What color stain to use for mid-century oak flooring?

A reader recently wrote to ask, “What color stain would be most appropriate or authentic for a mid-century oak floor?” Drats, I cannot find the email. And, I am not academically sure what the correct answer is. I would guess… a “natural” stain.

Natural meaning – virtually no color. Matte or gloss finish. Gloss, though, would show more scratches. When we refinished the oak parquet floor in our dining room, above, the floor guy said, “All the old floors were done with a natural finish.” We chose matte finish and have been very happy with it. Our oak is getting a nice golden hue as time goes on. Under all the carpets, it’s a lighter color — the sunlight is affecting the color.

I think I may consult with some mid-century historic homes to discern the proper academic answer. But meanwhile: Readers — what do you think? What are you finding in your homes, with original wood floors, including what may have been hidden underneath carpet that’s been there for ages? What is the “authentic” color for mid-century oak flooring?

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Comments

  1. Elaine says

    I think it depends on which room and what year. My 1964 wing colonial has walnut stained oak in the family room/dining room. There are walnut built in bookshelves with walnut cabinets below. The wall between the cabinets and bookshelves is also walnut, and the ceiling beams and moldings. This look was quite the trend in those days, usually accented with bright braided rugs and big chunky furniture with bright throws. Very cozy and kind of funky. It’s dark in there, so it is now our media room. We’ve moved the day space out to the four season sun room.

  2. sablemable says

    I guess I would say my oak floors in my 1955 ranch are natural looking, albeit a bit faded. Oddly, the trim was stained in a cherry color, but it’s still in good shape for being original. Our 1958 ranch also has natural wood floors, so that must have been the trend.

  3. Shane Walp says

    This was a good question! I was going to redo mine this summer, but started on the kitchen as a stress reliever, and then the BR plumbing fell apart! AHH! Anyway, I think natural on the floor is the way to go.
    The question is – how about the interior doors? They get that honey gold look after 50 years. I think they are maple…what’s best to duplicate that on new maple wood? I’m building shelving to show off my 1950s TV lamps.
    Shane

  4. Elizabeth Mary says

    The floors in my 1946 house are natural with matte finish. I had them re-done when I bought it because the prior owner loved her waxed floors and I did not want to deal with that waxing and slipperyness. Plus at the entrance to kitchen and bath they were just dirty. I love them now.

  5. madsarah says

    My 1945 mid-century modern has maple floors that are stained a reddish color with a matte finish. I am not sure they were like that to begin with, but they go well with the large natural brick fireplace and other features.

    Incidentally, each strip of wood in my floors is only about two feet long, max. The previous owner of my home told me that they were called “shorts” because after the war it was impossible to get long pieces of hardwood for homebuilding.

  6. kristin says

    I don’t know what kind of wood ours are but originally they were very blonde with tons of gloss. When we had them redone, as there were a couple of dark stains possibly by pets, we stained them “English Chestnut” to help blend the pet stains into the overall look. We also went matte. Though the floor is a bit darker than I thought it would be, I like the stain as it really brought out the grain in the wood and the matte looks much, much better than the gloss.

  7. pam kueber says

    You know, I’m also thinking that the exact species of floor will make a difference in how the stain color presents. I recall that we have “red oak.” There must be many other varieties and I am sure that even a natural stain will mellow differently depending.

    Also, as comments are already starting to indicate – other woods like maple out there.

    Regarding doors: Gosh, a whole ‘nother issue. I was always thinking my basic doors were birch plywood? When we had to have one replaced because the veneer was wrecked, we hired a friend of a carpenter to match the stain as close as he could to other, existing doors. He got *close enough*.

