How To Make Wood Grain Pop (Water Popping Techniques)

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Wood’s natural patterns are beautiful, and our goal is to make them stand out. This article will show you how to highlight wood grain (make it pop) using simple, effective techniques.

Each technique is easy to follow and can make a big difference in your woodworking.

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To make wood grain pop, use water popping or fire techniques. Water popping involves wetting the wood to enhance grain visibility, while fire methods like shou sugi burn the surface for a pronounced effect. You can learn to do both in this article.

Understanding Grain Structure

The grain refers to the pattern of the wood fibers, which determines how it absorbs stains and reacts to finishing techniques.

To make the grain pop, it’s essential to know that these fibers can be manipulated to enhance the wood’s natural beauty. Techniques like water popping and using fire work by interacting with these fibers, either causing them to swell or highlighting their natural pattern.

Using of Water To Raise The Grain of Wood

Wood Grain

We know that water is the enemy of wood, but only in larger amounts.  It can lead to rot, and we want to keep our wood dry where the humidity level of the wood is equal to the humidity of the surrounding environment.  This equilibrium keeps the wood stable.

But there is one reason we can think of to actually apply water to wood, and that is for the technique known as “water popping.”

This is the practice of purposely introducing water to raw wood.  We know that wood absorbs water (hygroscopic is the wood), and we know that the wood fibers will absorb wood whenever they can.  This is true of the wood’s grain.  The grain structure is open, and porous wood will absorb water.  As it does, the wood fibers in the grain will expand and become more pronounced.

In other words, the grain rises.

The pores of the grain will be opened, and even after drying, the grain will be more prominent and hold its expanded shape and form in the fibers.  When stain is applied, the grain will hold more, and the stain will be absorbed deeper into the wood.

Even sanding between stain applications will not disturb the “pop”, and the grain will retain its more prominent appearance.

The grain raising will allow more of the stain pigment to penetrate deeper into the wood, and the result is a deeper, more intense color from that pigment.

Be sure to use clean water and a clean applicator.  For instance, a spray bottle used for spritzing plant leaves will work just fine for water popping.  After spraying the wood, brush it out so it is evenly distributed on the wood surface, or use a clean rag. Make sure there are no puddles on the piece of wood. 

Let it sit for anywhere between 2 – 4 hours to dry, depending on the environment.  Be aware that cooler or more humid environments will slow the drying process.

After drying, and in preparation for applying the stain of your choice, be careful not to scuff or bump the wood’s surface such that the raised grain would be tamped down and the pores closed.  You will undo the raising of the grain and defeat the purpose of your efforts.

When applying the stain by hand and cloth, a bit of pressure will not hurt the grain.  In fact, it might flatten and smooth out the grain a bit.  In the sanding process between coats of stain, be gentle enough to push the grain down further, using finer grits in your sandpaper.  The pigment in the stain will have penetrated deeply into the open pores created by the wood pop, so you won’t lose color.

If you are grain raising a new floor, you’ll want to use a larger means of application than one of those spritzer water bottles, and you’ll also want to let it dry overnight.  Apply the water to the entire floor at one time, eliminate any puddling, and let it sit.  When applying your stain, do as little scuffing as possible so the pores remain open to receiving the stain.

Using Denatured Alcohol To Raise Wood Grain As An Alternative

Raising Wood Grain

We’ll briefly mention that the same effect can be achieved by spritzing raw wood with denatured alcohol, which will have the same effect in raising the grain.  You can use a sponge for its application, rather than a spray bottle, to wipe off any excess.

Let the wood dry, and you will see that the grain has become more pronounced and raised after the alcohol has evaporated.

The Ancient Japanese Technique of Using Fire To Finish Wood And Raise the Grain

A second way to make wood grain more prominent is to use fire.  Yes, fire is the enemy of wood, too, just like water.  However, the judicious and guided use of fire is one of our favorite ways to preserve and protect wood.

If you are not familiar with “shou sugi“, you should check this out.  When done correctly, the grain on your wood will stand out even more than using water popping as a means of enhancing the grain’s appearance.

You literally burn the raw wood’s surface with a flame.  You can do this in several ways, and we’ve seen it done in each of these two ways.

A Gas-Powered Torch

Use one of those weed-killing torches connected to a propane tank, fire it up, and burn the wood.  Move the torch over the wood evenly, not so much setting it on fire in an open flame, but scorching it black.  This will give about a 1/8th inch-deep burn.

Let it sit, and then use a wire brush to scrape the top surface of the burn off the wood.  We found a video demonstrating this technique, so we’ll let it tell the story in more detail later in this piece.

An Open Fire

If you use this technique on many long planks rather than just a few pieces, build a fire.  Wire three planks together in a triangle with a space down the middle of the triangle.  Suspend, hang, or lean the triangularly assembled planks over the flame and let it burn up the tunnel in a chimney effect; after a few minutes of burning, turn the planks over and run the flame up from the other end.

Then remove the wood from the fire, use a hose to spray water up the tunnel, and disassemble the wood.  Let it dry, and use a wire brush to remove the top layer of burn from the wood.  You’ll immediately see the more pronounced grain of the wood, and in this instance, you won’t need any stain.

A wood oil, maybe boiled linseed oil or tung oil, will be all you need. The wood pop from this technique is really cool, and the appearance is stunning.

Preservative Value of Shou Sigu

Insects harmful to wood are repelled by anything that is burned, just as we know enough not to stick our hands in an open flame.  It also will resist rot and decay, and a few coats of finishing oil will seal that deal, so to speak.  Shou sigu has been used by Japanese woodworkers for centuries to preserve wood, and you will see it on houses, doors, and fences all over Japan.

Video Demos

There’s a lot to grain raising using these two methods, and the extra effort each requires is certainly worth it.

This first video shows how easy it is to use a torch for a small project.  The wire brush after the burn is the only work done for the wood, as it was for an exterior door of a backyard shed and did not require a smooth surface.  It’s short, telling you everything you need to know.

This second video is also worth watching for the beauty of the finished wood.  Wait until you see how the grain popped for his project.  

Each of these grain raising techniques creates true beauty.  The dark wood tones from a raised grain, whether water-popping or shou sugi, are truly warm and gorgeous, as you will see in the videos.

We believe all woods should be water-popped before staining in the ordinary course of our woodworking projects.  But going the extra steps to try burning to achieve a more pronounced grain beauty in your projects is also worth the effort.

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