits:

  1. It allows the stain to be applied more evenly
    across the floor.
  2. It en-richens and darkens the stain color by allowing
    the grain to absorb more of the pigment.
  3. It helps remove any small remaining sanding marks
    that may have been missed.
  4. By raising the wood fibers, the finish will penetrate
    deeper
    and result in a stronger finish.

We’ll go through each of these benefits below one-by-one. But first you’re probably wondering…

How Is Water Popping Done?

You can do this procedure in a number of ways. Some like to use a water jug and a T-bar to pour and then spread the water around the floor. Others use chemical sprayers to mist the floor with water. Some use a buffer with a soaked carpet pad.

We personally use the more time consuming, but more certain and safer method of a bucket, a rag and getting down on our hands and knees. Doing it this way allows us to getter a much closer view of what we’re doing as opposed to a 6ft view standing up. If any tiny spot is missed in this procedure then the stain job will be ruined and you would have to start all over again. Not something we’re willing to risk. The 15 extra minutes to do it right the first time is worth the extra effort we feel.

So basically we wipe our wet (but not soaked) rags over the floor, overlapping the areas as we progress to make sure no spots are missed. It’s super important that this is done very evenly. You can’t have a huge puddle of water on one section and then another section is hardly damp. If its water popped unevenly, then the stain will soak in unevenly as well and the floors will look blotchy. Definitely not the results you want! If this happens, the only way to rectify it is a complete re-sand. All that time and money you just spent to get to this stage will have been wasted.

It’s also important to note that you need to use very clean water with this procedure. If the water has any contaminants in it, it could react with the stain or finish and give you a huge headache down the road.

Once the entire floor has been water popped, we wait for it to dry. The time for this can vary because of weather and humidity etc. but usually after 1-4 hours it’s ready. When the floor has dried, you’ll see that it has become quite rough looking and it’s no longer smooth to the touch. This means the floors grain is now open and ready to accept stain. Once we’ve double checked the newly water popped floor to make sure nothing was missed and for even coverage… it’s then ready to begin staining.

Let’s look at those 4 benefits we mentioned at the start of the article a little closer.

Benefit 1 – It Allows the Stain to be Applied More Evenly

As was mentioned previously, there are numerous sanding sequences used on a hardwood floor refinishing project. As the belt sander, edger, buffer and TRIO are all used across the floor with different paper grits. During each sanding stage, the floors grain closes and tightens more. This doesn’t occur evenly though because of the nature and technique of the sanding machines used. The area in the center of the floor may have more open grain than the perimeters because two very different machines are used.

When the floor is water popped properly, all of the hardwood floors grain is evened out and becomes equal. Now when the stain is applied, there will be no worries about any areas accepting the stain differently and you ending up with a blotchy floor.

Water Popped Floor

Benefit 2 – It Makes the Stain Color Darker and Richer

Many people have been choosing darker stain colors the last few years. It is a very dramatic and classy look when done correctly. The problem is that a lot of homeowners have visions of nice, deep dark floors but when they see lighter results than what they were expecting, they’re not happy.

The secret to dark, evenly stained floors is water popping. As we’ve talked about, when the floor is smooth, the grain is closed and the stain doesn’t have enough wood fibers to soak into. This is why floors come out lighter than what you see in your stain sample – most of the stain is wiped of leaving very little that has penetrated into the wood. When the floor is water popped, the grain is fully opened and now you have the perfect surface for the stain to soak into the wood and provide that deep, dark rich color that you were after.

ALWAYS make sure you ask for a water popped sample before committing to a color though. The shade you have on your stain sample may be very different to what you end up with.

Benefit 3 – It Helps Remove Any Small Remaining Sanding Marks

This is a little bonus benefit you get from water popping. Of course the floor should be sanded to an extremely high quality before any staining should be started, but no-one is perfect and we can all miss some of those tiny sanding marks – especially from the very aggressive edger. In a non-water popped floor, the stain will leave a darker shade in the missed sanding marks, leaving then very noticeable. When the grain is raised from water popping though, any tiny cross grain marks are minimized and blended into the woods fibers. We think of it as that tiny extra bit of insurance.

Benefit 4 – Finish Will Penetrate Deeper and Result In a Stronger Finish.