  8. says

    “Natural” is the color you so often see on unrefinished midcentury hardwood floors. We had them in our 1938 colonial revival when I was young. I remember my mother paste waxing (on her knees!) every several months to get that beautiful gloss. But the difference in the look between the original finish and what you see now is the way the original solvent-based finish (sometimes called a Swedish finish) yellows over time. You can really see the yellowing effect in an old maple school gym floor. The darker wood colors, like oak and walnut, change less, but I think the yellowing effect is still noticeable. Since mid-century builders didn’t have water-based finishes or polyurathanes, they always used older solvent-based finishes that were usually maintained with wax.
    Nowadays, we have water-based polyurathane finishes that dry faster and are SO much healthier for our lungs. And they don’t yellow. We used waterbased polyurathane to refinish a maple kitchen floor in our previous home. When we refinished our 1956 ranch floors, we used a waterbased poyurathane and a stain of our own formulation that included mahogany for a warm, dark, reddish color. While it may not be “period” we really like it and it makes a great background for our light carpet and furniture.

  9. Eucritta says

    My 1952 colonial ranch’s wood floors are in a natural, high-gloss finish, giving a rich, varied golden color. I don’t think it’s original, but it’s congruent with the remains of what I suspect IS the original on the edges under the (also original) floor heater grilles.

    What I’ve been doing, is every time we have to do something that gives us access to what’s underneath or at the back or what-have-you – like the grilles, or under the inbuilt bottom drawers, and so on – I keep a note of what I see. So, I now know, for instance, that our bathroom walls were indeed painted pink at some point. Which must’ve been something with the green tiles.

  10. Retro Junkie says

    My 1963 ranch has fir floors that we just refinished with “Early American” minwax stain and they look beautiful. They have just enough color to bring out the grain of the wood. We used a satin or semi-gloss poly. I know that hardwoods used to be treated with high gloss, but shows too many imperfections. I like a little bit of the age to show but I don’t want them to look beat up.

  11. Hillary says

    Our 1948 wood floors are red oak with a natural/clear matte finish. It’s very warm and there’s a lot of variation in color in the grain, from espresso to reddish to pale blond.

  12. Kristin says

    Our stain ended up not being as dark as the English Chestnut images I Googled, but more of a light red brown than the yellowed blonde that was likely original plus the age (per the poster above’s info!). The variation in each plank is great and I never get tired of looking at the varied grain patterns enhanced by going a bit darker. As we only have one true blonde piece of furniture (Danish Mod dresser) due to the refinish job on the Herman Miller dinette going more red so the stains would diminish, it really looks much better all & all.
    The door issues kill me as ALL were painted over before we moved in with a thick high gloss white! We will eventually replace the door with a Crestview, but one of these days we’ll be in misery taking off all the pocket doors to get the paint off! I’m not even sure it’ll be worth it!

  13. says

    Ours is what I would call a “honey” color. It’s a rich light brown. I have attached some pictures. We will be refinishing it in the future because the previous owners did not take care of it – lots of water stains, scratches, and discolorations. We’ll hopefully be staining it a color very similar to what it is now, but that depends on the cost of replace the stained boards.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_zdhV7–jKk4/Sd6ekBzwfcI/AAAAAAAAAFw/uCBIJKiohKE/s1600-h/DSC02723.jpg

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_zdhV7–jKk4/Sd6ekFaSAhI/AAAAAAAAAFo/PS8-C6XdKmw/s1600-h/DSC02722.jpg

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_zdhV7–jKk4/Sd6ejplqs0I/AAAAAAAAAFQ/zca6lCehP1k/s1600-h/DSC02719.jpg

    And Pam – I was wondering, do you have more pictures of your house online? Before and afters? I’ve seen and been amazed at your kitchen and I’d love to see everything else.

    • pam kueber says

      ah, natalie, so you noticed that i haven’t posted many pictures of my house :). don’t tell anyone, there might be a video soon….stay tuned.

      oh and more importantly: the floors in your first two photos – EXACTLY like my dining room! These are not “thin parquet” pieces – they are full-sized pieces of tongue in groove oak, cut into 9″ pieces and then parqueted together. more expensive, higher end, i was told!

      finally, you and graham are too cute, i will put you onto the blogroll and look more at your blog when i come back from yoga. ttfn

  14. says

    Aww, thanks Pam! =) We are just now getting into blogging. Graham writes and posts more than I do, because I feel like I am not as witty as him. Haha.

