I'm currently working on staining a 10' walnut butcher block counter:

enter image description here

I have done a lot to get everything together:

  • Surface prep: sand at 320 grit using orbital, wipe using rubbing alcohol to remove wood dust, repeat until smooth.
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner: stir well, apply using foam brush, wipe using dry rag to remove excess, wait a few minutes, wipe with wet rag, wipe with dry rag.
  • Sand after pre-stain at 320 grit using orbital

Unfortunately, something really awful happened when I started sanding after conditioning:

enter image description here

Apparently some of the wood conditioner was left over, and turned into this tough syrupy residue, and sanding it simply spread it out and hardened it, leaving chunks of it all over the counter. To remove it, I had to sand and wipe with rubbing alcohol many, many times.

When I did the pre-stain on the other side, I was careful to wipe away all the excess and really make sure that nothing remained on the surface. I also hand-sanded with a 240 hand sanding sponge, wiped with rubbing alcohol, and then went to sand with my orbital at 320.

The hand sanding did not reveal any gunk, so I felt that I could proceed with the orbital. Unfortunately, yet again, gunk was left over, and I found this stuff on my sanding pad and on the counter surface again.

I'm going to work on removing this stuff using the sand/rub loop again today, and then the next goal is to actually apply the stain. I fear that I might run into the same issue with the stain.

What did I do wrong here? And what can I do better to avoid this while applying the actual stain?


This is the pre-stain, stain, and seal (not in order pictured) that I was planning on using:

enter image description here

It seems that:

  1. I didn't need to spend a couple days using pre-stain because I'm working with walnut.
  2. The high speed of the sander caused the conditioner to heat up and build residue.

Between applying the pre-stain to the bottom of the counter and sanding, I waited 48 hours. Between the pre-stain application to the top and sanding, I waited 20 minutes as per the instructions on the can.

I have made an Imgur album with pictures of the labels on the various items.

Since I appear to have gotten a lot wrong here, I'm not sure how to proceed. I can clean up the rest of the wood conditioner with alcohol and sanding, and I am not sure what to do next.

  • If I should use a lower grit sandpaper, what grit should I use? I have everything from 40 to 320.
  • Should I use the lower grit to prepare the surface for staining?
  • Should I obtain and use mineral spirits instead of rubbing alcohol for clean-up?

I'm feeling a bit shaken as I did a fair bit of research on this, and this project in particular has taken a very long time to realize. Surface prep on one side to 320 was accomplished with three passes; surface prep on the other side took around 10 passes; cleaning up the residue took probably around 5 passes; hopefully cleaning the top will be easier.

My goal is a dark walnut shade and a satin finish, definitely not glossy.

Thank you for being such a welcoming community!

  • 2
    I'm no expert, but I'm going to guess that the heat generated by the fast moving RO sander caused the problems where the hand sanding didn't simply because your hand didn't move fast enough to generate heat.
    – FreeMan
    Feb 3, 2022 at 18:04
  • 1
    BTW in case you're interested, this isn't butcher block. Although this stuff is unfortunately almost universally called this now, the term should refer only to wood-block construction where the end grain is uppermost (as in actual butcher's blocks).
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2022 at 18:38
  • 1
    Was wondering where that comment was, @Graphus!
    – FreeMan
    Feb 3, 2022 at 18:39
  • @FreeMan, I had to delay it while working on my Answer LOL
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2022 at 18:42
  • 1
    And apologies for not welcoming you to Woodworking! I didn't realise until just now that you'd only joined today. Wanted to ask if you'd picked your stain product yet and if so which one are you going with?
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2022 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


OK first off, hate to break it to you but you could have avoided so much extra time and effort here — you didn't even need to use "pre-stain" or "wood conditioner" :-(

These are to help prevent blotching in blotch-prone woods, and walnut isn't one of those. Therefore it doesn't call for any special pre-staining preparatory steps other sanding to an appropriate grit (more on this below).

Apparently some of the wood conditioner was left over, and turned into this tough syrupy residue

Pre-stain products or "wood conditioners" are nothing more than highly-thinned finish. I think it's the case that you just didn't wait long enough for it to harden before you started power sanding. This generates significant heat from friction, so you got corning.

320 is too fine
Conventional stains require, that is they work best, when the wood is sanded more coarsely, not more finely.

The prep instructions for your stain should mention something about this if you check. And any reliable finishing guide should cover this, with examples, so you can see the differing results of sanding to an appropriate grit (which is much coarser than most people think) and sanding more finely where the wood ends up considerably lighter. The finer you sand the less colour you'll get from your stain.

As I say this is particularly with conventional stains but is true to some degree with "gel stain" as well (depending somewhat on the application method, number of coats etc.)