It makes sense that, seeing the wood fibers are raised by the water popping process, there is more hardwood floor “surface” for the finish to stick to and soak into. This is in fact what happens. The first coat of finish goes on very thirsty as it soaks into the grain and flows out across the surface. Because the popped grain is very fibrous, the first coat has much more surface to grab onto and penetrate into. This results in a much stronger coating compared to just coating over a smooth, closed grain hardwood floor. This isn’t a huge difference, but again one of those extra little bonuses you get from using this procedure.

Caution Needed When Water Popping Hardwood Floors

After a floor is water-popped, it is extremely delicate. We take great caution when moving around on an open grained floor. Any little scuff mark made from a misplaced shoe movement will result in a lighter area on the floor and thus a complete re-sand. If you attempt this procedure yourself, please be super, super careful between the stages of a dried water popped floor and staining. We suggest socks only.

If you are going to try this on your own floors, also be aware of how much water you apply to the floor. It is vital that you coat the floor evenly and not wet the floor too much which will result in blotchy areas. Also allow sufficient time for it to dry properly before applying stain.

The outcome of a water popped floor will vary based on certain factors like the type of wood, the amount of water used, the length of drying time and the color and brand of stain applied. We always test first before committing to a whole floor and we highly suggest you do the same if attempting this on your own floors.

Our professional opinion is that it’s better to leave water popping and staining of hardwood floors up to the experts. We have spent years perfecting our techniques, and both water popping and staining – while not extremely difficult – have many failure points that could easily and very quickly ruin all the time, effort and money you’ve put into your hardwood floors.

We know many people from outside of the Naperville, Illinois area read our blog, so our advice to you is to ask your hardwood floor refinishing professional for references from previous water popped jobs. Ask lots of questions based on this article to see if they’re knowledgeable about the water popping process.

And most important, don’t forget to ask for samples of your stain color choice on a water popped and a un-water popped wood sample.

26 Comments

  1. Mick says:

    Thank you very much for explaining this so clearly, I always wondered exactly how it was done and why. Now I’m scared to do it though incase I mess up :)

    • Hi Mick,

      You’re welcome, glad we could help. Yes it can be a little daunting the first time. If you have a bit of experience with woodworking it won’t be too hard. Just make sure you practice on some scrap wood a few times first :)

  2. Frank Hall says:

    Thank you for a very clear instruction on popping wood floors. I am going to be staining some red oak stair treads. After water popping and staining, do you lightly sand the wood before applying finish, or leave it alone and let the finish smooth out the finished product.

    Frank

    • You’re welcome Frank. You’ll want to put a coat of finish on first and then you can lightly sand it to smooth it out. Don’t go crazy on the first coat though, wait until the second coat to make it super smooth.

      Good luck Frank!

  3. jim says:

    What do you think about using a alcohol mixture for faster evaporation and less grain pop

    • Hi Jim, you could definitely give it a try if you like, there are guys out there that do. There wouldn’t be any real significant benefit though and it would add additional cost to the job, plus like you said “less grain pop” so the color won’t be as intense.

      Tadas

  4. Alicia says:

    I’ve just recently stained my floors withOUT water popping and the color is leaving a lot to be desired. I’m going for a rich, dark brown and after 4 coats of dark walnut, jacobean and ebony, the floor still looks…like it did before I started. I have yet to put the polyeurathane on; is it possible to complete this water popping AFTER I’ve stained?
    Thank you!

    • Hi Alicia,

      Sorry to be the bearer of bad news… but you can’t water pop after you’ve already applied stain :( You’ll have to sand it down to bare wood again, water pop first and then stain.

      Hope you get the color you want!

      Tadas

  5. Teresa says:

    Contractors have had to REDO our oak floors 3 times in past few weeks.1st they left trash and waves also rough high areas under cabinets and bubbled mess from trapped vapors.2nd time same..3rd time they did the spray on water popping and one coat of natural poly finish.I am waiting for them to come and do next 2 coats of natural finish.I am so afraid they have messed up again because my floors look as though there are planks that look like dry bare wood AND there is dust particles throughout except on theones I am speaking of and they have NO shine on these ones that look as though they were missed.From what Im gathering from you here is,”It looks like they didnot water my floors evenly and missed areas.Please tell me this is not going to have to be sanded down to bare wood AGAIN.And if they did miss spots will it take the next coat.PLEASE HELP ME :(

    • Hi Teresa,

      Sorry to hear about your troubles. Wow 3 sands in a few weeks! Your poor floors. I hope you don’t have to do it gain, you’ll have no wood left. So were the floors stained? I wasn’t to clear from your post.

