wood stain, pre-stain, clear coat questions

What is the function of pre-stain? What happens if I don't use it?
What is the pro/cons of oil based versus water based stain?
Are there products that combine pre-stain, stain, and a clear coat (polyurethane) in one? It seems a lot of hassle just to stain about 20 feet of moldings.
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Pine , Birch and some other woods need pre stain or the stain can be blotchy. Oak does not need pre stain. There are some poly and stain which work well, but you may need to experiment to know.
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feet
certain types of wood - esp. maple and birch can stain sort of 'muddy' - prestaining can help with that.
water based stains will raise the grain - requiring sanding prior to finishing.
yes, they make combined stain / poly products. I think they produce a smeary, muddy finish, though.
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It helps with the appearance on some woods. Mostly needed for softer woods like pine, the grain looks better with more depth to it. try a pice and see how it looks. Mineral spirits work just as well. Rub one on a piece and then put hte stain on some trated, some not. Make your decsion. Takes but a few minutes to apply it.

Water tends to not darken the wood as much as oil. Water has less odor. Water will raise the grain and more sanding is needed. Sme look better with the richness of the oil, other look OK with the water. Personal preference.

I like the control of using separate finishes. To me, it is not a hassle to have the appearance I want and will be looking at for years. If you'd rather save 20 minutes today, that is your choice.
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We just stained some baseboards (Maple), and it's my understanding that the conditioner (I assume that is what you mean by prestain) is used for softer wood to open the pores (at least that is what the can said). It's pretty easy to do--just use a sponge or rag to apply, and wait 5-15 minutes to apply the stain.
Regarding the stain, we used a stain/polyurethane all-in-one we purchased at HD.

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Several woods have very wild grain where end grain adjoins long grain and they don't accept stain the same resulting in blotchy appearance. A prestain, or conditioner, fills the pores of the end grain slowing down the absorbsion of the stain resulting in a more uniform appearance.
Oil based stuff has more odors and is slower drying. Typically oil based tends to amber the wood while some water based are considered "water white" meaning non-ambering.
Not that I'm aware of.

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