Hardwood Flooring Finishes, Stains, and Decorative Treatments

Finishes, Stains, and Decorative Treatments

empty dining room with shiny hardwood floors
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Hardwood flooring can be a durable, long lasting surface covering material, but it has to be properly finished in order to protect it from stains, damage, and moisture penetration. In addition, there are a number of colorful and creative decorative treatments that you can apply to make the floor take on a variety of unique stylistic appearances.

Hardwood Finish Options

There are many different finishes which you can use to protect the surface of your hardwood floors. Some are applied to the material before installation, but most go on after the wood has been set into the subfloor. You also have the option of choosing a penetrating finish, which soaks down into the wood and protects it from within, and a surface finish which creates a layer over the top of the material.

  • Prefinished Hardwood Flooring: This is applied directly to the material by the manufacturer before it ships. It consists of aluminum oxide crystals embedded in a UV cured urethane coat, for an extremely durable surface seal. This can be combined with beveled edges or other decorative effects. The drawback is that many lower quality materials will end up having a plastic look so make sure you get samples.
  • Oil Based Hardwood Finish: The most common hardwood flooring finish, this is made from an oil-modified acrylic urethane, which is relatively easy to apply, and which dries in approximately 8-12 hours. The caveat to this is that there is a somewhat pervasive odor when applying, and there may be some slight yellowing to the floor material after.
  • Water Based Hardwood Finish: A clear, non-yellowing water-based urethane mix that dries through evaporation of moisture into the air. This has less of a smell than oil-based finishes and tends to release fewer VOC’s into the air. However, it does require multiple coats to be equally effective.
  • Natural Oil Wood Floor Finish: Environmentally friendly, these natural oils are manufactured from refined vegetable oils and waxes. They work by soaking down into the surface of the wood in order to protect the material from within its upper layer. While these do not cause any harmful emissions and have no negative impact on the environment, they are also not quite as effective and will need to be reapplied more often than other finishes.
  • Warranty: Most finish treatments come with a warranty that will give you a reasonable expectation of how long it will last. This can vary from a handful of years to decades in some extreme cases. Be sure to read all manufacturer-provided literature carefully before making a decision.
  • Color Change Finish: In addition, some finishes are mixed with color additives which can tint the surface of the material with various hues. The natural chemical makeup of the finish can also sometimes alter the color of the wood, as in the case of oil-based urethane mixes.

    Hardwood Floor Surface Treatments

    • Stains: These consist of a variety of color changing chemicals which can soak down into the surface of hardwood planks, and tint them from within. These are often coated with a protective above surface finish treatment. The advantage of stains is that they color the wood, while still leaving the natural features of the material visible on its surface. You can stain darker or lighter depending on how many coats are applied.
    • Bleaching: This is a process that uses harsh chemicals to lighten the color of the wood. In this treatment, some of the features are washed out, but the majority remain in a slightly lighter, more pleasant hue.
    • Distressed: This involves a number of treatments where you try to damage the floor in such a way that it looks like it is aged. This is often done by staining the material a very dark color, and then bleaching it to make the colors look like they faded over time. Other techniques include scratching, scraping, or denting the floor to give it seemingly random personality features.
    • Wood Inlays: This is a fairly advanced decorative treatment that involves setting different pieces of wood into an already installed floor. This allows you to include emblems, carved pieces, and contrasting species of wood colors directly on the material surface.
    • Marquetry: This is a process where a very thin sheet of contrasting or decorative wood is laid over an existing hardwood floor, and applied as a veneer using adhesive.