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All the colours of the floor

So, you want to colour your floor? There are many innovative ways to do so, and each method has its own peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses. Richard Aylen explains.

THE versatility of a solid wood floor is hard to beat. Few other floorcoverings offer the opportunity for refurbishment or a full facelift by completely changing the colour of the surface. If you change the colour scheme of the room’s interior and you have a carpet, synthetic floor or tiles it’s assumed you’ll have to replace the floor if it doesn’t fit in with the new scheme.

Transforming the look of the existing floor has several benefits; it’s usually cheaper, it takes less time, is less disruptive and produces less waste, and so benefits the environment. For many years, the traditional way of colouring a wood floor was to use a conventional wood dye and then using lacquer on top.

This has served us well and is still a viable option today, but other innovative ways have come along in more recent years. Each method has its own peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses and this what I want to discuss in my column this month.

Why colour a floor?
You might want an alternative to the wood’s natural colour for various reasons. The first, and most obvious is that the boards no longer match the décor. But re-colouring can offer other things too. Sometimes staining is used to soften the appearance of an older floor that has become a patchwork of different coloured planks resulting from past repairs. Staining the floor can make the colour more uniform. This is frequently found with old Victorian pine floors.

Some colouring treatments will enhance the grain of certain woods and give them a different appeal – oak and ash are good examples of woods that can reach new levels of beauty with the right colouring process. You can also use a subtle stain to fine tune the colour of the wood, for example if you want to reduce the yellow or orange tones in some types of pine, but still want the floor to look undeniably like pine.

A subtle white or grey wash can work well here. There is a current trend to retain the look of bare sanded wood, and there are some water-based primers on the market that use subtle tints to achieve this; Junckers PreLak Nordic primer being one.

Staining and colouring is a good way of achieving individuality or a unique look. Even if you colour two different oak floors with the same stain and lacquer products the end results will probably be different. This is because the oak may have been grown in different geographical locations, the logs may be sawn in different ways, they might be made into different board sizes and have different timber grading.

The way the colouring process interacts with the wood will vary from one floor to another. For clients, the idea that the refurbished floor will be unique to them is often very appealing and gives the contractor a strong selling point.

Natural wood floors with clear finishes are timeless and will always be a large part of the market, but so too will there be significant numbers of customers who want coloured finishes. The actual colours they choose will be heavily influenced by fashion. This is reflected in the extensive colour ranges offered by wood floor manufacturers.

The market for reclaimed wood floors – especially solid wood, is a healthy source of business for contractors who can offer customers a wide range of different finishes and colours. There is a strong market for reclaimed Victorian pine boards, and Junckers beech gym floors, sometimes decades old, are snapped up by buyers who want to use then in their homes, restaurants and commercial spaces.

Which are the best colouring products to use?
In the past, the usual way was to use a wood dye and then to apply lacquer or varnish on top. However, recent developments have given us products that are more pleasant and healthy to use, with good environmental credentials including low VOCs and high solid content.

Drying times are good and there is a high level of compatibility between different products; all the more so as many coatings manufacturers offer complete colouring and lacquering systems specially developed to work with one another. More recently it has become possible to use a coloured oil as a staining coat and then to seal on top with clear lacquer, something older products did not allow you to do.

There are numerous colouring products on the market and I have chosen to talk about those that appear to be the most popular right now. In my view staining products for floors are for professional use only and any newcomer to the trade will need to develop the skills to make the best of these coatings. Applying a colour to the floor can also highlight any deficiencies in the sanding process.

Customers often ask if it is possible to apply a coloured lacquer on top of their existing surface finish, so as to avoid sanding the floor. Products such as coloured varnishes have for a long time been available for use on furniture and general joinery but it can be very difficult to achieve a finish that is free from brush marks, overlaps and areas of different pigment density.

An intricate moulding or small section of timber is perhaps more forgiving of inconsistencies in application compared with a large, flat uniform surface like a floor. For this reason, coloured floor lacquers are less often used than primers and oils and those that are on the market tend to have very subtle pigments, making them easier to use than strong colours.

Coloured primers
Primers for floors arrived on the scene at the same time as water-based lacquers because something was needed to prevent the water-based lacquer from gluing the boards together. But the priming stage presents an opportunity to apply a coloured layer direct to the wood before the protective clear lacquer goes on.

The appearance is different from a penetrating finish such as wood dye or oil because the primer forms a film on top of the wood, rather than being absorbed. The result is usually an evenly coloured ‘wash’ that is not greatly affected by the porosity of the wood or tighter or looser grain. When applying the primer, it is important to keep a wet edge and to avoid roller stop marks and overlaps.

Primers work best with strip and plank floors but can be difficult to manage on patterned floors such as herringbone. Primers (from the same manufacturer’s range such as Junckers PreLak and PreLak Colour) can often be mixed to produce custom shades or diluted with clear primer to give a more subtle result. A coloured primer will always need to be protected with coats of clear lacquer as the primer itself may not be very durable.

Coloured oils
These are derived from the clear oils traditionally used for floors, furniture, worktops and other joinery. They differ from primers in that they are completely absorbed into the wood fibres, so a properly oiled floor will have no surface film as such. The ‘wearing surface’ is the wood itself, impregnated with oil.

There is an important difference between oils and lacquers in respect of maintenance because if a stained and lacquered floor partly wears out it can be difficult to locally re colour the floor in a way that blends in well. Oiled floors however are better suited to this type of repair and the repaired area will match more closely the less worn areas surrounding it. As far as application is concerned coloured oil can be easier to use than a coloured primer because it is applied generously to the floor, allowed to soak in and then the excess oil on the surface is buffed off.

