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True Colours

Wood floor staining: What you see isn’t always what you get!
Terry Guilford, of the Ultimate Floor Sanding Co, discusses the rights and wrongs of wood floor staining and the importance of managing customer expectations: 
THERE is nothing guaranteed to cause more aggravation to a floor sanding contractor than staining a floor. Despite my more than 15 years on in this business, I still groan when I am involved with a job that requires staining.
So what’s the problem? Surely the client picks a colour, you whack it down on the floor, apply the finish over it and everyone’s happy, easy… isn’t it?
To be honest, to do full justice to this subject would require time well outside the scope of this article but let’s keep it as simple as possible.
Firstly let’s look at the stains themselves. The most common type in use on these shores are straightforward solvent-based products which provide quite good colour depth, are fast drying, will work with just about any floor finish (if dealt with properly) and come in a huge range of colours.
The disadvantages with these are bleed-back and, of course, environmental issues due to the solvent ‘carrier’. Less popular are the water-based colours, which on the ‘plus’ side have far fewer environmental issues, but unfortunately also provide fewer colour choices, require a longer period before over-coating and present issues with grain raising… hence why they are less popular.
The ‘new kids on the block’ are the catalysed oil products which solve the time issue (to a degree) and being solvent free are environmentally friendly, however they are new and therefore pricey.
The truth is, the products are not really the problem; they all work if handled correctly. The problems basically come down to these following points:
1. Light stain: Tricky this fellow, a colour under shop lighting is different from the same colour under strong natural light, or shady areas for that matter.
2. The wood: Customers think that wood is wood, i.e. if a particular colour of stain looks good on a piece of oak then it’s going to look the same on their old pine floor. It’s sometimes hard to convey that this is not the case.
All timbers accept stains differently and light coloured timbers will look lighter than darker ones, even after staining. Oak is the very best timber for staining and pine is one of the worst.
3. The sanding: The smoother you sand the wood, the more you close the grain and the lighter the colour will be. In addition, a rotary action will leave a different scratch pattern and level of smoothness than a drum action, hence the ‘picture framing’ you see on some stained floors.
4.The sanding: No I’m not losing it (some would disagree). Point number 4 is still sanding-related, but needs to be mentioned separately. Sanding scratches that are invisible to the eye under natural lacquered finishes start to say ‘hello’ with oils and are positively hurling abuse at you when you start to stain.
Ok, so now having scared the living bejaysus out of you, how do you deal with the problems?:
1. Manage customer expectation: If the wood floor has to be the exact shade of some particular item (i.e. the wooden frame on your customer’s chair), it will need to be colour matched, which is possible.
However, once applied to their floor (bearing in mind all the points above), even if it matches exactly in some places it isn’t going to look exactly the same everywhere in the room, it isn’t possible (light being the factor here, the other issues you can mitigate).
2. Sand to a high standard: This varies according to the wood but broadly speaking try to match machine actions as much as possible (if you finish the field with a rotary then finish the edges with an orbital, if you finish on a belt or drum then hand block the edges in the same direction, i.e. with the grain).
3. Match grits: If you finish on a 100 grit on the rotary use 100 grit on your orbital.
4. Water pop: Wetting the floor will open the pores and allow more stain to penetrate. Because it swells the fibres it helps eliminate some scratches and on some timbers helps you see scratches so you can remove them before staining.
You need to make sure the floor is both sufficiently and evenly wet, but power washing isn’t a good idea!
5. Rag or buff off: Some people don’t realise that you don’t just put the stain on, let it dry and then finish the floor. Apply the stain with brush or roller, give it time to penetrate and then rag it off with absorbent, lint-free cloths, or buff off either using lots of cloths under an old pad or a ‘cut to shape’ natural pile carpet.
If you are careful you can cut a hole in the middle of the carpet off-cut and apply the product this way but there are limitations and it does require extreme care.
So if all that hasn’t put you off, nothing will, but remember it doesn’t matter how good you are, it’s managing customer expectation that’s the really tricky bit, but then you already know that, don’t you?

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal website. You can find them at