11 Distinctive Finishes for Original Floorboards

Whether you go for glossy, painted or matte boards, make your wood floor the star

By Cheryl Freedman  / Courtesy of Houzz.com

The beauty of solid wood adds warmth and character to rooms, so if you’re lucky enough to have original planks in your home, make the most of them by choosing a finish you love, whether oil, varnish, stain or paint. Think about practicalities and your aesthetic sensibilities: Is your floor in a high-traffic area? Do you like things to look smart and traditional, or is lived-in and Shabby Chic more your thing? Take a look at the following floorboards for ideas and inspiration.

Beautiful in black. You might assume they’d look too gothic or severe, but black-painted boards can be dramatic, modern, grown-up and sleek, as evident in this stylish kitchen. 

As you’d expect, they go brilliantly with white walls, but they also provide an excellent neutral backdrop, allowing other colors to shine. Wooden furniture also stands out beautifully against a black floor, as seen with these stools. 

Bear in mind, however, that some people think black floors can show dirt, dog hair and dust even more than white floors.

Weathered and worn. A distressed floor can be a surprisingly effective way to add interest to, or “dirty up,” a minimal space. These oak floorboards have been painted white and then left to peel and flake. The result is perfectly Shabby Chic, and it looks brilliant with the super-modern furniture in tangy brights — a lesson in how not to be dull.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to wait for authentic wear and tear, you can DIY distress; search for tips online or seek out a workshop. The techniques are similar to those for distressing furniture (often applying waxes to certain areas so paint doesn’t stick, or scraping and sanding back patches of paint to reveal the wood underneath).

Natural beauty. High-gloss varnish not for you? If you prefer a natural, matte surface to your floorboards, try oiling them instead. Oiled floors can be easier to repair if damaged or stained — you can sand down the area that needs touching up and re-oil (rather than having to start from scratch). 

Instead of sitting on the surface, like varnishes and lacquers, oil sinks into the wood, adding another layer of conditioning. It’s a good idea to top up the oil every year or so to keep the floor pristine. Look for special Danish floor oils containing natural ingredients for a beautiful effect.

Perfect pine. If you live in a period property, chances are you’re in possession of original pine boards. Sanding back and finishing with clear varnish is a classic way to show off the natural beauty of the wood. In this updated country kitchen, the floor adds color, warmth and personality, while the blue island cools the orange tones down. 

Rent a professional sanding machine for a polished effect. Choose a tough varnished finish for kitchen floors to withstand mopping; if you prefer less sheen, go for matte or semi-matte options.

Bright white. White floorboards are ever popular and it’s no wonder: They instantly brighten and freshen up a room, and they can also make it feel larger. These slim boards have been painted in a durable white floor paint for a Scandi Chic look that will last. 

Think carefully before you commit to painting boards, however. Once you’ve painted them, it can be hard to turn back (unless you fancy an epic sanding session!).

Whether you’re painting, oiling or varnishing, always make sure the floor is vacuumed, scrubbed and squeaky-clean before you start. Remove any beading, edging or skirting to ensure a perfect finish.

A softer wash. Don’t want to go for a bright ’n’ sparkling white-painted floor but aren’t too keen on the look of wood either? One compromise is whitewashing:using white paint thinned down with water. (Try a mix of one part water, two parts paint.) 

Unlike conventional, thicker paint, this pale effect allows the wood’s grain to peek through and has a cottagey, homespun feel. Apply repeated coats until you get the look you want, then finish with a sealant to make it more durable.

Dramatic stain. A dark stain can look dramatic and elegant while still showing off the natural grain of original floorboards. In this bathroom, the chestnut floor looks stunning next to the white fixtures. It’s a great solution if you don’t want to rip out your perfectly serviceable pine boards but would prefer a different hue.

Always experiment with stains by patch-testing on a spare piece of board or in an unseen area until you get the shade you like. Try a dark oak or walnut hue, then finish with three coats of clear varnish for a glossy, grown-up look. Don’t be tempted to use colored varnishes on very pale boards, as chips and scratches will show through.

Special color. A colored painted floor can add real wow factor to a room. It also covers up a multitude of sins if your ancient boards are looking less than lovely. And it detracts from the clash that might arise when you have multiple tones of pine, oak and beech competing with one another. 

This matte blue looks fabulous and is a sophisticated alternative to white. Choose a special floor paint designed for heavy traffic that will resist spills, stains, scuffs and scratches. Make sure you sand first, and fill any holes and cracks before you wield your paintbrush. Also check the paint can’s instructions to see whether you need to prime the boards first, and apply knot sealant so the knots don’t peek through.

Nicely polished. Let the light reflect by going for some serious shine. A high-gloss polyurethane varnish can help bounce light around a room, can be easier to keep clean and tends to be more resilient to scrapes than waxes or oils. Look for a varnish that won’t yellow over time, and apply multiple coats to build up shine.

Beautifully bleached. This beautiful solid-wood floor is made from oak bleached with lye and finished with a soap treatment. This is a technique popular in Scandinavia that lightens wood for a sophisticated, pale look. Here it adds to the light, airy feel in this modern dining room. Look for products in specialty flooring stores, or buy pre-treated boards.

Rustic charm. Perfectly smooth, filled boards aren’t for everybody. In this striking Essex, England, barn, the charming rustic boards speak for themselves, their scratches, texture and gaps only adding to the country vibe. A neatly laid, engineered-floor would have looked much more sterile in this context.