Water Popping: What Is It and Why Is It Done to Flooring

Wood floors are popular for many reasons, including their resiliency and beauty. In order to make a wood floor look finished, stain is often used, followed by a topcoat. However, the manufacturing process for wood floors often makes this a bit difficult.

Why? Because the grain of the wood isn't always as visible as it could be, and the wood may require several coats of stain in order to reach the desired color.

This is where water popping comes in. The technique is very easy to do, and it makes the grain stand out and helps the wood absorb the stain better.

Want to learn more about this cool, useful process? Read on!

How Wood Floors Are Manufactured

Wood flooring comes from newly harvested trees. What's less clear is the process that the wood goes through before it ends up in stores like Hardwood Bargains.

Once the wood is harvested, it's put through a drying process in a kiln. This removes the moisture from the green wood (what wood is called when it's fresh from the tree), drying it and making it easier to work with.

Why? Well, green wood is pliant and often bendable. If the wood is cut down to size while it's still green, it could be damaged in shipment, with the planks bending or warping as they air dry while in transit. This would waste a lot of the wood because those bent planks can't really be used for anything.

Plus, green wood is hard to cut due to its softer nature, so it would take more time to cut the planks and boards down to size. In order to prevent these issues from popping up, green wood is dried in a kiln shortly after harvesting.

Once the wood is fully dried, the flooring manufacturers cut it down to the desired size and then run it through a sander several times. Sanding makes the surface of the planks smooth and fairly soft, without any harmful splinters. However, sanding also closes the grain fibers in the wood (the ones that hold a little moisture, even after being kiln-dried), making it tricky to stain.

The Staining Process

Stain absorbs into the wood, making it a bit tricky to apply properly to certain types of wood. In order to make the finished floor look nice, the stain needs to be applied evenly, and the wood needs to be free of sawdust, tiny chips, small cracks, and other things that will prevent that from happening. Any imperfections will soak up the stain unevenly, making it unable to meet your expectations.

What does the sanding part of the manufacturing process have to do with this? Well, once those grain fibers are closed, the stain won't penetrate the wood properly. It needs to sink in slightly in order to adhere and for you to get those lovely, ideally shaded, beautifully grained floors that you want.

Pro Tip: Although the wood grains do close enough to make staining difficult, the wood will still react to moisture in the air, expanding ever so slightly on warm days and contracting on cool ones.

So, how can you make the stain sink into the wood correctly? While professionals use several different methods to open the wood grains up again, one of the easiest is water popping. When it's done correctly, the stain will look much better than it would if it were applied over kiln-dried wood.

The Role of Wood Popping

Although the name of the process sounds a bit complicated as it implies that you need to "pop" the water into the wood somehow, the words actually refer to the way that the wood grain "pops" when the water is applied.

Not only does the simple application of water make the wood's grain stand out, but it also makes it easier for the stain to sink in, helping the wood keep its color and show off that grain pattern even after it dries. In addition, the water opens up the wood grains, making the stain adhere better and more evenly, and it even helps hide minor imperfections, like the marks left behind by the sanding process.

It may sound as though water popping is very easy, and it can be simple in theory. However, some things can go wrong if the procedure isn't done correctly. There are a number of issues that can arise. Let’s explore those!

The Water Is Applied Unevenly

If the water isn't applied evenly to the floor, then the grains in the wood might open unevenly. Also, water that's allowed to puddle or pool in spots will take longer to dry, preventing you from applying the stain sooner.

In order to prevent this, make sure to apply the water as evenly as possible over the wood floor. If you see any puddles emerge during this part of the process, wipe them up quickly before the additional water can sink in.

The Wood Isn't Allowed To Fully Dry

It makes sense that you'd be excited to open up that can of stain and start applying it to the floor. However, if you don't wait for the wood planks to fully dry, you could be wasting your time and energy on the stain.

If the wood is still damp, the stain will react with the water, creating cupping or splotchy sections on the floor that will be tricky to remove. Instead, wait until the water completely dries before proceeding.

You Used the Wrong Kind of Water

Tap water isn't the best option for water popping. It contains too many chemicals used to purify the water to make it fit for human consumption. For example, tap water has chlorine in it, which can interact with the stain, making it change colors and preventing it from looking the way you want it to.

Rather than reach for the tap, use purified water instead. You can purchase it by the gallon, and it's fairly inexpensive. Plus, the purifying process removes any chemicals, so it won't react strangely with the stain.

Your Floors Are Actually Veneers or Engineered Wood

Unless you installed your wood floors on your own or watched a contractor put them in, you might be in for a surprise. Yes, engineered wood and wood veneer floors can be stained, sanded down, and refinished. However, you can only do this once or twice throughout the lifespan of the floors.

If you suddenly discover that the existing floors in your new home are engineered wood or wood veneer, water popping may not work. The layer of hardwood above the particle board of these types of flooring may be too shallow for the water to properly soak in and open up the grains.

If so, you'll have to resort to other methods in order to make the stain apply evenly.

Water Popping Works Better on Certain Types of Wood

Some types of wood are fairly stubborn and won't take to the water popping well. On the other hand, some accept it with open arms.

For example, varieties of wood that are tricky to stain, like hickory, pine, and maple, can be water popped with ease. The process will open up those stubborn grains, making the wood accept a stain that it ordinarily wouldn't.

Before you choose to water pop your floors, take a small piece of extra wood and test it out. Apply a thin layer of purified water to it and allow it to dry thoroughly. Then, apply your stain and let it dry as well.

If the stain looks deep and lovely, and the wood grain is showing through, then your hardwood floors will respond well to water popping.

The Results of Water Popping

Water popping is designed to not only help the stain sink into your wood floors but also to enhance the color of that stain, deepening it. The grain itself will show up better, making your floors even more beautiful than they were before.

Although there are other methods of penetrating the wood grains and helping stain to sink into the wood, they are tougher to do on your own, as the methods use chemicals and similar means.

If you want hardwood floors that are worth showing off and meet all of your expectations, then consider using water popping to get the stain and grain to show up better. In the end, you'll be happy that you did, and you'll have the hardwood floors of your dreams.


Can water popping cause cupping? | Wood Flooring Guy 

Benefits of Using Water-Popping Hardwood Floor | ASAH 

How to Stain a Wood Floor | Hunker

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