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There are dozens of different ways that hardwood can be stained and finished after it has been installed. The many different methods affect the look and feel of the wood in subtle or overt ways. In a general sense, wood is stained with a chemical stain that penetrates into the pores of the wood. The stain changes the color or the depth of the wood. Then, the wood is sealed with a polyurethane or oil. Water popping is a technique of staining wood that has been growing in popularity with many homeowners.

What Is Water Popping in Hardwood?

Explaining water popping begins with understanding the process by which wood is sanded and stained. Wood starts out rough when it’s installed. It is then sanded with a coarse grit of sandpaper to clean the wood, remove any large imperfections, and flatten it. The wood is then sanded with progressively finer grits of sandpaper. Each finer grit removes less and less wood, until it is basically polishing the wood. At the finest grits, the wood knapp and grain become very tight. If you were to apply a stain at that point, most of the stain would not penetrate the wood fibers. Most of it would wipe off and leave behind a fairly light color.

If you want a deeper and richer stain color, you need it to penetrate deeper into the wood fibers. That means you need to water pop the wood. The installer will apply a mixture of water and denatured alcohol to the wood. The water opens up the fibers of the wood. The denatured alcohol helps it evaporate more quickly. The installer will also use blowers to speed up evaporation. Then, once the fibers are open, the installer will apply the stain. It will penetrate deeply, resulting in a rich color.

Why Is It Called Popping?

Water popping is called that because the grain tends to “pop” after the water is applied. The fibers of the wood also pop open. When installers use water popping, the stain is applied more evenly. Also, small sanding marks that might have been missed are more easily identified when the wood is wet.

It’s possible to water pop your own floors when you are sanding and refinishing them. It’s important that you be careful when doing so. After the wood has been wet and begins to dry, it will be very delicate. A scuff mark or a scratch from a shoe could easily mar the finish. The wood would need to be re-sanded.

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