Choosing, Matching, and Maintaining Your Hardwood Floors

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A wood floor is a timeless staple of any home- warm, inviting, and always stylish. Over time, however, your flawless dining room wood floor might see some wear and tear from hundreds of footsteps across your house. Or perhaps you’re ready to redecorate your living room and want to ensure that you coordinate your wood floor with your new décor for a seamless aesthetic. Whatever the case, you’ll need to know how to coordinate the décor in your home with your floors, and how to refinish your floors with the best finish for that particular type of wood.

Coordinating Your Décor with Your Floors

First, look for the undertones of your wood’s grain. Wood grains can range from dark undertones (such as red to dark chocolate) to much lighter tones, and you can use those undertones to tie your wood floors to furniture or other wood decorations as a matching accent color.

While wood is typically considered part of a traditional design scheme, it can also provide a visually interesting contrast to modern design. In general, larger wood grains give off a more casual vibe, perfect for a recreation room, while finer wood grains appear more formal and would suit a dining room. You may also think about balancing the strength of wood with light, airy window treatments or other accessories.

Finally, don’t be afraid to stray from matching your wood tones exactly in your room. In fact, mixing wood tones can quickly change the style and mood of the room, as long as you stick to two to three types of finishes to provide visual interest without being too jarring. You might consider using a buffer piece to ease the transition between two woods; for example, adding an area rug in between a wood dining room table and a different wood floor. White and wood is also a classic combination that can bridge the gap between various types of woods.

hardwood floor style guide


Should you buff or sand?

Sure, good hardwood floors can last a lifetime (or more), but ultimately, the floor only looks as good as its finish. You have two main options for refinishing floors: buffing or sanding. Buffing strips the top layer of polyurethane from the floor without removing any wood, while sanding removes all finishes right down to the top layer of the floors.

For a do-it-yourself project, sanding is more difficult and more expensive; however, your floors will need to be sanded in certain situations. Your floor needs sanding if:

  • You want to change the color of your floor
  • Your floors are finished with wax on top of polyurethane, or
  • The finish is worn through or the wood itself is stained or damaged

No matter which method you choose, you’ll need a few tools for the job: dust masks or respirators, eye protection, ear protection, and plastic sheeting to seal doorways and keep dust from getting to the rest of the house.

What kind of finish?

In general, the harder a wood is, the tougher it will be to stain, putting you at risk for a splotchy finish. Therefore, for harder woods (like hard maple, mahogany, and bamboo), consider using a natural finish. Your other finish options are wax, water-based polyurethane, oil-based polyurethane, or penetrating oil sealer.

A wax finish is ideal for homeowners who want an easy to apply, low-shine finish. Wax typically has a darkening effect, although that can be lessened with a base coat of shellac or sanding sealer applied to seal the wood before waxing. However, wax finishes aren’t as durable as other options, and they’re susceptible to stains and need regular refinishing.

Water-based polyurethane is an eco-friendly choice for a quick DIY project (the finish dries in 2-4 hours between coats). The finish is environmentally friendly thanks to its low volatile organic compounds, but water-based polyurethane is more expensive and less durable than oil-based polyurethane.

Oil-based polyurethane, while more durable, is also tougher to apply than water-based, thanks to its long drying time of 8-10 hours between coats. Over time, oil-based polyurethane can cause yellow coloration, and it also has high volatile organic compounds.

Finally, penetrating oil sealer has tung oil as its most active ingredient, a low-VOC oil that hardens as it dries. This type of finish is ideal for antique homes or touch-ups for already-oiled floors, and it deepens the natural color of the wood while enhancing grain patterns. DIYers will enjoy using penetrating oil sealer because it’s non-toxic with a mild odor and mellow sheen. Unfortunately, it’s less durable than polyurethane and needs to be reapplied every two years, not to mention requiring 24-48 hours to dry.

How can you maintain your refinished floors?

The answer to this will depend on how your floors are finished. Generally, ground-in dirt can damage all kinds of hardwood floors. You can prevent this by sweeping daily in high-traffic areas and once weekly elsewhere throughout the house. Also, wipe up mud and spills immediately.

For surface-sealed finishes (such as urethane, polyurethane, and acrylic finishes), mop your floor once a week with a damp mop, using vinegar and soapy water (or commercial cleaners for especially stubborn stains). Avoid oils, waxes, furniture spray, and ammonia. See an errant scuff mark? Put a bit of baking soda on a damp sponge to erase them.

Oil-treated or waxed finishes, meanwhile, should not be mopped. Instead, use manufacturer-recommended strippers and waxes or oils, re-waxing or oiling annually. Lacquered, varnished, or untreated floors are not resistant to moisture, meaning they should be cleaned with wax only. For white water spots or heel marks, add a small amount of wax to an extra fine steel wool pad, and gently rub the area in a circular motion. For food stains, wipe the surface with a damp cloth before rubbing it dry and waxing. Remember, whenever you’re cleaning a stain, always work from the outside towards the center.