How To Make Wood Grain Pop

Wood grain is the most important feature of any piece of wood. It is what gives it its unique character, warmth, and beauty. The trick to making it stand out is to enhance the natural fibers in the wood.

One way to do this is by understanding grain structure. The cells that make up the wood are arranged in a pattern known as “grain”. When viewed from different angles, these cell patterns can create beautiful patterns in the wood that are pleasing to look at. Knowing how to manipulate these cells can help you create a piece with stunning grain patterns.

Key Points:

  • Using the grain raising technique is an easy and effective way to make wood’s grain stand out.
  • The process of water popping involves introducing water to raw wood, causing the fibers in the grain to expand and become more prominent when dried.
  • When applying stain, be careful not to scuff or bump the wood’s surface so that raised grain won’t be tamped down and pores closed.

Another way to make the grain stand out is by using a technique called “grain raising”. Today we want to discuss a few ways to make that happen, both of which are easy, fun, and effective.

We’ve used these techniques with great results to make wood grain really stand out.  One is a very old technique that involves fire, and another is a technique that involves water.

Raising the grain is the point of the exercise, and each does a wonderful job of bringing the grain to the forefront in the wood’s appearance.

Using Fire requires a few extra steps, but we think the results are worth the effort.  Using water is quicker and requires fewer steps, but can be just as effective.

The Use 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 have the opportunity to do so.  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.  A spray bottle used for spritzing plant leaves, for instance, will work just fine for water popping.  After spraying the wood, brush it out so that it is evenly distributed on the wood surface, or use a clean rag to do that. 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.  Cooler or more humid environments will slow down the drying process, so be aware.

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, too.

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, wiping 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.  There are several ways you can do this, 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 the wood on fire in an open flame, but rather 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 are using this technique on lots of 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.

We have two videos for you today:   one showing the use of a torch to burn wood that will be used to build a door for a shed; the other is how to finish wood after it has been torched.  

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 not long, and it tells 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. 

We like dark wood tones.

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