      It is hard to give advice without seeing he floors in person but I would wait until the second coat before starting to worry too much. Usually the first coat of finish doesn’t look too good in general. The next coat should even things out. Hopefully it works out this time. If not you really need to get a professional in that knows what they’re doing.

      Good luck Teresa.

      Tadas

  6. Libby says:

    Im a builder in NJ. Finishing a 1.5M house and having nightmare with ebony floors.
    They were not water popped. The color is fair but the poly finish is a mess. They
    have been done 3 times in 2 weeks. High lows, dull and shiny, white haze.
    Any suggestions? They did 2 tries with oil poly and 1 with Abso?? water/oil?
    These are beautiful white oak top grade.

    Help!

    • Hi Libby,

      Yikes! That doesn’t sound like fun :(

      Sounds like your guys are not very capable. You need to call in a professional floor refinisher to sort out what the issue is. There is no way a floor should be finished 3 times in 2 weeks and still have major issues. If I was close by I would come out to have a look myself. I hope you can get someone to for this out for you soon. Good luck Libby.

      Tadas

  7. Laura Sheppard says:

    If I have my floors water popped, will a dark walnut stain be a dark brown? Do we need to add Jacobean o Ebony? We have white/red oak floors that are in great shape. Having them refinished. Had them sanded and stained last week. Major disaster! Bad color and very blotchy. They did not water pop. Now they are re-sanding and will water pop.
    Also, I think they use mineral spirits in the water pop process. Is this ok?

    • Hi Laura,

      Sorry your having problems with your floors. As far as stain colors, always do tests of different blends in an inconspicuous area or on scrap pieces first. That way you’ll be able to find the perfect color for your floors. Your flooring contractor should be helping you with this.

      Not sure why they would use mineral spirits as it wouldn’t raise the grain enough (plus it would stink up the place and add a lot of fumes), are you sure it wasn’t denatured alcohol?

      Hope this try gets it done for you Laura – good luck!

      Tadas

  8. Laura Sheppard says:

    Thanks for the info. We now have another problem. The 4th coat of water based poly was Minwax Polycrylic. We now know that it shouldn’t have been used on the floors. Only the 4th coat is this Polycrylic. Can we put a water based oil modified polyurethane on top of the polycrylic without screening? The first 3 coats were a water based oil modified polyurethane.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Laura,

      To be completely honest with you, these products your guys are using are low cost DIY big box store type finishes and we don’t have any experience with them and would certainly not use them on our clients floors.

      But I had a look at the Polycrylic finish and yes, it definitely shouldn’t be used for floors. And yes it should be screened.

      My full cover-all-your-bases suggestion is to test to see if the 2 finishes will adhere properly to each other by screening a small area, cleaning it well and applying a top coat. Wait a few days for it to cure and then do an adhesion test by cutting cross hatches into the finish and apply some clear tape over the top and rip it off. If it has bonded well, you shouldn’t see any finish on the tape. You can then be certain it will be OK for the rest of your floors.

      But… if you were my client I’d insist on removing the cheap finish you have by sanding back to bare wood and starting over using a professional finish system :)

      As far as professional hardwood floor finishes go there’s no such thing as a “water based oil modified polyurethane”. Minwax is basically using that as a marketing term – very clever but very misleading too… although technically they’re not lying.

      If you want some good information about hardwood floor finishes you can read a detailed article we wrote here:

      http://napervillehardwood.com/Choosing_Finish.pdf

      I hope you get everything sorted out and you can soon be enjoying your floors.

      Tadas

  9. Laura Sheppard says:

    thanks for your help. We are following your suggestion!

