Color & Finish Repairs for Wood Flooring

When a wood floor becomes damaged, it can be catastrophic to the end user. In order to determine the extent of the repair that will be necessary, you must first ask a
few questions:

  • How bad is the damage?
  • Who is the customer and what is their level of expectation?
  • What type of repair will be acceptable to them?

The fact is that all wood floors will get scratched at some point during their service life. As I always told my customers, the worst scratch is the first one you put in your new floor. Fortunately, most wood floors are repairable.

Repairs to wood flooring may be performed at many levels, which may include replacement, resanding, or topical aesthetic repairs.

Replacement of individual boards or sections within the floor is often necessary with severe damage such as a major water leak, pet stain, or other types of damage. Regardless of the extent of the damage to the floor, there are times when replacement may not be an option. For example, it may be very difficult to replace an individual board or area within a floor when you have no replacement material or when the replacement material doesn’t match. Other times replacing is simply not an option due to building occupants or time restraints.

In many cases, isolation sanding or aesthetic repairs may be the best option. The goal with any repair is to have the target area blend into the surrounding area. The best part of repairing wood flooring is that wood is a natural product with irregular patterns and colors from board to board, and even within each piece of wood.

One of the hardest obstacles to overcome when making repairs to any surface is overcoming the end user’s “memory of the damage.” Most owners will subconsciously remember where the damage was and when it happened, regardless of how good the repair is. Some repairs may be nearly flawless and acceptable to 95 percent of the general population, yet perceived as a disastrously failed attempt in another person’s eyes. This is why it’s so important to know the customer.

The following steps highlight some of what we teach at the Wood Floor Repair schools related to the removal of scratches, dents, or gouges in a wood floor.

Removing the damage – You should have a good perspective of the overall color of the floor, the surrounding boards, and the finish sheen before attempting any repairs.

First and foremost, identify and locate the repair area by confirming the specific issue with the owner. Isolation of the area needing repair is important. This step allows you to define the scope of work and set expectations with the owner. Place cardboard/protection at the repair area for your tools. This sends a clear message to customers that you respect their floors and their home.

Once the area has been clearly identified and isolated, removing the damage is the next step. Dependent upon how severe the damage is, removal may be accomplished through the use of hand sandpaper, a scraper, or an electric sander (random orbital or edger). If the damage is too deep into the wood, it will require either board replacement, or when acceptable, use of fillers. When removing the damage, keep the repair flat with the flooring, not leaving a dip or divot where the damage was. Don’t make the repair larger than it needs to be. Keep it isolated, but blend it into the field.

Once the damage has been removed and the scope of work has been defined, it’s time to prepare the repair area for blending and color replacement.

Making the repair – Blending the area into the surrounding flooring is the best way to trick the eyes. Focus on removing the line that separates color from raw wood. This can be accomplished by hand sanding and detail scraping. Chasing the grain away from the repair area allows you to follow the natural characteristics of the wood grain to carry the color out into the field.

Fillers are acceptable where board replacement is not an option, and sanding/scraping won’t suffice. Use a filler that is compatible with the finish. Color should be close to the lightest portion of the wood and should be flat with the surface. Most of the time this will also require adding color and characteristics to the repair areas.

Color Replacement – Color replacement can be achieved by using a variety of tools and products. The most common colorants include stains, dyes, tinted sealers/finishes, dye markers, pigment stain markers, colorant sticks, and reactive conditioners. Application of the base color using any of these tools should be done thoroughly, and with adequate dry-times for the products being used.

Color theory – When performing repairs that require color matching or color replacement, you should have a general understanding of color theory. Color theory is based on the color spectrum.

Color theory is the concept of mixing colors and the visual effects of specific color combinations. The color wheel is laid out as follows:

  1. Primary colors – red, yellow, and blue
  2. Secondary colors – orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue), and violet/purple (blue and red)
  3. Tertiary colors – red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green, and yellow-orange

For wood repairs, we use a version of the color wheel commonly referred to as “The Finisher’s Color Wheel” developed by Color Concepts Inc., which has been developed using the standard earth-tone colors in the wood industry (from which most floor stains and colorants have been developed).

