Wood floor colors...

enigmaquandryJuly 10, 2011

We have needed desperately to refinish our wood floors for a while now. They are oak (I think red oak) and are original to the house. They were once finished with wax but it does nothing to protect them any more so every little drop of water bleaches them.

Anyway oak would never be my first choice but it's what we've got and I'm SO TORN on what color to finish them! I really love dark floors, old worn dark floors, but our house tends, as many modest capes do, to be on the darker side, even with all the windows and doors open. I'm becoming very concerned that a dark floor will make it seem a little cave-like.

That being said I tend to HATE lighter floors...the only exceptions being cypress (or some northern pines) or hickory because of the characters of the colors or the knots. Light oak is not something that appeals to me at all (though if I had to I could change my way of thinking about them and live with them alright). I'm not sure if it's natural or from the wax but the oak has a VERY orange cast to it that I hate quite a bit...I'm not sure if that would happen if we sanded them down and just clearcoated them.

Repainting our walls to make them lighter is not an option as we've just painted everything and I love the colors we've chosen (I have to admit, one room is black...which I have to say is ours and everyone's favorite room in the house...but you can see the quandry with the floors!).

I'm so lost I have no idea, I'm open to any suggestions!

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Well, I have some good news for you. Your red oak floors are likely covered with shellac. I comes in clear and and orange (actually amber, I think) so your floors will not likely be orange colored once sanded and polyurethaned. Here are my formerly orange oak floors after being refinished.

Here is a link that might be useful: Wikipedia on Shellac

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 11:48PM
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nancy, that does make me feel a little better, your oak looks really beautiful and natural...if it was shellac though would I be able to see anything? There's no discernable finish on it that I can find. Someone had told me they thought they had been waxed but I'm no expert!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 12:05AM
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You can test for shellac easily. First clean an area and then put some rubbing alcohol on a white rag and rub on the spot. To test for floor wax, dampen a fine steel wool pad and rub on the surface. The wax will appear on the steel wool.

Shellac does turn orange as it ages.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 11:58AM
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Lovely floors there, Nancy.
And enigma, it is possible that they were waxed to protect the shellac. I know when I was a kid, we had to paste wax the floors in our house, which had a shellac finish. I was not then, nor am I now, aware of how the shellac looks when it is worn away. Even in the 60s, we had pine door frames shellaced, and they were dark and really pine looking. I'm not sure when polyurethane varnish came into the picture, but floor care was not as carefree in earlier years.

We put Bellawood ash 2.5" width down in our cape, which is super light, but we had no existing floors that were complete when the carpet came up. Just random oak mixed with plywood so no pretty floors to work with. And now I like the ash so well, we will cover up the dark red mahogany stained floors in our Alabama cottage too. Even the kitchen is the plan. A 100 year warranty sounds good to me. But our old 1.5" width oak floors here now have been so abused that the contractor says we cannot sand and refinish to have a uniform floor....and there would still be the kitchen to deal with. I want one level floor throughout too.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 12:10PM
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beautiful floor nancy!

i've read that darker floors show the dust much quicker. i wouldn't want that - it comes too quickly without any help.

I tend to like the medium colors in flooring.

here's my sister's upstairs flooring. I don't care much for this color wood floor. Tho, her floor does look better IRL than in this pic!

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 7:51AM
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You're right. I have dark floors and they do show the dust. But I still love the color. I wish I had gone with a more medium color.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 10:26AM
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We have the same problem, enigma. When I talked to someone recently about refinishing, they suggested a grey-based mid-tone stain.

I've seen a lot of info on GW regarding tung oil. Also, I've noticed Waterlox discussed frequently. I haven't seen either in person, but on the home building forum, there have been some lovely pictures posted.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2011 at 9:50AM
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I'm SOO nervous, after nearly two years of talking about it we have finally decided to refinish our floors this weekend! I'm starting to freak out over the sheer scope of this project since nearly all our main floor is hardwood.

