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Custom Color for Wood Floors

Martha Stewart Living, September 2002

Custom Color for Wood Floors
One of the first things many people do before moving into a newly purchased house is to refinish the wood floors. This makes sense because it's easiest to tackle such work without furniture or people in the way. But, no matter when you choose to do the job, it can be a wonderful opportunity to make the place your own. Since the boards are being stripped anyway, you or your refinisher can stain the wood before applying fresh polyurethane. With the right color, you can accentuate the natural tone of the wood, darken it, or lighten it.

The secret to staining floors is not to use a stain right out of the can, says Leroy Cousins, a 20-year veteran floor refinisher who heightened the natural hue of the oak floors at Martha's home in Maine by combining stains to get the desired effect. Many refinishers just show their customers the stain chart and tell them to pick one, he says, but there may not be a stock color that works on your floor. There are several factors that determine how a stain looks, from the species of wood and the idiosyncrasies of its grain, to the lighting in the space and the palette of the decor. Ask your refinisher to create options by mixing stains in different proportions (it's even easier than mixing paint) and applying them to samples of the same wood used in your floor.

Darkening the Floor
As Martha's library in her home in East Hampton demonstrates, "A dark floor seems to add height to the ceiling," says Martha Stewart Living home editor Kevin Sharkey. "The floor appears to simply drop away. It's a very dramatic effect." Sharkey says he likes the way dark floors can set off the contours of handsome baseboard moldings. "The contrast of dark floors also 'rejuvenates' the colors and textures of carpets, walls, and upholstery," he says. "Unfortunately, though, a dark surface also shows any dirt, so you must remain diligent about keeping it clean."

A Note About Refinishing
Staining an existing floor requires stripping the finish. This is best left to professionals, who use a variety of machines and sandpapers to create a smooth, even surface. Normally, this procedure removes about one-eighth inch from the floorboards, so if the wood is in good shape, consider having the floor screened -- a process in which only the dull finish is removed, but no wood. It's cleaner, faster, and cheaper, and can prolong the life of the floor (a standard floorboard can be sanded only a few times before it needs replacing). Whether screened or sanded, stained or left plain, the floor should then get three coats of oil-based polyurethane. "Despite what manufacturers say, this really is the minimum," Leroy Cousins says.

Brightening the Floor
One of the boldest choices for a floor is a pickled finish, a process in which the wood is made lighter. When it is done by a combination of bleaching, painting, and rubbing the stain with a cloth, the result is a pale floor with prominent grain. "From a decorating standpoint, it becomes a fifth wall," Sharkey says. "Make sure that it works with the palette of the walls and trim." Test thoroughly, using a delicate balance of stains in the blue-to-pink range, he says. Sharkey also warns that pickling won't always brighten a dark room. But because the surface is uneven "the floor doesn't show much dirt and wear," says Martha Stewart Living creative director Gael Towey, who pickled a floor in her house. "Dust and scratches that come with normal use just fade into the variegation of the grain."

Pickling Floors
Pickling is a way to give new wooden boards an aged look. The process was once achieved by soaking the wood in a vinegar brine with galvanized nails-from which the treatment got its name. The acid pulled off the nails' zinc coating, which then seeped into the fibers of the wood, giving it a gray, dusty appearance. The pickling shown here was accomplished by washing the color out of the surface of the wood with wood bleach, and then applying a light, opaque stain (a thick stain that is almost like diluted paint, this one having a slight pink hue). Often, while the stain is still wet it is rubbed with a cloth to expose the highest points of the grain. Finally, the floor is coated with polyurethane.

Emphasizing the Grain
Think about stain as a way to bring out natural beauty, as a hairdresser does when adding highlights. A subtle stain can deepen the color of a wood floor or bring out the contrast of its grain. In the foyer at her home in Maine, for example, Martha used a stain very similar to the shade of oak itself, but a little warmer (that is, with an extra hint of red). The mixture of stains (in this case, she chose two: driftwood and dark walnut) enhances the wood by accentuating the pattern of the grain and the rhythmic play of the different widths of board. The floor becomes the dominant source of color in this space, which has big windows and limited wall surfaces. A similar situation exists in just about any sunroom, porch, or other large area that is mostly enclosed with glass.

How to Test a Strain
A porous softwood such as pine will stain darker than a denser hardwood such as oak. Also, the natural tones of the wood, its original position in the tree, and the way it was cut will modify the stain's effect. To test the results of these variables, ask your refinisher to apply some stain to short lengths cut from a new piece of flooring made from the same wood species. After the samples have dried, place them around the room at different times of day to see how they look in the sun, in a dark corner, or on the threshold between rooms. Once you've selected a shade, you may want to apply a small amount in a hidden spot, such as a closet, just to make certain that the result matches the test sample.

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