    And the wood in our room with the big window is more damaged than the parquet. =( I hope our future floor guys can fix it for us.

    Oh and get this (this made me so happy), I found some of the original light fixtures from our house in the garage the other day. Looks like our pack rat previous owner kept them and left them! It made me so happy! Nothing spectacular, but I can use some of them in the hall and kitchen.

    And yes please post some videos or pictures of your house! I love seeing other people’s houses, especially retro ones! ;)

  15. J.D. says

    Great question, but there are a lot of variables.
    If you are doing a new floor, you will have to use at least a light stain. Wood today-being harvested from newer growth sources and tree farms, kiln dried and quickly processed- is a few shades lighter in color than that used 50 years ago. Don’t forget too that the varnish used back then continues to darken over the years.
    So if you are doing a new floor, you have two options…
    1st, the “new in ’54 look”- use a light stain like “golden oak” and a good quality modern clear finish.
    2nd, for a “vintage” look, mix equal parts of “golden oak” and “pecan” stains to get the warm “orange” glow of older wood, and finish again with a good poly-clear coat.
    (In either case you can use real varnish instead, but it is tough to work with and you and the dog are both gonna get stoned!)

    Same basic rules will apply when refinishing an original vintage floor. Depending on the sins committed against it in the last 50 years, you will still need at least a light colored stain to even-out the overall color. Remember that “natural” does not mean the wood has not been stained or at least treated to accomplish this goal, it simply implies the stain or treatment is not drastic. Tung oil treated wood for example is called “natural”, but the application drastically deepens (not changes) the color of the wood.

  16. MrsErinD says

    Our 2 story colonial built in 1950 has all hardwood floors and a natural finish, I’d say matte, they have always been covered by rugs, even now, so they are in perfect condition. The only room that has them exposed right now is the second bedroom, we pulled the old carpet up when we moved in 7 yrs ago.

    I vaguely remember my childhood home built in the 60s a split entry having natural hardwood too and my Grandparents house which is now my Mom’s built in 1957 has natural hardwood as well.

  17. nina462 says

    Thanks Madsarah—I looked down at my floors and the must be ‘shorts’ too. I never really gave it a thought. My floors (living room/dining room, hallway & 3 bedrooms) all need to be redone also. They are fine for me, but could use some TLC (maybe next years project). I think my floors are a golden honey color (possible maple). Mmmm maple, yummy!

  18. gavin hastings says

    I really think you can go anywhere on this one…

    Homes are built to the liking of the builder OR the desires of the customer. Natural matte wood floors in a room of Cushman Colonial furniture would seem be out of place…yet with a set of Dunbar or Eames furniture would be perfect. If the doors are unpainted, I would try to harmonize.

    I once had maple floors and did them Minwax Special Walnut with a gloss varnish…gorgeous, but it was a very formal room. I now have oak with Early American- not a big fan, but they were in good condition. They are honey colored, I prefer dark floors.

    Remember that for years most floors were covered with orange shellac.

    One more thing…do not let someone dump a can of stain in the center of the floor and mop it around. The original dumping site will absorb of the stain and create a “Map of South America” in your living room. I have found that by starting in one area-brushing on and wiping the excess off-you have more control of the color…AND you can shade and blend previous damaged areas. Good Luck!

  19. gavin hastings says

    Just re-read the original post and wanted to add: Oak takes stain …um..funky. Try it in a closet first. The color on the little piece of wood on the display rack is NOT what you will get on you oak floor.

  20. says

    madsarah – that is fascinating about the “shorts,” thanks for the info.

    we refinished our floors when we moved in. went with a cherry finish, and it looked fairly similar to the floors’ color beforehand. perhaps a little more reddish, but the same medium tone. i’m not sure how historically accurate the original floors were, though, as they were in pretty awful condition when we pulled up the carpet (and the house was remodeled once between building in ’45 and now – i think in the 60s).

