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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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):


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


    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!:


    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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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).

  8. 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?


    • 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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”

  13. 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,


  14. 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.

  15. Deborah says

    The oak floors in my house are pretty battered. Someone had put down some ghastly peel and stick tile in the living room. Very tedious to peel up and get rid of the stick-em. Once cleaned of the goo, my floors are rather dark. I rather like the aged worn look.

  16. Mag says

    Chiming in late. My in-laws’ modest ranch, built in 59/60, has white make floors with a natural stain, and aged over the years. My 1920’s house also had white oak with a natural stain. It deepened even more over the years, considering it was a good 30+ years older than my in-laws. When we added oak flooring in the kitchen, it was stained to match the older floor.

  17. Kathy says

    I think there are quite a few options, but most I have seen favored the light to medium tones in midcentury, probably in reaction to the dark tones favored for woodwork, and maybe a bit lighter for floors, until about WWII for most homes, except those with an Art Deco/Moderne flair.

    My own 1920s floors are finished with amber shellac, apparently applied in 1962 when the entire house was remodeled. The downstairs trim was completely replaced and all the wood floors recarpeted. The trim has a platinum finish, which appears to be a sort of semi-opaque stain with white and burnt umber in it and a clear topcoat varnish, which has yellowed with time. It has a light, somewhat pinkish color, but not as pink as the 80s pickled look.

    I think it could be duplicated with a white and burnt umber painted glaze under a clear finish, something similar to the treatment for a honey finish, which has a thinned yellow paint underglaze. I found an ancient can of the platinium finish in a ReStore store, but haven’t had the guts to open it up to see. My grandmother’s house had a similar type of woodwork.

    The dark tones came back in the 70s, although I think really dark floors are a modern thing. I think in the past, they tended to be fairly light to mid-tone, which shows dirt less than dark.

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