Staining a hardwood floor brings out the beauty of the grain while helping protect the wood from moisture. Stain is a very thin, watery pigmented application that is allowed to soak into the wood, then the excess is wiped away. It comes in either oil-based or water-based applications. (Oil-based is harder to work with and slower to dry, but protects better in settings like kitchens and bathrooms.) Ask your home-improvement store about the preferred shades of stain for different kinds of wood.
Even unfinished floors need to be sanded before you stain. It removes any grime, dirt and surface obstructions that will prevent the stain from soaking into the wood. Use a drum sander, which is a larger version of a belt sander. Start with rough-grit sandpaper and sand it three or four times, using increasingly finer paper each time. What grit you start with depends on the initial finish (40 grit for a glossed floor that has to be stripped, 80 grit for a newly laid bare floor), then progress to 120 or 150 grit to smooth it out. Run the sander with the direction of the boards, forward and back, repeatedly. Vacuum up the dust before staining.
Stain should be applied from the furthest corner of the room from the doorway, and done in sections of 6 or 8 square feet. Always wear rubber gloves. If you use oil stain, wear a respirator. Mix the stain very well in the can, and use a brush or sponge to apply it heavily onto the floor. Let it pool there. The wait time will vary depending on the stain, the wood and the tone you're looking for. Start by letting it sit for a minute or less, then wiping it up with paper towels or (ideally) cotton cloths. If you want a darker look, let the stain sit longer before wiping it up. When the whole floor is done, let it dry overnight.
New stain has to be sealed or it will rub off. Polyurethane is the best modern application, though other acceptable options include varnish and shellac. Make sure to use the same form of sealant as you did stain (oil-based or water-based). Apply the sealer using a lambswool applicator. Pour a line about 2 feet long in front of one wall at the corner, across the widths of the floorboards. Set the applicator in it and slowly pull it backward over the floor. Repeat and continue until the whole floor is done. After the first coat dries, lightly buff it to remove the shine, and apply a second coat. Buff it again, then apply the third coat.
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