    Also, when we had to replace part of our kitchen floor, i found parts of it still had the original hardwood flooring under the plywood – it was a very dark walnutty color, but that most likely only tells you that is had years of water damage (hence replacing), not much about the original color.

    Even in that sort of disrepair, i just love the thought and quality of craftsmanship that went into building my house (and many of y’all’s, i imagine) originally.

  21. Genjenn says

    Our 1950 California ranch wood floor is Oak parquet with the original matte natural (orangy-brown) stain. It has worn remarkably well. I want to redo them in a glossy deep brown.

  22. Alison Marie says

    I think stain color usually follows a certain wood type, also a certain width to the board. The narrower floor boards are usually lighter colored. My childhood home, which was built in the ’60s, had hardwood floors that weren’t stained….they had that ‘Swedish finish’. And we kept the unstained look when they were refinished in the the 90s, but the freshly-sanded sealed floors were much less yellow than what had happened to the finish over 30 years. My house now has simliar floors, the 2″ wide boards, and even refinished the wood still has a golden honey color to it. And in 6 years, I wouldn’t say that the sun has really affected the color.

  23. says

    I just recently moved into a truly fetching ranch style home in Northern California, and one of the first things we (my SO and I) did was tear up the gray Berber carpet covering the living room floor and hallway. Beneath, we had beautiful oak floors! The house was built in 1954 and the previous owners installed the carpeting about 50 years ago, so the floors were practically new.

    They were very dirty at first (all the fine dust that couldn’t be vacuumed out of the carpet apparently filtered through), and needed a good waxing once they were cleaned, but they came out a lovely natural honey-tone in the end. Here is a photo (showing my unglamorous but effective polishing method in addition to the floor tone):

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/60889345@N00/3784441286/in/set-72157621715163904/

    And here is a shot of the living room (never mind the paper temporary shades, those aren’t staying!):

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/60889345@N00/3784441290/in/set-72157621715163904/

    And, on a different but still site-relevant note, here is a picture of one of my favorite features of this house — the original garage door with cool design on the front!:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/60889345@N00/3666904000/in/set-72157619665208405/

    Also, just in general I have been reading this site ever since I found out my new home was a “mid century modern”, and I am so glad I found it because I’ve definitely come to recognize and appreciate a whole slew of design features I’d not previously considered.

  24. sookevista says

    Very interesting comments on floors – it depends on where you are, I think. We are in Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island, and are moving from a 1947 house to a 1945 house. Wood was locally milled, and doors and trim are often old growth fir which starts an incredible golden syrup colour and darkens in about 7 yrs to a deep red. Oak floors were common in the formal areas (public areas of the house), sometimes with inlay trim around the edge and pattern work. These are typically finished with a gloss in ‘natural’ honey colour and are seen throughout Victoria.

  25. Marta says

    When we bought our sadly unmaintained ’67 ranch, the oak floors in the family and bedrooms were worn, pet-stained, paint-splashed and malodorous.

    We carpeted the bedrooms. The L-shaped kitchen/family room was harder. We gutted the VCT kitchen part to walls and subfloor, and tore out 4’x10′ of oak and subfloor in the family room water-damaged by the leaking toilet adjacent. The DH put white oak in those areas, sanded the whole, applied 4 coats of natural water-based poly, and it looked great. You could only tell old from new by age gaps between the boards. Total cost under $500 for about 300sf.

    Nine years of life/dogs/kids later, that floor’s not so attractive. The finish was too thin and wore through in spots. There are a few water stains. Really, not so bad for first-timers, but it needs refinishing, and this time the bedroom floors are joining in.

    After researching, well, let’s say extensively, I’ve decided to remove the old finish with stripper, sand the floors with a random orbiter, and refinish with shellac followed by Wood Preen (a self-cleaning wax).

  26. Vikki says

    This is a wonderful site for those of us new to mid-century home ownership.
    Does anyone have ideas about what would be appropriate flooring for a small apartment in a 1955 two-story stucco building in south Fla (that actually looks like a motel from that era)? There is carpet now with plywood underfloor and some large beige tile in the kit/bath area. Hardwood seems appealing, maybe Douglas fir and maybe some real linoleum type instead of the tile?

