You just read the instructions on the stain can which says you need to apply a wood conditioner (pre-stain) before the stain. Why is that?
Now you are probably wondering, do I really need to apply a wood conditioner before staining? What does it do?
Well, it turns out that you can get all these questions answered in this post. Plus I share a test to show you the difference in staining a board without conditioner and with it.
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Let’s get into it.
Why do you need a wood conditioner?
Some types of wood, soft and porous types, have a different wood density which causes the wood to absorb stain differently, some areas may absorb a lot of stain while others absorb very little. Because of this, the finished stained board may be blotchy, in other words not giving you a smooth even stained finish.
A wood conditioner helps even out the absorption of the stain by filling in the pores of the wood to help prevent the stain from absorbing in some areas.
What type of wood needs a wood conditioner? When is it necessary?
Again a soft and/or porous type of wood would benefit greatly from a wood conditioner, such as:
A very common type of wood that beginners use is pine because it is a cheaper option but also widely available at hardware stores. We have established that pine is a softwood which means you should be using a wood conditioner before applying the stain.
But I still haven’t answered the question on your mind, do I need to use a wood conditioner?
Do I need a wood conditioner before staining? AKA: The TEST
In hopes to answer your question (and mine), I have done a test using a common pine board you would find at the hardware store.
TIP: Sanding a board is important when staining!
Next, you should wipe the wood with a dry cloth to remove any dust.
For the test, I am using no conditioner, conditioner, and water. Yes, I said water, and I will talk about that more after the test.
SIDE NOTE: Conditioners are available in both water-based and oil-based, the general recommendation is to match the conditioner to the stain type (oil or water-based). So an oil-based stain should use an oil-based conditioner. Plus its also recommended using the same brand for both.
To apply the conditioner and stain, I would recommend following the instructions on the can. But because I do not follow them completely, I will explain how I like to do it.
Using a rag, dip it into the conditioner and apply it onto the wood in the same direction as the wood grain.
SIDE NOTE ABOUT APPLYING THE WATER: Take a damp rag and wipe the wood in the direction of the grain until the wood looks slightly damp. Let it sit for a couple of minutes before applying the stain.
The instructions on my can say that you should apply a stain within 2 hours of applying the conditioner but I personally only wait a couple of minutes before applying the stain.
I do this because I have had better results by not allow the conditioner to dry.
After a couple of minutes, apply the stain to the wood according to the instructions on the can. Again, I use a rag and apply it in the direction of the wood grain.
And here is the results of our test.
Can you see how blotchy the board is where no conditioner was applied? And can you see how the wood conditioner is lighter in color than the water section?
This happens because the wood conditioner’s job is to hinder the absorption of the stain so this will make the stain lighter in color.
But look at the water one. See how it’s not blotchy but its a darker, normal color?
Some woodworkers are probably cringing at the thought of using water as a conditioner but guess what, it works.
SIDE NOTE: I have only tested this method with an oil-based stain.
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How did I start using water as a wood conditioner?
Many years ago, I read a post from Young House Love about using water as a wood conditioner because, guess what, it fills in the pores of the wood to help prevent the stain from absorbing giving you a smoother finish.
I had to give it a try because purchasing the pre-stain conditioner was more then I wanted to pay.
And I have used this method since but I decided that I still needed to test it against the pre-stain from the store.
If you want to see some projects I stained using water here you go:
And that brings us back to our test and the results. What do you think of water as a conditioner for wood? Would you use it?
But if water works as a conditioner something else must work too.
What can I use instead of a wood conditioner?
To be honest, I have never used another method other than the pre-stain you buy from the store and water as a conditioner but yes there are other things you can use instead of them.
You can make your own conditioner from varnish, shellac, and lacquer but you need to use the appropriate solvent (mixture) with a thinner (mineral spirits for example). If you are wanting more information about creating your own, be sure to visit Hunker’s article on how to make your own pre-stain wood conditioner.
Is the wood conditioner necessary?
To answer the question from this test, yes a wood conditioner is necessary when applying stain to a soft, porous wood such as pine.
SIDE NOTE: Some types of stain do not require the step of applying a wood conditioner because it is already in the stain.
If you want a smoother consistent stain (not blotchy) in your finished piece, I would recommend using some type of wood conditioner whether its already in the stain, a pre-stain from the manufacturer or homemade, or water.
Plus now when you go to open that can of stain you will know what wood conditioner does and why you need it.