10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Home’s Original Floors

Save yourself the cost of replacing your old floorboards with these tips for a new finish

By Laura Wheat / Courtesy of Houzz.com

If you live in a property benefiting from wood floorboards, you can save a tidy sum on carpeting and make a style statement by incorporating them into your decor. Wood floors are easy to maintain, and wood that has already been in place for many years is unlikely to warp or shrink (provided you treat it correctly). Bare floorboards are also a practical choice, requiring only a quick vacuuming and mopping to keep them looking their best. There are numerous techniques to consider for finishing your floors — here are some favorites.

Soap them Scandinavian-style. For a subtle whitewashed finish on pine or oak floors, take a tip from the Scandinavians and soap your boards. Typically wood lye is used on sanded boards to lighten them and remove warm tones. After further sanding, a white-tinted wood soap is applied, which has an oily finish and acts as a protective sealant. 

Soaped floors need to be maintained with frequent reapplications of the soap solution. Look for products by companies such as Woca.

Paint them white. For homes in need of a brightness boost, nothing matches the light-reflecting powers of white painted floors. Instantly transformative, white floors add contemporary flair to period homes where the boards may be in poor condition or mismatched.

Select a specialty floor paint to avoid a slippery surface, and be prepared to mop weekly and repaint occasionally if you don’t like scratches or worn areas to show.

Opt for elegant gray. When black might be too dark but white feels stark, try painting the floorboards in a midtone, such as gray or pale gray-blue. A warm gray floor paired with pastel walls adds depth to a room and highlights attractive period trimwork.

Consider varnished boards. For a hard-wearing, fuss-free finish, try a varnish for your wood floors. Most contain polyurethane, which coats wood with an impermeable, plastic-like seal. Finishes vary from gloss to matte, and companies such as Bona are pioneering innovative formulations for more natural-looking wood. 

The downside of a varnished finish is that once the surface is damaged — by repeated wear or furniture scratching the surface, for example — it’s very difficult to spot repair; the best option is to sand and revarnish the entire room.

Try tone on tone. Take a leaf out of interior designer Abigail Ahern’s style pages and match your floor and walls for a tonal effect. The difference in the paint finishes of each surface will create textural interest, and you can add punchy hits of color with accessories in shades from the opposite end of the spectrum — this room contains a bright red floor lamp, for instance.

Go back to black. If your property is already flooded with natural light or you’re keen to embrace a dark and moody hue, black painted boards could be for you. Black floors add drama and make it easy to introduce dark-toned wood furniture and luxe textures on fabrics and upholstery. 

Choose your finish carefully, as black gloss floors are notoriously difficult to keep in top condition. And remember that dark boards will highlight animal hair, so beware if you have a pale-colored dog or cat!

Work a waxed finish. Fans of traditional wood floors may prefer to alter the appearance of their boards as little as possible. Hard wax products contain a mixture of natural oils, such as linseed and sunflower, as well as waxes to protect timber and highlight its natural grain. Clear hard wax will turn wood the same color as it is when wet. For a paler tone, white-tinted wax products are available from companies such as Osmo. Finishes include matte, satin and gloss.

Wax is applied with a roller and left to set. After two coats your floor will have a hard-wearing finish that can easily be maintained with top-up treatments. The downside is that it will need top-ups fairly frequently.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 3.15.20 PM.png

Learn how to go over to the dark side. To get a dark finish that also shows off the grain of the wood, your first step is to stain your floorboards. This is not a straightforward process and requires patch testing various stains on sanded boards to see which one creates your desired final color (so find a discreet spot destined to be under a piece of furniture). 

You will also need to experiment with diluting your chosen stain to get the correct strength of color and may even need to mix several tones together. The final stain must be allowed to dry completely overnight before you finish with at least three coats of clear varnish. 

Don’t be tempted to skip the staining and go straight in with a dark-toned varnish, or every scratch will reveal the original pale wood underneath.

Distress to impress. If you’re partial to the patina of well-worn boards and can’t wait for them to acquire a few scuffs and scrapes, you could experiment with a distressed finish. You can try similar techniques as those used to distress furniture, including applying wax in some areas to prevent paint from adhering, or adding several layers of paint and scraping off sections to reveal contrasting colors beneath. 

I’d recommend trials on spare boards or scrap wood to see which finishes you prefer. There are various workshops around the country that teach techniques for using paint and wax in this way.

Install reclaimed wood. If you’re craving the tactile qualities of well-trodden real wood floors but your property doesn’t have floorboards, you could look into reclaimed wood. 

Available from specialists and usually costing a pretty penny, reclaimed flooring uses boards removed from other properties to add character in new builds or to replace damaged areas where the owners want a consistent finish.

Those craving a fancier floor could even opt for reclaimed parquet blocks, which add an instant wow factor and can be arranged in a variety of different patterns. Be warned, however: Fitting reclaimed parquet is a specialized job and is not cheap. 

Tell us: What have you done to the floorboards in your home? Share your tips and photos in the Comments.