Floor Staining and Colour Matching

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” Leonardo da Vinci

Applying shellac whilst preparing dark oak floor colour sample

Table Of Contents

Floor staining background

Wood has a background pattern called the ‘figure’ (sometimes erroneously referred to as the ‘grain’, although this is technically incorrect) it is this series of lines, specks, swirls, shades and knots that define a woods character just as much as colour. This irregularity is largely what people find subconsciously attractive about timber. We want to preserve and if possible enhance the figure then if we want to produce the most satisfying and natural looking effect. The grain, which is the pattern of little holes or pores seen in some timbers like oak for example is also enhanced by staining.

The figure changes slightly according to how slowly the timber was grown, how old the tree was and even the way (angle of cut) the wood is milled, the ageing process can patinate this lighter, darker or change the contrast this means that no two floors are the same.

This means it is always possible to go darker but not possible to go lighter as to do so would require the use of semi opaque pigment layers which would obscure the grain and make the timber look cloudy, muddy, flat, dull and lifeless.

Pigment floor staining vs transparent floor staining

Liming , Limed floors or Swedish style white or grey floors show the dulling effect heavy pigment layers have on the figure and hence the depth and contrast, which in this instance is part of the desired effect (most of these treatments are non traditional and today simply involve the addition of white or grey pigments often in oil). On most other occasions , it is not. Clarity, depth, contrast and chatoyancy are maintained and frequently enhanced by the careful use of transparent penetrative dyes sometimes mixed with carefully controlled amounts of fine pigments.

Close up of French polishing colours and pigments on traditional polishing apron

We can of course lime your floors for you, but at most other times we will simply apply a traditional transparent water stain enhanced by a shellac barrier seal or a tinted shellac containing mainly transparent dyes with a small percentage of pigment adjusting colours.

Bespoke colour matching

Simply put, if the stain colour you desire is darker than the original wood floor I can normally get it, an often touted but very rarely delivered promise.

Possibly the rarest and most difficult skill to master, my Grandfather was a ‘colour and patterns’ man and luckily some of that seems to have rubbed off. I think maybe this is one skill that cannot be learnt by everyone who does not have a certain level of artistic appreciation, which is why ninety nine percent of companies buy them ready mixed and offer a limited palette of stains. Virtually the only people left in the floor sanding industry who have decent colouring skills are former French polishers.

Not only are many years of experience required to mix stains the technical knowledge required to know which stains are compatible with what finish is quite considerable and has taken me many, many years to master with some degree of proficiency.

Close up of colour pigments and stains box

Get high quality stained flooring fitted bespoke coloured to your exact requirement

Boutique flooring shops often buy cheaper Russian and Chinese engineered oak for around twenty pounds per metre and get it stained by low skilled labour in factories with cloudy pigmented, low durability oil finishes and sell it for over one hundred pounds per metre, often I can source much higher quality natural FSC European engineered floors and stain them on site to virtually any bespoke colour you desire with a much more durable finish for the same or less money.

Many customers tell me they appreciate my colouring ability as their favourite skill set.

Camerton Hall Georgian Grade 2 listed Manor House Lounge French polished and floor sanded

Wood stains, dyes and pigments like all real world colours, are subtractive, this means whilst it is possible to reduce the orange in pine for example, doing so would require going a shade or two darker as to remove the orange we have to add a dark grey- green which negates the red in the orange but subtracts light from the scene.

Producing dark oak customer floor stain colour samples on engineered oak

Going lighter than your natural (bare, sanded) wood floor is not possible unless you want a cloudy ‘limed’ effect, but darker is, even a subtle colour tint a shade darker can make a dramatic change overall which is why I make all my stains up bespoke for every floor and sometimes for individual boards within that floor. Trying to emulate other woods works sometimes and sometimes it does not, the hue and shade can be changed, but not the figure, especially with the resinous late wood growth rings in pine that resist staining, instead I prefer to emulate the passage of time.

Ageing, tinting and staining floors to look old

Through experience I know what 50 year old, 100, 200 and up to 550 year old wood should look like and I have the materials and ability to ‘fake’ it to borrow a French polishing term, to make your floor approximate what it would have looked like if it had been sanded, waxed, cleaned and polished for a hundred years or more. Shellac gives a slightly warmish tint to any floor, by adding small amounts of translucent spirit dye and rare earth pigments to the shellac one can build up a very even and natural looking ‘aged’ effect.

Antique oak floorboards being shellacked by hand

For the deeper colours it is necessary to stain the floor two or three times to build up layers to avoid patchiness, I sometimes have to water stain the floor first to get a good background to work on. The vast majority of my floors are finished either naturally or with light tints, many customers who were a little unsure have been very pleased with the result.

Very old reclaimed oak floor being coloured with shellac

I often proffer the idea that the customer might want to go for a lighter and more natural looking stain as pine, being porous stains relatively poorly and the lighter and more natural you go the less this patchy effect is seen and many family and friends on first seeing the floor for the first time often ask if it has just been waxed naturally.

Wood floor staining decisions

Light or dark? – General shade of the floor – Effects perceived size of space, lighter floors for example enhance the feeling of greater space in smaller or poorly lit rooms. Pine generally takes lighter stains better. Darker stains are better suited to hardwoods like oak and in larger spaces with higher ceilings where the darker colour can give definition and focus to the area.

Oak parquet floor staining colour sample in situ
Hand coating amazing large smoked oak parquet floor
Click to visit Commercial floor sanding page

Warm or cold? – Wood is generally a shade of yellow or brown, within this range there may be orange or red ‘warm’ tones and grey, green and blue ‘cold’ tones, old pine has a warm tone, American black walnut has a cool tone. It is possible to change from warm to cool or cool to warm although if the timber is very warm then the timber will have to go a little darker to negate this as described above. I prefer to use the basic natural background colour of the timber and simply adjust the colour temperature and the shade to suit, this effect can look totally natural.

Most people have strong feelings about what they do not want, this frequently includes the reduction of orange or yellow tones in pine, it is possible by careful colour tinting to reduce the orange tones and turn them into a more caramel hue in a darker floor or to give light yellow pine floors more depth and a richer colour. Older floors usually patinate darker over time (except warm woods like teak, mahogany, European walnut, rosewood) and normally get warmer, sometimes with really old floors it is nice to retain some or all of this. Younger floors may suffer the opposite problem and be too light, this is where an ‘ageing’ tint can be applied.

I am happy to offer informed and honest advice on what colours and effects would go well within a defined space and colour palette. I have many thousands of images in my portfolio and therefore may be able to send over picture of more specific colours and effects if requested.

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