How To Condition Wood And Prep Before Staining

Kirsten

"Adding wood conditioner to your project is a quick and easy step that ensures your stain will look its best. Trust me—you’ll thank yourself for doing the extra step later!"

Kirsten Dunn


Materials

  • Wood Conditioner

Tools


Staining and finishing are key steps that will transform your DIY project into a finished piece that will make a beautiful addition to your home. Tackling any new experience can be intimidating, and while the directions on the can are vital for success, there’s nothing quite like learning from the experience of a real person. Today I’m going to walk you through the basics of prepping your workspace and conditioning (also known as prepping the wood for staining) and will share some advice from my personal experience. Staining can be something that feels intimidating before you try but in reality, it’s a lot simpler than you might think. That said, I wouldn’t encourage you to try out staining on your favorite project! Do a test run on some scrap wood or a simple project that's easily replaceable—give yourself time to get the hang of it and you’re sure to find success. Pre-stain wood conditioner prepares the wood to receive the stain in a uniform way. I know conditioning is an extra step that may just seem like a hassle, but depending on the longevity of the project, it’s absolutely worth it. Since wood pores are irregular, a conditioner can be used to reduce the likelihood of blotchiness from the staining process. This is especially true of soft or porous woods. Wood conditioner can go a long way to making your finished project look more professional and polished. It always takes less time than I fear it will—my only problem is remembering to do it!

Step 1: Choose the right conditioner

Pick a water-based or oil-based conditioner depending on the type of stain you’re using. Match water-based with water-based and oil with oil. It’s always safest to use the same brand to ensure that your conditioner and stain are compatible. Otherwise, I’d recommend doing a test on a scrap piece of wood.

Step 2: Set up your work station

Before conditioning it’s important to prepare. Start by picking a location. Choose a spot that’s relatively dust-free and out of the way of children, pets, and weather. Read the label of the products you’ll be using and stay within the recommended temperature range to ensure everything dries correctly. And because most stains and finishes have some odor, you’ll want to pick a spot with good ventilation. Next, lay a drop cloth to protect your work surface. I prefer a plastic-backed canvas cloth because the fabric absorbs finish, but the plastic underneath provides a firm boundary between your work surface and your work. Lastly, it’s important to remove dust from the wood’s surface. There’s always dust in the air, and if you’ve just sanded there will be very fine sawdust on your project. You can remove dust with a tack cloth (which is a cloth coated in wax), a vacuum, or a rag dampened with water or mineral spirits. Whichever method you prefer, check your directions to make sure it’s compatible with the product you’re using. For example, tack cloths shouldn’t be used before applying a water-based finish because residue left by the tack cloth can get in the way of the finish going on evenly.
wood condition work station

Step 3: Prep your material

Make sure that your wood is fully dried before you get started. If it’s been out in the rain (either in your backyard or at the lumber yard), leave it in a warm, dry area for a week or two. If the wood feels wet, or if water is exuding from it when cut, let it dry longer before you begin. Before you start conditioning, make sure that you’re at the best point in the assembly process. This is something important I’ve learned over the years. Depending on the project, sometimes it’s best to stain before assembly, and sometimes it’s best to wait until after. This is something I’ll call out in my DIY projects, but if you’re doing your own project, take the time to think through the steps and decide on the best time to begin the staining or finishing process. For example, if you’re using putty or wood filler make sure that you’ve followed the directions and have applied before or after staining as called for. And always make sure you’ve sanded everything to your liking before you stain or condition anything. Next, lay a drop cloth to protect your work surface. I prefer a plastic-backed canvas cloth because the fabric absorbs conditioner, stain, or finish, but the plastic underneath provides a firm boundary between your work surface and your work. Lastly, it’s important to remove dust from the wood’s surface. There’s always dust in the air, and if you’ve just sanded there will be very fine sawdust on your project. You can remove dust with a tack cloth (which is a cloth coated in wax), a vacuum, or a rag dampened with water or mineral spirits. Whichever method you prefer, check your directions to make sure it’s compatible with the product you’re using. For example, tack cloths shouldn’t be used before applying a water-based finish because residue left by the tack cloth can get in the way of the finish going on evenly.
wood conditioner

Step 4: Apply conditioner

Always remember to stir your conditioner before using it. Apply the conditioner to the wood with a foam brush, a lint-free rag, or with a natural bristle brush for oil-based conditioner and a synthetic bristle brush for water-based. Apply in the direction of the grain so that it’s more easily absorbed. Allow the conditioner to penetrate the wood for the amount of time directed before wiping off excess as directed. Just as you applied in the direction of the grain, you’ll also want to wipe off in the direction of the grain. To ensure the conditioner is effective, apply stain (the next step) within the window of time mentioned on the can. Adding wood conditioner to your project is a quick and easy step that ensures your stain will look its best. Trust me—you’ll thank yourself for doing the extra step later!
apply wood conditioner
For more tips on staining, check out your guide to choosing the right stain and how to remove over-applied deck stain—and when you’re ready to put your new staining skills to work, see how to refinish a deck!