“We’re going to do what to the floor?!” I asked incredulously as my then boss, Hank Dittmer, announced that we would be “pickling” the red oak floor that we had just started sanding. At this point in my career, I barely knew what “half paper” was, and now I was worried that we were going to use the brine from an enormous jar of dill spears to stain a floor. I was relieved moments later when I heard the explanation of the process that we would be using, which, in today’s flooring vernacular, would be akin to creating a look somewhere between neutral and white. This was back in the 1990s when white, grey, and “pickled” floors were less-common. But that was then, and this is now.
Today you’re on the jobsite and the homeowner hands you a tablet with their favorite app, Artsy: The Breaker of Contractor Souls, opened to a collection of photos that could be best described as whitish-untreated. As most of us in the trade are well aware, the unfinished look and its cousin, white floors, have darkened our collective doors again. However, as this appearance has gained traction over the last several years, we are now better prepared to tackle this trend using advancements in treatments, stains, additives, pigmented sealers and finishes, and a few “tried and somewhat true” approaches. Now that you have found yourself in this pickle, let’s see what you can do to get out of this house with your pride, sanity, and a paycheck.
Bleaching: One of the means of lightening the natural color of a wood species is through the process of bleaching. Predominantly used on white oak, bleach will mute the brown tones that might overwhelm a pastel stain color like white or taupe. One of the most-common products used is a two-component wood bleach. Parts “A” and “B” are combined. After the wood bleach mixture is applied, the floor is neutralized with a water/vinegar mixture. Does it work? Yes. Does it deliver predictable results every time? Maybe not. Is it easy to work with for repairs? Touch-ups are as easy as any five- to six-step process out there. I would not necessarily rush to use bleach on a floor anytime soon unless it was my only option.
Staining: When it comes to staining with traditional oil-based stains, most of the white and pastel colors on the market today can be used with confidence to achieve a consistent appearance, and they work well with today’s waterborne systems. However, there is at least one exception that you should be aware of, and that is the use of white stain on white oak. Volumes have been written on the subject, and debates over the practice continue. At the very least, be aware that if you apply an oil-based white stain on a white oak floor, the possibility exists that you could experience problems with tannin pull as the result of applying a waterborne product over the top (tannins are a natural compound in plant and wood species). Because of their chemical nature, the tannins can seep to the surface, even after the wood is completely dried and carefully stained and finished. This results in defects, such as dark streaks or dark, puddle-like splotches. When this does occur, there is only one guaranteed fix, and it involves your big machine and an edger. This is zero fun.
Tints: Do they work? Sure. Are they a guaranteed slam dunk? Not always. Like most things in life, tints and additives have limitations. The limitations associated with tints typically are the amount that you can add to a product, or if the manufacturer of your favorite brand will sign off on having anything added to their product. Just remember, if you go “off book” and add more tint than you’re supposed to, the brown marks from tannic acid that you were hoping to avoid could be replaced by inconsistent color on your floor. As my father loved to say, “A word to the wise should be sufficient.” The biggest drawback of tints would be having to potentially recreate the exact same color in the future for an addition in the same house, or worse, a touch-up when things didn’t go according to plan.
Pigmented Sealers: The products that are used today that offer the most consistent and predictable results are waterborne sealers and finishes with varying amounts of white pigment added to them to achieve an arctic or untreated appearance. Sealers with white added to them offer the greatest versatility without the need for recreating an exact formula at some point in the future. Because some of these sealers require more than one coat, you can use two of the same or one of each, and then topcoat with a clear finish or a pigmented finish, or again, one of each. Depending on which species you are working with, you theoretically could apply these sealers over a pastel stain. The key to success with these products relies heavily on application. While most high-quality waterborne systems are designed to be user-friendly with exceptional flow and leveling, that does not mean that a sealer with white added to it can be applied with reckless abandon. My colleagues and I recommend that the pigmented products we offer be applied in two thin coats rather than one thick coat. The turn of phrase that we like to use is that these products should be treated like paint; do not rely entirely on the product’s flow and level to win the day. If you see a ridge that was left by the roller, go over it again, just like you would on a vertical surface with paint. Consistent application is the key. The biggest disadvantage to these types of sealers is that they can be fickle, and in inexperienced hands, the results can be less than acceptable.
Pigmented Finishes: There are a few finishes available today that have material added to them, which will both lower the sheen and provide an unfinished appearance. To be clear, when I refer to a lower sheen, I mean that there is virtually no sheen whatsoever. These products can be relatively easy to work with and will deliver in terms of the appearance they are describing. That being said, there are a few important points to keep in mind. Some of them are self-sealing and do not require a sealer as part of their system. This may sound great, but keep in mind that the reason most manufacturers recommend a sealer is to prevent side bonding, and the potential for this does exist with any waterborne product. Like the other options that we have explored in this article, pigmented finishes have their limitations. If two coats of the product don’t achieve the desired appearance, additional coats may not be possible.
Did we crack the whitish-greyish-pickled code? I’m not sure, but we have gone over a list of options and techniques that can be combined to create the perfect ecru floor that will be in style for the next 10 years. I’m sure by now my opinion of this particular look has been less than subtle, but as Hank told me years ago, “We aren’t paid to like ’em, just make ‘em look good.”
Gene Jarka is the Eastern regional manager for Pallmann. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.