I think we have decided to give it a shot just clearcoating our oak instead of staining (thank you Nancy!) I think you all are right about the shellac, especially considering the age of our house, so I'm really hoping that sanding it down will take the amber out of the wood.

I'll be sure to post pictures and the story when we're done! Since our bathroom is an island among the hardwood we're going to have to move into our friend's house for a day or two so that'll be interesting too :)

    Bookmark   July 14, 2011 at 11:02PM
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I had my 100 year old white oak floors refinished this year and opted for a medium tone: English Chestnut. Before refinishing they were natural--an orangy yellow color which I didn't like. I really love how they turned out. Here are a few pics.



    Bookmark   July 15, 2011 at 3:34PM
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Wow Marita! What a difference. They look like brand new floors. Whoever did it did a great job.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2011 at 7:11PM
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Thanks for the compliments. This floor is not in the house where I now live. It is in the house we moved out of to move here. It never sold, and how my DF-in-L's former caregiver lives there.

See the lighter area on the far left, about halfway up the photo? That is where I sanded (with a palm sander!) the floor when I first bought the house. When I pulled up the carpet before moving in, I found that the hallway and part of the LR had black pee stains, cigarette burns, and generally denuded and scraped up floors. I knew just enough about floor sanding at the time to know that I would not be good at it. So I tried to do a "touch up" sanding job on the bad spots. When I went to the house to do it on New Years weekend, about three weeks before I moved in, I found that there was only one outlet working near where I needed to sand. I plugged in my sander and a lamp. It was not a big deal to have no other power because the fuse box was going to be replaced the next week. But all I had was this long weekend to work, so I got down on that floor and sanded until my hands went numb. Then I washed the entire area with Murphy's Oil Soap (bad idea),dried the floor with old towels, and let it dry. Next day I brought in the orange shellac, and applied it to all three bedrooms, the hall and the LR. What I did not know was that the residue of the Murphy's would make my floor orange-peel! I did multiple layers in places where I had sanded. That is where the floor is so light colored.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2011 at 11:20PM
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And wow again!!!
I was thinking of very light floors, along the lines of Marita's sanded floors before the chestnut was added. But now I see that the midtone might be a nice choice. Plenty of time to meditate on the wood color, we'll see how it goes.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 1:17AM
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Nancy's picture didn't show up for me at first. That is a beautiful floor. You got up the black pee marks with a sander? I'll have to remember that. There are some black marks on dd's floor. It is next to the bathroom wall and we think the sink must have leaked at one time. There is a new sink & cabinet in there now.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 11:58AM
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Marita, your floors were shellacked, most likely in amber. Over the years, it does get an even more yellow/orange tint. Shellac has been the favored treatment for wood floors for so many years because it dries so quickly and is easy to fix (dissolve the finish with denatured alcohol and reapply). It sort of coats / protects the wood, rather than penetrating deeply, which makes it preferable to a stain. If you stain and then need to refinish, you can lose a lot of floor in order to sand down to bare wood.

Shellac also comes in a variety of colors, you just don't usually find them at the big boxes (HD/Menards/Lowes). Check your local woodworking shop (Woodcraft, Rockler, Lee Valley). It is also available online. In it's 'storeable' state, it is in flakes. You dissolve the flakes in denatured alcohol to achieve the desired 'cut'. You add more alcohol to get a lighter and more dilute color.

Problem with shellac is that it doesn't get along well with water, hence the wax. A few coats of paste wax and your floors are beautiful and water resistant. (Note: you can't set something that doesn't allow for water evaporation on them and expect it to go well - i.e, a plant with drainage holes, wet bucket, etc. If that does happen, and you catch it before it wrecks the wood beneath, just dissolve, sand and reshellac.) A waxed shellac floor finish will last for many, many years if properly cared for. (and really, that just means use a damp mop, don't pour water on them to wash; don't scrub with a brush - throw a coat of wax on once a decade or so)

To the OP (and anyone thinking of staining their 'old' floors): Make d*mn sure that's oak and not maple. If it's got 80 years of shellac and wax (housewives LOVED to wax wood floors. All. The. Time.) that has yellowed and aged, you might not have red oak. You may have maple. You may have pine. You may have white oak. It really depends on what woods were prevalent in your area when the house was being built. Or if it was a kit, what came with it. Or if the original builders were rich, who knows? Point is: maple and stains, especially dark ones, don't get along so well, they can splotch and streak somethin' fierce. Do a small test patch first. You may need to use wood conditioner.

