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Water Popping Guide

Get deeper and more even coloration from hardwood floor stains when you water pop. Learn why water popping is an important technique in the professional’s toolkit.

Staining hardwood floors gives customers more flexibility in getting the exact look they want. As many experienced floor contractors know, one way to achieve different looks when staining a wood floor is with the technique known as water popping.

Whether you’re a flooring professional that has years of experience or are new to the business, getting a better understanding of water popping will help expand both your tool kit of techniques and your portfolio of possible looks for your customers.

Water Popping Explained

To put it simply, water popping is a technique used to condition the surface of the floor that will change the amount of stain penetration and the end results/color. It works by taking advantage of wood’s natural reaction to water. After a floor is sanded, water is applied to open the hard grain in the wood surface. This allows for a more even, saturated coloration of the chosen wood floor stain.

Water Popping Considerations

While water popping can be beneficial for a wide range of floors, here are some things to consider when trying to determine if the extra effort is right for this job:

  • Wood type. All wood species react differently to stain, depending on their grain structure and the consistency of grain density/direction throughout each piece. Some species like pine, maple or hickory can look blotchy when stained; so, water popping these difficult species may help even out the stain results. Bottom line – understand how this particular floor (wood species/cut/grain structure/construction) will react to being water popped.
  • Floor color/contrast. Water popping works by increasing the saturation of a wood floor stain to create darker, more even color on each board; and less contrast between the hard and soft grain areas. Water popping isn’t needed if you want the floor to reflect the natural stain color and or have more hard/soft grain contrast.
  • Drying time. The floor needs to be thoroughly dry after water popping before the floor stain can be applied (overnight with added air flow is recommended). Use a moisture meter. Be sure to let customers know how long the water popping process will increase the overall job time.

Tools Used for Water Popping Wood Floors

Water popping is a fairly simple process of applying water to a hardwood floor after sanding and then letting it dry thoroughly. Even though it seems easy, a bad water pop can result in a blotchy look and/or peeling finish that has to be resanded. The right preparation can make water popping an easy task.

  • Purified water. Though most of the time regular tap water will work fine; sometimes it may contain extra chemicals or additives that can negatively affect the stain or wood. If needed, use purified or distilled water when water popping.
  • Water application tools/technique. An even application of water on the entire floor is key for a successful water pop. An old-fashioned bucket and clean sponge will yield good results when water popping wood floors; but professionals also get great results by using a quality garden-type sprayer to apply the water, especially on larger areas. Regardless of your method, it’s always a best practice to even out the water on the floor with a T-bar or cut-in pad during the application.
  • Pinless moisture meter. An important tool to utilize every time, a pinless moisture meter can help determine when the wood is completely dry again (not just the top layer by sight or touch). When using a moisture meter, be sure to take a reading before water popping to get your base measurement. When the wood reaches that level again, after proper dry times, it’s ready for you to apply the stain.

Benefits of Water Popping

Sanding floors makes them smoother and less porous. Water popping re-opens the wood’s grain structure (especially the hard grain) to allow for a deeper saturation of color. For many flooring professionals, these benefits make water popping an easy choice when sanding and finishing hardwood floors.

  • More even stain coloration
  • Helps blend out sanding scratches
  • Safest way to achieve deeper, darker colors
  • Better long-term finish adhesion

Water Popping Concerns

The benefits of water popping can take a floor from good to great, but a botched water pop can suck the profits out of a job and leave your customer feeling frustrated and concerned about what they’re really getting. Addressing the following points enables better focus and preparation for carrying out a successful water pop.

  • Water amount. Since wood floors and water usually don’t mix, we want to use enough to achieve a thorough and even water pop, but not so much that it damages the floor. Using a T-bar and garden-type sprayer (set to mist and not streaming) is a good way to get the right amount of water onto the floors: simply wet the surface with a fine spray and spread evenly with the T-bar.
  • Delicate surface. A water popped floor has raised grain that can be knocked down (dragging shoe/boot toes, stain cans, running over buffer cord), which will show up as lighter scuffs/marks after the stain is applied. Any knock-down marks or scratches on the floor will show up in the end, so take care when working on such a delicate surface.
  • Uneven application/Not dry. If a floor isn’t evenly water popped, or it’s stained before drying thoroughly, the color of the stain will appear uneven or blotchy; usually requiring a resand.
  • Flooring is too thin. If you’re working on a thin veneer, engineered floor or a solid floor that’s been sanded too much, you could cup/warp the edges and end joints by water popping. Know how much of a wear layer you have left before water popping.

To give your customer a great-looking floor with a unique look and color, use Bona DriFast Stains after water popping the floor. The Bona DriFast Stain collection is easy to use and has a wide range of colors and custom blends. For more helpful resources and information to keep flooring contractors up to date on product info and industry best practices, view our resources for professionals.