  • Bummer to have wasted many days on the pre-stain. Updated my question with relevant details. Waited 48 hours after application of pre-stain before sanding and still got the residue. I will clean up the rest of the aftermath of the pre-stain with alcohol or mineral spirits and sanding to get back to zero. I can rough up the surface by using a lower grit, do you have a recommendation as to what grit to use? I'd like a fairly dark walnut shade and a satin finish. Feb 3, 2022 at 19:54
  • Sorry for your woes. I can see now where some of it comes from, from your new Q about sanding between coats of stain. If I might, you could do with going straight to reliable finishing advice before tackling any future projects. I would start with published stuff, books primarily, although there are plenty of good magazine articles on Fine Woodworking (behind a paywall) or Popular Woodworking (free to view).
    – Graphus
    Feb 4, 2022 at 5:36
  • "do you have a recommendation as to what grit to use?" test on the underside. I wouldn't go finer than 180 myself normally, but, be guided by the result you get from the stain you're using (assuming you go ahead with the Minwax stuff). One bit of reliable advice in the Minwax directions is worth highlighting in case you didn't notice it, Sand the wood in the direction of the grain... i.e. not with an ROS. When staining conventionally you can't prep the surface with any type of orbital sander, you must hand sand in the direction of the grain with the final grit.... [contd]
    – Graphus
    Feb 4, 2022 at 5:48
  • ...until all swirl/cross-grain scratches are eliminated. Good finishing guides will sometimes also show why this is so vital — in-line scratches just meld into the prevailing grain structure of the wood but cross-grain scratches are highlighted greatly by staining. They can be visible under clear finish too sometimes, which is why standard advice used to be to follow random-orbit sanders with hand sanding using the same final grit. (Although admittedly many people today don't do this, getting away with it by sanding more finely — to 320 and higher.)
    – Graphus
    Feb 4, 2022 at 5:53

I'm sure Graphus will correct me if I'm wrong but I think your big problem is sanding after prestaining. with an oil based prestain, there is no need to sand, and a water based one, you just are 'knocking down' the grain that stands up after drying. The prestain is basically the last step before you stain.

You have all your sanding done, prestain, if it is water based a light hand sanding with a sand paper, (220 or 320) and then go into the stain. The prestain's job is to fill in pores in the wood to 'even out' the stain absorption, so all the 'gunk' you find is the prestain itself, clumping instead of being dust, probably somewhat from the heat. So less sanding will get you where you want to be.

I could be wrong but I also don't think walnut is a wood that generally needs a pre stain either. I suspect you'd probably be happy without it. But since I usually like the 'natural' look and use clear finishes... You can always try doing some of this on the bottom of the piece where it won't be seen to see if you like it.

  • The prestain told me to lightly sand after application, so I attempted to do so :-\ I have updated my question with more information relevant to your inputs, thank you. Feb 3, 2022 at 19:52
  • 1
    @NaftuliKay for the sanding, I'd use 220 grit as a final and to 'knock down' after the prestain and I'd do it by hand (the knock down). IMO a random orbit sander is too much. Just a light pass over it, you can feel the difference.
    – bowlturner
    Feb 3, 2022 at 20:03

As others have said, you don’t sand after pre stain wood conditioner. Totally defeats the purpose, and you just remove it. Secondly, yes, pre stain wood conditioner is typically for soft woods, it’s saved my butt on fir and pine and poplar, but it can also be used on some hard woods. I have a piece of southern walnut that is incredibly porous with a few softer areas, and pre stain conditioner was just the thing. If you put it on hardwood that doesn’t need it, you’re gaining and losing nothing, just wasting your time. Finally, after application the typical wait time before staining is about 15-30 minutes, not 1-2 days. Minwax says after 24 hours you would need to reapply it. In your case since you sanded it off, it didn’t matter how long you waited, you will still see it on your pad. Re-sand surface with a clean sanding pad, wipe with mineral spirits and wait for it to dry, then pre stain if you think you’ll have absorption problems, wait 30-40 minutes, stain. If you want light sand after staining with a water based stain.

  • Hi, welcome to StackExchange. Sorry to say there is much that is incorrect here. There actually is reason to sand after using something to reduce blotching. You are losing something by putting it on wood that doesn't need it, because by definition you're reducing stain absorption (often by a lot). And re. the provided instructions, in almost all cases these are actually wrong, as Bob Flexner first pointed out about a decade ago.... yet the manufacturers have mostly (all?) failed to take any notice.
    – Graphus
    Jan 28, 2023 at 17:06

I am not sure if this has been mentioned, but your pre-stain (conditioner) has to be compatible with your stain. Water based pre-stains need water based stains; oil based pre-stains need oil based stains.

With water based pre-stains there is a possibility of some wood grain rising a tiny bit, so a light sanding with 220 grit, about 30 minutes after the excess pre-stain is wiped off. Of course get all the sanding dust off before staining.

Oil based pre-stained surfaces typically needs to be stained within 2 hours of the removal of excess if I recall correctly.

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to StackExchange. "Water based pre-stains need water based stains" That is, um, not correct at all. Waterbased pre-stain products are compatible with ALL stain types except perhaps alcohol-based (depending on method of application). "Oil based pre-stained surfaces typically needs to be stained within 2 hours of the removal of excess if I recall correctly." Also incorrect (even though the product instructions are extremely likely not to be of help here — most are wrong about how to achieve the best results, as Bob Flexner has tried to get them to acknowledge for over a decade).
    – Graphus
    Mar 24 at 12:03

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