Waterlox is also an option, as mentioned. It also has an amber tint to it, though. It also smells, as it is a tung oil product. Plan to do it when you can leave your windows open for a week or so. It also needs up to 24' b/w coats, and you will need multiple coats. Be prepared. (Shellac, otoh, dries in minutes - love that!)

Okay, that's my little diatribe on floor refinishing. (As a purist, I would avoid polyurethane anything - since it can look like plastic. Polyacrylics are usually better looking if you need added durability because of high traffic, kids, dogs, whatever. I don't mind 'living' scratches because I think it reflects the age of the house, but not everyone does....)

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 1:21PM
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That's really interesting badgergrrl, thank you. I have some furniture with shellac that I've been meaning to refinish one day and now maybe I will.

We had a can of shellac in the garage, sitting on the top shelf of the tool shelves. Somehow, it ate through the can and shellacked every tool (electric tools, btw) below it. We bought some denatured alcohol to clean them and the shelves.

I don't know if shellac is that strong or if it was just a crummy can. But what a mess.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 3:58PM
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Marti, how interesting and fitting, in a way. Shellac was used as an electrical insulator. See the linky below my photo of my floors. Shellac only has a shelf life of a year or two (I forget - it is in the Wikipedia article in my link).

Badgergrrl, that was interesting. It is nice to know somebody still appreciates shellac. I found it easy to apply, but because of my lungs, could not use products to make sure the wax was all gone before I put my coats on. I can't use wax, either. I just needed to get SOMETHING down on my floors so I could move in. After replacing the furnace and the electrical service, I had no money left for floors. They were in passable shape the 14 years we lived there. After we moved out I had them sanded and poly'd. I went for durability since the house was up for sale and there is no appreciation here for "correct" floors on a 1950s ranch.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 10:00PM
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Thank you everyone!

We did the project, and it was SOOO much harder than I'd expected! We're done though and have a story to tell for the rest of forever :)

Here are the promised pictures!

From July 31, 2011

From July 31, 2011

From July 31, 2011

I actually LOVE how they turned out! They are definitely red oak, now that I can see them. The orange came out with the sanding (you were so right Nancy!) and they turned a beautiful hue and diversity that you do NOT see in oak floors you can buy today. Certain boards are almost lavender in tone and on the whole they almost look more like an antique hickory!

    Bookmark   July 31, 2011 at 10:25PM
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I love them! They look so natural. I love the colors, but also the variations in grain are quite interesting. Good job!

    Bookmark   August 1, 2011 at 11:59PM
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Hi Enigma,

I realize this thread is two years old, but if you are still here . . .

I think your floor looks terrific. Can you tell me what you used and how it is holding up? I am leaning towards doing what you did. I have red oak and I'm thinking of having the floors sanded and then clear coated with a water based polyurethane.

I prefer the grey-washed type finishes I've been seeing but I haven't heard anything encouraging about getting the look right in red oak (as opposed to white oak).

Many thanks. Great job BTW.


    Bookmark   August 9, 2013 at 11:08PM
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Hi KB,
If you click on the (my page) next to a member's name, you go to their Garden Web page and see what info they have put there to share. Enigmaquandry has a blog listed that she has not posted to in a while, but also has what looks like an email address. It is at the end of the paragraph she has written. Try emailing her if you do not get an answer soon.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2013 at 12:09AM
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I dont have any idea what you are going to use on floor Paint or polish.. I will suggest you to use brown polish matching the color of you floor. It give lovely look and shine.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2013 at 3:19AM
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