This is an invaluable tool when attempting color-match repairs on a wood floor. It helps you visualize how the mixing of colors can affect each color. It includes the outside wheel that shows 12 colors including raw umber, French yellow ochre, burnt sienna, cordovan, burnt umber, raw sienna, black, yellow, green, red, orange, and white.

Background color – Any repair that requires color replacement should begin with the background color. Identify the background color and use this as a base. This is normally the lightest color in the workpiece and will set the backdrop for the rest of the repair detail.

Areas that are too light can always be darkened, but areas that are too dark can be more difficult to lighten without going back to raw wood. Assess the surrounding areas to determine which base color to begin with. Identify the different color shades in the surrounding wood, such as the differences between heartwood and sapwood, as well as the differences in color from earlywood
to latewood.

Adjusting color – When you need to adjust the intensity of the color you’re using, you can do this by simply adding white, black, or gray to your base color. When referencing color theory, adding white to a color is referred to as tint. Adding white to any stain or dye creates a lighter version of the color; how much you add will dictate the intensity of the color. Adding black to a color is referred to as a shade. Adding black to any stain or dye creates a darker shade of the color; how much you add will dictate the intensity of the color. A 50-50 mixture of black and white gives you gray. Adding gray to a color is referred to as a tone.

When working with brown colors, try to keep it simple by considering brown as a shade of orange. Orange comes from mixing red and yellow. Orange mixed with black creates brown. Adding white to brown gives you a tan color. You can adjust the tone of brown or tan based on the amount of black or white added at each step. You can also adjust where the brown falls within the color wheel by adding a little red or green (depending on what you’re trying to match). The key is keeping track of the amounts of each added through the process, in case you need to repeat or match at a later time.

When your color is off, you can counter the effect by going to the opposite (complementary) color on the color wheel. Using opposites to trick the eye and to cancel out overbearing color is an easy way to make adjustments. A dusting or speckling of color can be all that is necessary to offset a bad match. Some manufacturers have developed tinted spray/aerosol finishes for this purpose specifically. If you don’t have the tinted aerosol in your arsenal, you can add small specks of color with a fine-tipped paintbrush to adjust the color and trick the eye.

If you have a color repair that looks too green, you can add a very slight dusting of red to offset it. If your repair is too red, add a dusting of green. A repair that’s too yellow can be offset with a dusting of violet. If the repair looks too orange, add a dusting of blue.

Layer the repair – Once your base color is set and completely dried, you’ll need to lock in the color. This can be accomplished using a quick-drying sealer. If the repair color was replicated using a wood floor stain, you should be able to apply the first coat of finish to begin the finish-building process. Be cautious because the type of sealer you choose will affect the color and must be compatible with topcoats. If the color was achieved by using dyes, reactives, colorant sticks, or markers, you’ll need to lock them in with something that doesn’t reactivate or pull it. This can be accomplished using a spray finish. A light aerosol spray coat can lock in underlying colors and allow for a layered repair.

Grain replacement – When necessary, you may need to begin replacing the grain and other characteristics of the board. Use fine feather-tip markers, graining pencils, or dye powders with proper solvent and a fine-tipped paintbrush to replicate these characteristics. Make a selection of color closest to the overall grain color. Carefully follow the grain pattern from outside the repair area through the repair to the other side. Don’t overdo the graining; less is more. Once you’re happy, again lock in the colors with the spray finish. You can use this process to recreate knots, burls, mineral streaks, or any characteristic the repair calls for. Through layering and color replacement, experienced wood repair artists can replicate the natural chatoyant characteristics as seen in curly grain, rippling, and in birdseye figuring, giving the viewer the illusion of a three-dimensional surface.

Building finish – Once the color has been replaced, the graining and character have been added, and you’re happy with the results, it’s time to build the finish up to the surrounding levels. This is easy if you know the type of finish and number of coats you’re matching. It can be difficult if you don’t.