This buffing process leaves a uniformly coloured surface free from roller and other application marks. Oil penetrates the wood therefore it can highlight and interact with the grain more than a primer does. This makes it a good choice for timbers that have an attractive grain such as ash and oak. Oils are also a good option for patterned floors such as herringbone and parquet.

There are a couple of ways the contractor can influence the amount of pigment that goes into the surface of the floor, thereby achieving a richer or more subtle colour. One of these is the smoothness of the final sanding. A finely sanded surface will take less pigment whilst a slightly rougher one will hold on to more pigment and therefore have a richer tone. The other way is by ‘water-popping’.

This is where after sanding, the surface of the floor is dampened with water and allowed to dry before the first coat of oil is applied. The water causes the pores in the wood to open and the grain to swell slightly which means that more pigment will go into the wood. I believe the real experts in this technique can use a stencil or mask to control which parts of the floor are wetted and which not, and this allows them to produce patterns and logos on the floor, giving a similar effect to a watermark on paper.

Traditionally oil products have a reputation for being slow to dry, making them less popular with contractors, but modern oils have significantly faster drying times and increased durability by use of hardeners, indeed one coat systems are available too. If the floor is to be treated only with oil, the finishing process will comprise an initial coat of oil followed by one or two thin topcoats.

If the oil is to be used only as a colouring layer then one coat only is used, and then two or three coats of lacquer are applied on top. Although it’s largely a matter of personal taste, when using a clear lacquer in this way matt or ‘ultra-matt’ finishes tend to create a more natural look to the wood than glossier ones. It has traditionally been the assumption that oil and lacquer finishes cannot be used together, but some manufacturers are now offering guaranteed companion products that will work together, such as Junckers 2K Eco Protect Oil or Rustic Oil, over-coated with Junckers HP Commercial or Strong lacquer.

In common with water-based primers it’s usually possible to mix coloured oils or dilute them onsite to give bespoke colours, but I’d suggest using products from the same manufacturer when doing this, unless you’re sure you have a tried-and-tested combination.

Wood dyes
Staining wooden floors using wood dyes is one of the oldest methods around. Historically these are organic solvent based with a strong smell, although drying times are generally good. This is one area where contractors will frequently mix colouring products and lacquers from different manufacturers, but tried and tested combinations tend to give reliable results.

The ‘rule-of-thumb’ is that a water-based lacquer will usually be compatible with a solvent-based wood dye, but it is always good practice to do a test area for any combination that you haven’t tried before. You also need to keep track of any changes to the product formulation the manufacturer may make because what works today may not necessarily work tomorrow!

Wood dyes work by penetrating the wood in a similar way to oil, so they too tend to emphasise the wood grain and the result is strongly influenced by the natural variations of the wood. Application is by cloth or absorbent pad and the process works well with patterned floors such as herringbone.

Traditional lye is a floor whitening treatment that has been used in Nordic countries for generations. It is used mainly for pine and oak floors, but today the name is used for a group of products where formulations can differ significantly. Traditional lye is made from soap and powdered white clay dissolved in water, and it is applied to the bare wood using a scrubbing brush. In fact, if you are looking for an environment-friendly floor finish, this is definitely one.

The modern versions provide a similar appearance but with improved durability, largely because they will be over coated with oil or lacquer and for the traditionalists these are ‘lye’ only in name.

In itself traditional lye is not very durable, and its use is probably not very common. It tends to be used for areas with lighter foot traffic, such as residential buildings, and it is fairly easy to freshen up a worn surface by scrubbing with more lye.

Experiment with texture
Some types of wood; oak in particular, can give very good results if the surface is wire brushed or ‘distressed’. This sort of finish is more easily produced in the factory but recently some on-site methods have appeared that use mechanical wire brushing. The process provides a textured finish where the wood grain is enhanced. This happens because the raised, harder parts of the wood do not absorb so much colour, but the softer abraded parts of the board take in a greater amount of pigment.

A coloured finish, particularly an oil or wood dye using grey or white colours can give the impression of aged or weathered timber, which makes for a very attractive result. It takes a lot of skill for the contractor to produce a good textured finish on site because the texture at the edges of the floor has to be identical to the main area, otherwise the pigment will highlight the inconsistency rather than hide it.

The process
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the final result is heavily dependent upon all stages of the work being carried out to a good standard. This is why coloured floor treatments are mainly the preserve of experienced professional wood flooring contractors.

The process starts with the way the floor is sanded and extends to the choice of application tools and assessing how the coatings will react with the individual type of wood the floor is made from. These are many factors that will influence the final appearance; probably enough for a whole new column, and this is perhaps a subject for another time.

There are very few types of floor finish that are as adaptable as timber floors, and this is one of the main contributors to their longevity. If, over the years you can change the floor’s colour and then experiment with different rugs, lighting etc, why would you ever want to change the floor?

I won’t say colouring treatments will give you absolutely any colour you want – for example, trying to lighten a floor made from dark coloured wood can be tricky – but with the wide range of treatment products on the market there has to be (almost) something for everyone.

Giving customers some attractive options for a ‘flooring facelift’ is also good for the environment because it turns customers away from the throw-away culture. This helps reduce landfill and global warming, reduces energy otherwise needed for repeatedly manufacturing and replacing worn out floors, and makes us less reliant upon materials with high levels of embodied carbon.

Coloured finishes combined with wooden floors offer one of the most radically versatile and flexible floor finish options with ability to adapt to changing trends and customer requirements – and the products we have today are making this easier and easier.

The Flooring Show
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