Join Date: May 2016
Location: Deltona, Florida
My method ...
Sand to a superfine finish (200 to 600 grit depending on the wood) in straight line with the grain. Orbital sanding leaves swirls, in my experience. Straight sanding with a block leaves no trace of the sand paper. Once you've got the wood as smooth as glass (or close) and cleaned of all dust, wipe the stain on with a rag and immediately wipe it off.
I don't let stain "soak in" anymore, since that always gave me the irregular blotchy look. Wipe on, wipe off ... wait a few minutes. If it's not dark enough, repeat.