Before staining a hardwood floor, I sampled the stain on a scrap to test the color.

The floor is oak, but the sample I had was birch.

The oil-based red mahagony stain appears far darker than I expected, and far darker than I recall the sample in the store looked (though I'm not doing a side-by-side comparison). Since oak is darker, I expect the final result to be even darker.

red mahagony on birch with foam brush

But I used a foam brush, not a cloth, to apply the stain. I find a foam brush a bit easier (and faster) to handle than cloth.

Do foam brushes soak up too much stain and inherently result in darker tones? Is a cloth really necessary to apply wood stains to produce the "official" tone?

A foam brush doesn't really allow for "working it in". You soak it and swipe. If you attempt to rub it in, the foam will shard quite quickly. By comparison, a cloth could handle rubbing. I can't quite appreciate whether rubbing will insert more stain inside the grain, or will spread the bit of stain on a larger surface. I'm wondering: is rubbing in the stain required?

Or might the issue be simply one of perception, and once an entire room has the tone it will no longer look quite as dark?

  • 2
    Get a piece of oak, it's a much harder wood and will take stain differently.
    – Tyson
    Nov 2, 2016 at 23:17

3 Answers 3


Most stains don't need to be "rubbed in" but of course that depends from can to can. Read what your can says for how to apply. If it doesn't mention rubbing in then don't do it. Almost all stain (unless otherwise stated on the can) has to be removed shortly after it has been applied. The longer you leave it on for before you wipe it off, the darker it will be. Try to be consistent on your floors for whatever time you choose to keep the color consistent across the room.

Using a cloth or foam pad doesn't really matter for the applying part. Of course it will be much easier to remove the stain with a cloth. I personally like using Viva brand paper towels as they are very rugged for this but you can choose whatever works for you.

As an aside, if you are staining floors, you may want to look into water popping as I feel it produces a much better end product. :)

  • Hadn't heard if "water popping" before. The description seems to make sense only for over-sanded wood, unless I am misunderstanding something.
    – keshlam
    Nov 4, 2016 at 20:31
  • Water popping helps to get the stain to penetrate deeper into the wood which gives it IMO a much better look.
    – Eric F
    Nov 7, 2016 at 13:40

I'm wondering: is rubbing in the stain required?

Double check the directions on your can of stain. Many of them tell you to let the stain sit for a little while and then remove the excess with a cloth. That will obviously result in a lighter color than letting all of it soak into the wood.

As suggested in the comments, you should also definitely do a test on the same type of wood if you want to see the exact result.


Will a foam pad leave too much paint?

Yes, absolutely.

Is rubbing in with a cloth necessary?

Perhaps. It depends on how you apply the paint.

If you dip the cloth in the paint can for too long or too deeply, you will almost surely end up with a lot of paint in the cloth. You then have one of two options. Just leaving the extra paint is not an option. It will take far longer to dry. The VOC released will be considerably, and unnecessarily, more. (And you'll get far less mileage out of your paint can.)

The first option is to wipe the excess paint. You'll need a clean cloth or lint-free paper. The second option is to spread the paint until you get as close to uniform color as you can. This second option will take some effort from you. It's your call whether to do it that way.

Returning to the foam pad. A foam pad is great for polyurethane, when you will want to leave a more or less generous coating. But a generous coating of paint is most likely not what you want. Most foam pads will also disintegrate if you attempt rubbing. Even if you plan on replacing them often, they do not give you a good enough control of where to apply more paint or where to take paint off because you put too much.

If the instructions on the can recommend a second coating, it will be hard to avoid that second coating. No matter how carefully you applied the first coating, there will be areas that will look lighter and that will need more paint. Notice that having a few patches with too little paint is not a big problem, since you can always add more stain. But ending up with patches of too much stain is a problem, because you will have to add stain everywhere else (or else sand the surface and start again, but sanding again is unlikely what you'd like to do, since one side effect of staining with a cloth is that the surface becomes clean from all specs of (saw)dust.

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