Generally speaking, apply one coat at a time, per manufacturer-recommended spread rate, and allow it to adequately dry before applying more coats.

In the repair world, you are often required to think outside the traditional application box. Some finishes may be able to be cut or thinned down using the appropriate solvent (check with the manufacturer before altering product). This can allow you to lay down multiple thinner coats of finish. The benefit of this is that you’ll be able to dial in the necessary build to the surrounding finish. Some finishes may also be receptive to speed-drying, which involves introducing heat and airflow to the drying finish, allowing for multiple coats in a shorter timeframe. Again, check with the manufacturer to determine the proper use and limitations of the product.

Adjusting sheen – The sheen of the final coat of finish will likely differ slightly from the surrounding flooring, even if the same products were used. It is important that the final coat of finish being used is properly mixed and applied as recommended by the finish manufacturer. To trick the eyes into accepting the repair area, you can tape off individual boards or entire sections of the floor, carefully aligning the tape along board seams or grain. This may work with slight variations in sheen level.

Unlike “workable” finishes such as shellac and lacquer that can be rubbed out and sheen-adjusted using super-fine (0000) steel wool, most wood floor finishes are not capable of being adjusted in this manner.

The automotive paint industry often uses flattening pastes (made from silica grains) to decrease gloss levels or polishing compounds to increase gloss levels. People in the wood flooring industry with an automotive painting background have seen great success in bringing these techniques to the finishing side of our industry to adjust sheen levels. It is essential to be aware of how any of these compounds or polishes may affect future maintenance coats from adhering.

A real wood floor can easily last hundreds of years. Due to its longevity within the home, every wood floor will, at some point, earn a scratch, a dent, a gouge, or some other sort of blemish during its service life. It’s just a part of the memory the floor has. The beauty of living on a wood floor is that most of these damages are repairable.

Brett Miller is VP of Education & Certification at the National Wood Flooring Association in St. Louis. He can be reached at brett.miller@nwfa.org.

4 thoughts

  1. Very nice article, Brett. The situation I encounter most often is when an end user does not want to accept any “repairs” on their “new” factory finished floors. Sometimes these new floors are a year old and have gotten scars to coincide with their use. Other times the minor damages are the result of handling or installation damage from the fastening tool touching a sensitive tongue side as the floor is nailed or stapled down. The other cause of minor finish issues on these “new” floors has to do with naturally occurring wood characters and characteristics in pieces of trees that just a few years ago would have been turned into shipping pallets. The consumer’s demand for very rustic appearing floors has lead to the inclusion of reaction wood, splits, checks, knots, etc in their selection. When these natural “imperfections” move in a manner differing from the way straight grained pieces might, it is common for the somewhat brittle factory finish to fracture and even chip off along the fracture in the wood. The issue is very small to those of us who understand wood behavior and anatomy (and finish chemistry) but too many homeowners, dealers and installers think this is an indication of a defective finish. Manufacturer’s of rustic graded floors would be well advised to address these kinds of issues in their warranty statements.

  2. Great article Brett, I like to add that the final sheen is dependent on how thick or thin the final coat is applied (even if the exact same product was used as originally applied).
    A thin application will always appear lower in sheen than a thicker applied application of the same product. If you apply it thick you can not lower the sheen but if applied thin and the sheen is lower than the surrounding area you may always raise it a bit by rubbing gently with some automotive rubbing compound.
    Remember also that it will take a few days for the sheen to die down after it is applied, so if it appears slightly shinier once dry give it a few days to settle, it may match perfectly fine/acceptable.
    If the original coat was applied with a roller do the repair with a roller also taping of the section.
    If applied by T-Bar use a brush to touch up.

  3. Lots of good information here Brett. For those who don’t know them Mowhak Finishing (not Mohawk Industries) has a great class and all types of repair products including the hot melt waxes. I took the course and purchased some of their products. I think it was worth the time. They showed lots of stuff for repairs including how to adjust the sheen level from flat to high gloss.

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