Great Expectations – Making Samples

Chris Rock once said that when you date someone the first time, you meet their representative and not the real person.  True? I think so. Why is it that we try to make everything prettier than it is? We are who we are. The same goes for your floors. Wood is a natural product. It is not perfect. It has straight and curved lines, dark and light, figured and burly, soft and hard, and the list goes on. Yet, when we make samples we try to make them perfect.  Remember the last sample board you made for a client? It never really matched the end result when you finished the whole floor, right? That’s because many of us do not make samples the right way.

I remember an instructor at one of the NWFA technical schools talking about sample making. He said that once the client approved the sample you should throw it away. He was making a point that the sample never matched the actual finished floor. Instead,try to train yourself to make samples that are very close to your finished floor. Have the client approve and sign the sample. Then, keep the sample out of sight for reference should the need arise. Last, but not least: Talk to your client about how the floor might look more green, red, or brown. Mention how the floor might look darker or lighter and explain why. Remember the word expectation. What is obvious to you is not obvious to them.  Next time you make a sample follow these simple guidelines:

  • Match the wood. If you’re doing a white oak refinish and your sample is made on new white oak, the sample may not match. The existing white oak may have a lot of patina in it and could show a lot of earthy, amber red tones. Let’s say your client wanted a brown stain. You made the sample and they loved it. They loved the green hue and the brown color that had no red in it. So, you get to work and sand the floor. Once you hit the old white oak with stain you notice that it is a little redder than your sample, but not too bad. The next day you apply finish and guess what, its reddish brown? Now you’re sitting there holding your green brown sample and looking at a reddish brown floor. Next time, make samples on old white oak. You should save some from previous repair jobs. If you don’t have any, make samples on the floor itself in areas like appliances, closets etc.

  • Don’t make it pretty. Most likely you will make a sample using only a board or two and have it scratch free. You will make it so uniform in color and sheen and that’s what the client will expect – perfection.  Instead, make a sample about 2’ x 3’ (.609 – .914 meters) instead of using one board. That will help show the variation in color. Pick and choose different grain and color boards. Don’t cut the sample out of two long boards. Then, leave some fine scratches in it. Try to be a little less than perfect. It will save you a lot of trouble in the end. I always try to make a sample less-than perfect. If I know the client will try to test the finish durability by scratching it I even compromise the drying conditions. So that when the actual floor is done it will outperform the sample.
  • When you’re showing a sample board for a new floor installation it should match the actual floor.  Don’t show an old Jatoba sample without talking about color change. Don’t show a sample board without any knots in it when the actual floor will have knots. As an NWFA Certified Wood Floor Inspector, I got a call for an inspection about a client complaining that their new prefinished floor had many dark spots. One of the questions I asked was, “Where is the sample you were shown by the person who sold you the floor?”

  • When trying to work with custom colors, it is important to be organized and systematic. The chances are that if you are playing around with colors, you already have what you need. I always have a notepad to record my formulas, measuring cups, tablespoons, and a gram scale. It is a fool proof technique to replicate your colors. When you’re done, keep a copy in the client’s file for future use. For example, I use a red oak floor, sand it to 120 grit, apply stain x, then dewaxed shellac with one teaspoon of x tint per cup, then urethane satin, then abrade with 220 grit, then final coat.

  • Know your grits and the scratch pattern your machines create. Let’s say you either hand-sanding your sample or using a small random orbital sander. Both will create a different surface on the wood sample. That will affect the color. Then when you do the actual job, you put your big machine, buffer, and/or multi disc on the floor. These machines create a different scratch pattern than your hand-sanding or random orbital sanders. That is mainly why your sample and floor are different in color. To correct this, you need to know your machines very well. For example, it is possible that you will need to finish sanding your sample with 100 grit with the random orbital sander, to get closer to the scratch pattern left by buffing the floor with 120.
Instead of making samples on the first day of sanding, I prefer showing up weeks in advance and make the samples then. That way, if the client takes a while to decide, we are not stopping the sanding job until decision is made.
In this case, I showed the client that the plans from the architect looked great on paper, but didn’t end up lining up with a lot of the walls. I then had to redesign the plan, and get the client’s approval.

In conclusion, communication is everything. Remember that you can never talk enough with your clients about the most banal details in the wood. They don’t see what you see. They might not be seeing the small dark streaks in the maple or the rays in the quartered oak. Don’t give them a small sample to approve. Make the sample as big as you can. Be the contractor who was really helpful throughout the process.

 Avi Hadad

CR, CSF, CI, CWFI, VGD

Avi’s Hardwood Floors Inc.

4 thoughts

  1. Avi,

    Great article as usual! Lots and lots of good info. Not by design ….I have taken the same sheen of finish, stain color, sanding sequence and species of wood & created three different samples for a customer to pick from.
    In the end the customer was still not happy with the stain color but they did pay me!?!?

    My point to the story is that you can’t make everyone happy and don’t set your expectations or you own happiness on the customer outcome. It is a 2 way street and communication is key!

  2. I agree with everything you said, however you are usually competing with other companies that over promise and under deliver. It is an industry wide issue.

  3. Avi,
    Great article, I can’t stress enough like in the article that it is important to replicate the complete sanding process on the sample like you plan to do on the floor.
    It always amazes me that often samples are done on a non-representative piece of wood compared to the actual floor. I know, not always possible when it is an old floor.
    For example with White Oak, in one floor you often have 3 shades of wood, use those then when making a sample, not just one board. If you show just that one board then the customer expects to have that color also in the end, I have been involved where the majority of the floor board was heavy on the reddish/brownish side and the sample was shown on a whitish/blond board. Well, it happened that that floor had far less blond boards.

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