/ / Do you really need a wood conditioner before staining?

Do you really need a wood conditioner before staining?

After an entire day of cutting, sanding, and putting together your latest woodwork project, you’re exhausted. 

You can almost see the final results but there’s still one important step left – applying the stain – and you’re determined to finish it.

The instructions on the stain say you need to apply a wood conditioner (pre-stain) before the stain. It’s too late in the day for you to squeeze in one more trip to the hardware store.

Now you are probably wondering, do I really need to apply a wood conditioner before staining? What does it do and what happens if I skip it?

Well, it turns out that you can get all these questions answered in this post. I also share a test to show you the difference in staining a board, both with and without conditioner.

testing if wood conditioner is needed before stain

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WHY DO YOU NEED A WOOD CONDITIONER?

Some types of wood, the soft and porous types, have a different wood density which causes the wood to absorb stain inconsistently. Some areas may absorb a lot of stain while others absorb very little. Because of this, the finished stained board may appear blotchy, not giving you a smooth, even finish.

A wood conditioner helps even out the application 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?

Wood conditioner does wonders for soft and/or porous types of wood, such as:

  • pine
  • spruce
  • fir
  • alder
  • birch
  • maple
  • popular

A very common type of wood that beginners use is pine.It is a more affordable option but also widely available at hardware stores. Since pine is a softwood, the experts recommend 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

To answer your question (and mine), I have done a test using a common pine board you would find at the hardware store.

Before applying any stain or wood conditioner to a piece of wood, you will need to sand the wood. I used a #220 grit sandpaper on my orbital sander to give me a smooth finish before my test.

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 (left), conditioner (middle), and water (right). Yes, I said water, and I will talk about that more after the test.

testing pre-stain on pine board before stain

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. It’s also recommended to use the same brand for both.

To apply the conditioner and stain, I don’t follow the exact instructions on the can.

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 usually only wait a couple of minutes.

I do this because I have had better results by not allowing 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 are the results of our test:

test wood conditioner before staining

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 one where we applied water first. See how it’s not blotchy but actually a darker, more consistent 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.


The FULL PROJECT VIDEO:

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Wood conditioner with playback button

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. Just like a store-bought wood conditioner, the water also 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 than I wanted to pay. 

And I have used this method ever 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? Do you like the way it looks?

difference between not applying wood conditioner

But, if water works as a conditioner, something else must work too.

What can I use instead of a wood conditioner?

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 want 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 our question, 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.

difference between not applying wood conditioner

If you want a smoother, more consistent stain (not blotchy) in your finished piece, I would recommend using some type of wood conditioner, whether it’s already in the stain, a pre-stain from the manufacturer or homemade, or water.

So, don’t skip this important pre-staining step but it’s up to you what product you want to use.

do you need wood conditioner

One Comment

  1. Loved the article! Unfortunately in Northern Ireland we cannot buy Conditioner so I loved ur idea of using water and ur link to how to make oil based Conditioner. Thanks so much and it’s great having you back. Keep safe during this mad time of home schooling- it is driving my wife to despair!

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