  10. Kristina says:

    Thank-you so much for your articles/blogs. I only wish I had come across them sooner. My husband and I are in the process of having our nearly 100 yo maple/inlaid oak floors refinished professionally. We did them ourselves 13 years ago and were pleased with the outcome, however I am expecting in Nov and did not feel comfortable taking on the project ourselves once again. I have several concerns/questions and have found our refinisher to be difficult to talk to. From the get go we have wanted our floors stained to create a warmer feel in our 1920′s arts and crafts style home. We have shown him pictures taken after they were last refinished to help him understand our goal/expectations. He was very reluctant to stain, but did agree to it eventually. He brought 2 dura seal colors to test on the floor which didn’t appear to change the color much at all except to accentuate the blotchy character of maple. I suggested waterpopping which he initially disregarded due to ” increased blotchiness” with use, but after checking with another professional he agreed to use the technique. Our floors are not perfect and gaps are present. The area that was water popped is approximately 650sf. He did the process with a bucket and rag as you do, however he only used about 2/3 a gallon, and the floors do not feel or look rough as I would have expected based on this info provided. I’m worried that too little water might only pop the already open areas and not have much impact on the closed grains which would I assume accentuate the blotchiness. The floors were popped yesterday, and the contractor plans on returning to stain tomm or Friday. Then to make matters worse we have a storm last night and developed a leak over the middle of a water popped floor. We did get it wiped up right away, but I’m worried about the effect it will have on the outcome of the stain. And finally I am concerned about the finish. He recommends and routinely uses glitsa gold seal light scent which as you said is high in voc’s and contains multiple chemicals known to cause birth defects. I am hoping for a satin finish (I really don’t like anything too glossy) but after reading your reviews I’m afraid my gaps in the flooring create an issue. The total project is a little over 2000 sf and includes 2 stories (everything but a bathroom). I would be willing to invest more money into the project to achieve a better/safer outcome. I have 3 children and a dog and anticipate moderate to heavy wear and tear in certain areas with very little in other areas. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Kristina,

      Sorry to hear of your troubles with the leak. To be honest, I would postpone the refinishing and get the cause of the leak repaired ASAP. You don’t want to take a chance of it leaking all over your wet finish or doing other damage later on. Wood and water do not get along well!

      The other issue is that you’ll need to at least buff the floor again and re-pop it because I’m sure there will be crushed patches from rushing around trying to mop up the water leak. Plus just the water leak on the floor would make me re-do it anyway. Make sure there is not too much water used with the popping too, it just needs enough to be damp, not soaking. I’m not to sure from your comment how much oak you have vs maple but the oak will have much more texture compared to the maple so don’t stress out too much if there’s a difference.

      As far as finishes, if you want a low VOC satin finish thats tough I would suggest using a two component water asked finish system on top of the stain. If you get the refinisher to roll it instead of using a t-bar the big gaps won’t be an issue.

      Hope that helps Kristina… Good luck with the project.

      Tadas

  11. Jaren Quigle says:

    I am refinishing my red oak floors. I picked a dark stain. I used a sprayer to applythe water. I know the water was sprayed unevenly in some spots, I can see the marks where I already applied the stain. In the areas I have not applied the stain can I re-do the water pop with a rag and water? I really do not want to resand. If I do have to resand can I just do it with 80 grit?

    • Hi Jaren,

      Honestly, long-term you will be better off re-sanding the floor. The blotchy areas you’ve already stained will annoy you for a looong time after you’ve forgotten what a pain it was to take another day to sand it back.

      You’re at a point where its an easy and cheap fix compared to deciding to do it after applying the stain and finish.

      This time do it on your hands and knees with a bucket and rags. Water sprayers work but you need to know what you’re doing to get it even as you found out.

      Yes you can start with 80 grit this time. You won’t need to sand much off.

      Good luck!

      Tadas

  12. Sharon says:

    Hi there, I’m wondering if applying a pre-stain wood conditioner would give the same effect as water popping? Also, if you water popped, would you have to apply a pre-stain afterwards, or could you just do either one or the other?

    • Hi Sharon,

      Which brand are you thinking of using? Most pre-stain treatments are oil based which gives a different result from water. Usually they are used for furniture as you don’t have a lot of working time with some brands because if they dry the stain won’t apply properly. Water popping is much more user friendly for big areas like floors, it works very well, you’re not racing against the clock and it is much cheaper.

      Hope that helps.

      Tadas

  13. john says:

    After water popping do you still use wood conditioner?

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