What is Water Popping?


The rich, dark wood floors you see today in more and more houses have a common little secret: water popping. Also responding to names such as raising the grain or grain popping, water popping is a technique used before staining. Water is added evenly to the floor and opens the pores of the wood so that the stain can penetrate the boards.

A Little Bit of Tree Science

Trees are living things that need and absorb water. They circulate water and nutrients through tiny pipes that cross the wood. Although this moisture is removed by drying the lumber in large, temperature-controlled kilns, the pipes remain intact and thirsty. Even after making it to your house and lining your floors, these pipes are still there, like little beasts ready to take in all the moisture they can.

Why Is Water Popping Necessary?

The thirsty pipes should be good news for the stain, but then sanding happens. The raw lumber would be of no comfort to your feet if it was not smoothed out. However, during the sanding process, wood dust clogs its pores and makes your floor less responsive to stain. So when you decide on a certain color, but your floors end up surprisingly lighter, or when more stain clings to your cleaning rag than to your floors, this non-porous surface is often the one to blame. The solution is water popping that reopens the pores and turns the wood back into a stain-thirsty floor.

How Is It Done?

This is achieved by spreading a controlled amount of water on the floor, in the direction of the wood grain. It can be done in many ways: some spray-mist the floor or go sophisticated with a buffer and a soaked pad. Others use the traditional bucket or watering can with a mop or a T-bar. A few get down and dirty with a rag and some much needed knee pads. Tap water may contain chemicals that conflict with the stain, so using purified or distilled water ensures that the final result does not play with your nerves and expectations.

After water popping, the floor must be completely dry before applying the stain. Some like to speed the process by using a fan. In this case, the fan should not be directed towards the floor, since this may cause the wood to dry unevenly. Others take an extra step and wait for a night, so that all the hidden crevices have the chance to dry. A better idea is to use a moisture meter to measure and record the initial moisture of the floor before you water pop the wood. When your floors reach the initial moisture content, they are ready for staining.

What Not to Do When Water Popping

Water popping comes with great benefits and a handful of dangers. Uneven water coverage causes uneven staining. Make sure you check your floors carefully before applying the stain: if prepared correctly, the wood should be evenly rough. If you find any missed spots, go back to the bucket. Otherwise, your floors will likely show blotches of stain, and the only way to fix them is to sand them all over again. When grain popping your floors, do not soak the wood. Hardwood floors do not like water, and too much of a good thing can kill a project.

Always test an obscure area of your floor before you water pop and stain the wood. If you hire the services of a hardwood floor professional, ask if the company can provide you with a water-popped sample of the wood and stain of your choice. Floors treated with water are very sensitive, so keep your shoes off. In fact, avoid walking on the floor altogether. Your weight may cause the water to spread uncontrollably, and you may end up with lighter areas.

Can I Do Without?

It’s true for all home improvement projects: your success depends on good prepping work. If the wood is ready to accept the pigment, you will be less likely to face the reality of a patchy stain or have to deal with the unfortunate results caused by the temperamental nature of wood. Water popping is even more important if you want a darker stain. Opening the grain gives the stain more surface to penetrate and leads to a richer final color.

Raising the grain is critical when your hardwood is very dense and more resistant to stain. It helps if you prefer a less visible or dramatic wood grain and want to camouflage the one that you are stuck with. If your floor shows water or pet stains, water popping helps achieve a richer shade that can hide the unfortunate spots. For your wood flooring contractor, water popping is an excellent way to hide the unavoidable screen marks that have a mischievous way of showing up only after the stain is applied.

If you want to achieve a deep, uniform stain, water popping is a must. For our lucky Milwaukee customers, Royal Wood Floors adds water popping services to their hardwood flooring packages at no extra charge.