How Sanding Affects Stain Color


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October 7, 2022
Zoe Hunt

In this week’s stain test, we’re looking at how sanding affects your stain color and finish.

We’ll also be sharing my absolute favorite tip for getting the end grain of your wood to match the stain color of the rest of your project like we did on this DIY dining table

Let’s dive right in and start staining! 

How sanding affects stain text overlay on image of unsanded vs sanded pine

The Test

We started by cutting down a piece of common board (aka pine aka whitewood) into a few different pieces. It’s really important that it’s the exact same piece of wood that we’re staining since all wood can accept stain differently. 

We then cut down a few pieces of oak plywood to test as well. 

I was expecting big differences in how the common board stained when sanding differently and minimal changes for the oak plywood. 

Once cut, I wiped the surface of each piece. One piece I kept as is and did not sand at all. 

The next piece I sanded with 80 grit sandpaper. The next was 120. And finally, we sanded one with 220 grit sandpaper. 

We did NOT use pre-stain on this test because we wanted to get a true idea of the difference just sanding can make.

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The Results

The difference between no sanding and sanding on pine was dramatic. Not only in terms of color, but also in terms of how blotchy the stain was. 

unsanded vs sanded with 220 grit sandpaper pine wood that's been stained Special Walnut

Takeaway: Sanding is a key step to achieving a more even stain finish. 

Overall, the piece sanded with 220 grit sandpaper looked (and felt) smoother and higher quality than the common board that was not sanded. Again, this is the exact same piece of wood. The only thing that changed was sanding. 

In terms of color, the piece sanded with 80-grit sandpaper was the darkest, but there wasn’t a huge difference between the 120 and 220 grit. I was actually expecting the color to vary more between different sandpaper grits. 

unsanded pine, pine sanded wiwth 80 grit sandpaper, 120 grit, and 220 grit and then stained

Let me know in the comments if you would like to see another test using a darker and a lighter stain color. Maybe the results vary based on the color. I’d also be curious if the absorption rate changes when applying multiple coats… 

After seeing this post, you might be tempted to stop your sanding at 120 grit sandpaper going forward, but the 220 really is nicer, both in terms of feel and looks. 

The difference doesn’t look that dramatic on a screen, but in person, it’s more clear. The 120 leaves behind a lot more scratches and marks. After sanding with 180 and 220, the 220 sample is much more smooth and free from sander marks.

side-by-side of pine wood stained with 120 grit sandpaper vs 220 grit

Plywood Stain Results

When it came to the plywood, there was very little difference between any of the samples.

side by side of wood samples that have been sanded with different grit sandpaper and stained

If you look closely, you can see that the unsanded was slightly more blotchy than the sanded samples, but not by much. Oak is also one of the most consistent woods to stain, so I didn’t expect to see a huge difference in the blotchiness here. 

In terms of color, again the plywood was very consistent. This plywood is finish-grade plywood so technically you don’t enough need to sand. 

Since it’s pre-sanded, I didn’t expect a huge difference in the color. The 220 is slightly lighter than the unsanded, but it’s almost unnoticeable. 

sanded oak plywood stained slightly lighter than unsanded oak plywood

I would be curious if a really high sandpaper grit like 320 or 400 would have a big effect on the oak plywood. Again, if you’re interested in more tests, leave a comment below and let me know!

This is unrelated to staining, but I would highly advise against sanding with 80-grit sandpaper on this plywood. It made the surface much rougher than the unsanded version, so no need to waste your time with that. 

Free download wood sizing cheatsheet

How to Get End Grains to Stain the Same as the Rest of the Wood

The secret to getting end grains to accept stain the same as the rest of the wood is sanding. 

End grains are basically like straws. They just suck up and absorb anything that touches them whether that be glue or stain. Because they are so absorbent, they stain darker than the rest of the wood. 

Using the same piece of common board that we used on the original test, we stained the end grains after sanding them with different sandpaper grits. 

end grains of wood that have been stained after sanding. unsanded end grains are much darker than higher grit sandpaper

The bottom piece of wood is of a rough end grain. This is what the end grain looks like from the store. 

You’ll want to cut these ends off before cutting down the rest of your wood. Not only because they are rough and tough to stain, but also because they might not be perfectly square. Start your project off on the right foot by trimming off these rough ends before cutting anything for your project. There’s a random bonus DIY tip for you.

The piece second from the bottom is unsanded but was recently cut with a miter saw, then 220 grit, then 320, and finally the top piece is sanded with 400 grit. 

As we increased the sandpaper grit, the end grain absorbed less and less stain. 

Takeaway: Since end grains tend to absorb more stain, the secret to getting them to match the color of the rest of the project is to sand them with a higher grit sandpaper than you used on the rest of the table. 

You’ll want to test it out on your particular project, but generally, if you sand with 220-grit sandpaper, you’ll want to sand your end grains with 320 or 400-grit sandpaper to get the stain color to match. 

So overall, sanding does affect your stain finish. On notoriously blotchy stains like pine, it can make a big difference in how consistently the wood accepts the stain.

Sanding with higher grit sandpapers can also make your wood finish a little lighter. On end grains, the difference in color is especially apparent. If you want your end grains to match the color of the rest of your wood, you can sand them with a higher grit sandpaper than you sanded the rest of the surface with. 

Now that you see how sanding can affect stain, be sure to check out our ultimate guide on sanding. And if you’re wanting to take your staining skills up a level, check out our post on how to stain wood like a pro.

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