    Thanks,
    Vikki

    • Terri says

      Red oak was pretty much “builder’s special” in California during that time period. You might find reclaimed flooring of that vintage, as I did. I think glazed tile is pretty standard for the bath, while linoleum (now Marmoleum) was common in kitchens.

  27. Terri says

    Our 1959 San Francisco house has red oak parquet and strip flooring throughout the upper (main living) level. Never stained, just clear finish. It varies from a golden amber to reddish amber. Grain also varies, much as another poster described.

    Have to share this: We have what was an unfinished room on our basement (street) level. At long last we are finishing it. We wanted hardwood flooring but were stopped cold by price and finish. A friend suggested looking on Craigslist — not a half hour after I read her message, I found 275 sf of reclaimed red oak for sale, pulled from a late-’50s house down the road in San Jose. It is an ABSOLUTE PERFECT MATCH for what’s already in our house! So close that I hesitate to sand it much after I install it — the level of wear matches too! (If I make it too nice, I’ll have to have the upstairs floors done too.) Am absolutely tickled that our renovated room will look as if the floors are original to the house.

    • pam kueber says

      Wow, Terri — What a great story! The Retro Decorating Gods sent you just what you needed just when you needed it!

  28. Terri says

    At long last, my “new” red oak family room floor is done! No stain, just a clear varnish. It is way lighter than the aged floors in the rest of the house, but if ever we have them refinished, they’ll match.
    Here’s a link: http://s689.photobucket.com/albums/vv252/terrihd/Family%20Room%20Construction/?action=view&current=3d5d02ed.jpg

    Now I’m having a devil of a time finding the baseboard to match the rest of the house. Some think it’s oak; others think it’s Philippine mahogany. Every vendor here in SF seems to know the milling style, but no one is making it anymore. Leads welcome.

  29. says

    The oak floors we found under the carpet in our house were in high clear gloss with dark (ebony?) inlay around the edges (which is typical in our area). As to weather it was originally this way, no idea, but I know the previous owners had a thing for gloss (glossy oil painted walls, glossy floors, and our t&g ceiling also got the glossy treatment!

    I have a question about period appropriate trim. As we had to rip up w2w carpets to free our hardwood floors, we have no baseboards. I am wondering what are popular modern takes and/or period appropriate baseboard trims that would be suitable for the aesthetics of my 60’s rancher?

  30. mimi says

    The oak floors in my house and my mothers were natural oak color. She has a more “upscale” colonia, and the oak is nicer. Mine is a small inline ranch and has more varied color in the oak-I’m assuming cheaper “seconds”

  31. Janie says

    I am particularly interested in the feedback to this question.
    I have a 1940 kit home that has Southern pine floors and ceilings in much of the house. The floor and ceiling in the living room are painted dove gray.
    Reclaimed planks fo various widths are being installed in the two bedrooms. The coloration, patina and bits of paint vary.

    My inclination is to collaborate with the contractor to use a matte sealer/finish on the floors.

    Please send me any guidance you have. I appreciate you much,

    /jea

  32. Valerie says

    The house I grew up in was a late 1950’s ranch. The hardwood floors (living room, hall, and all bedrooms) were oak (fairly narrow strips) with what I would call a medium, glossy stain and finish. The mouldings around doors and windows and the baseboards were pine, I think, but about the same color as the floor. It was maybe a shade darker than the knotty pine paneling in the family room and the knotty pine cabinets in the kitchen. Doors were flat panel, and about the color of the paneling (which is to say, a shade lighter than the floor).

    My grandparents built a new ranch house in 1965 which had parquet floors throughout except for the kitchen, baths, and laundry room. The parquet floor was maple, I think, and it seemed absolutely natural color – just a clear finish on it. Flat panel doors and louvered folding closet doors were the same color, as was trim moulding.

    Both houses had painted crown moulding, which in our two houses was painted white to match the ceilings.

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