Color Theory

Colorwheel background image

Any discussion of color needs to start with the basics. So, what is color? Color is light. It is caused by differing qualities of light being either reflected or emitted. With that simple definition in mind, let’s define some other terms relating to color:

  • Light: a type of electromagnetic radiation that allows the human eye to see and makes objects visible. For our purpose, it is important to understand that not all light is the same. Natural light is very different from artificial light. LED bulbs differ from incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.
  • Metamerism: The phenomenon where our perception of a color changes with different lighting and associated objects (walls, furniture, etc.). This is often related to common complaints from clients about the stain seeming darker at night, compared to when they viewed the sample during the day. The type of lighting plays a huge role here.
  • Tint: Any color + white (note; this is different from “tinting” in flooring jargon, which usually refers to adding color to a clear finish.)
  • Tone: Any color + gray
  • Shade: Any color + black

The color wheel is how we understand colors and their relationships to each other.

Primary colors

Primary Colors

There are three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), which are separated by the three secondary colors (green, orange, and purple). While the six tertiary colors can also be added in, the primary and secondary colors are plenty for the flooring work we do. The most important relationships between colors for us to understand are the complimentary colors, the colors that are directly across from each other on the wheel- red/green, yellow/purple, blue/orange.

Secondary colorsTertiary colors

Complimentary Colors

Complimentary colors are special because they can neutralize each other. Want to get rid of the red in red oak? Try green. Seeing a bit of blue in your gray-stained floor? Try orange. It’s very important to understand that when we neutralize a color, it doesn’t disappear, it turns to brown. White, gray, and black are also extremely useful at neutralizing any color or more accurately, tinting, toning, or shading them.

So, what exactly are we adding these colors to? Add green to what? There are a few different points throughout the finishing process when color can be adjusted: before the stain, the stain itself, and after the stain/during the finishing.

Before the Stain: Dyes are a popular option here. They can be water or alcohol-based and are generally not too difficult to use. They often are applied with a paint pad, sometimes taping section lines to prevent lapping marks.

Water popping is another way to affect the color of the stain. It is common to water pop before stain application. This process yields a darker, richer color and often helps hide some minor sanding marks. But water popping doesn’t have to be done strictly with water. Universal tints can be added to the water to create mild color effects such as reducing the red in red oak with green or even using white to get closer to a “raw” look.

In addition to using tints to adjust the floor color before stain, we have another class of products commonly known as reactive conditioners. These chemicals react with the wood (often the tannins) to add (or sometimes reduce) color. Some examples of reactive conditioners are iron acetate, wood bleach, and sodium hydroxide. They are generally sprayed on or applied and evened out with a pad or t-bar. The color reactions from them can be from mild to extreme.

The Stain Itself: Staining is the most obvious color step for most of us. Flooring stains can range from translucent to opaque, from light to dark, and from white to black, and are offered in solvent-based and water-based options. They are the easiest and most common way to overtly influence the color of the floor. Stains work extremely well on oak, and most manufacturer stain samples are shown on red and/or white oak due to their popularity. However, some more difficult-to-stain species (such as maple) can benefit from dying before to reduce the marbling. (Hint: Reduce homeowner dissatisfaction of stained maple blotchiness simply by using the word “marbled” instead of “blotchy.” Nobody wants a blotchy floor, but a well-marbled floor can be considered appealing).

Hint: Reduce homeowner dissatisfaction of stained maple blotchiness simply by using the word “marbled” instead of “blotchy.” Nobody wants a blotchy floor, but a well-marbled floor can be considered appealing.

After the Stain: After the stain has been applied and dried, there are some options that can help you manipulate the color. Manufacturer-tinted sealers offer a chance to add in white or amber on top of the stain. You can also tint your own using universal tints. This allows for red-tinted sealer to reduce the green, green-tinted sealer to reduce the red, etc.

Another way to change the color at this point involves using natural/hard wax oils over the stain (oftentimes, these products are also applied over raw wood). Many of these products will layer nicely over the stain to create new colors and even multi-toned colors (cerusing).

In summary, understanding how light and color interact is extremely important as you and your client work to adjust the color of a floor. From there, you can explore the multitude of products available and the different times they can be used in your finishing process. You can use the flow chart below as a reminder of some of the types of products and when to use them. Be sure to contact your manufacturer reps and fellow pros to check for product compatibility.

Before the stain

  • Water pop
  • Contractor-tinted water pop
  • Dyes
  • Reactive conditioners

Primary colorant

  • Stain
    • Lots of color options
    • Easy to work with
  • Natural/hard wax oils
    • Can possibly save a step

After the stain

  • Manufacturer-tinted sealers
  • Contractor-tinted sealers/finishes
  • Natural/hardwax oils
  • Traditional clears
    • Water-based
    • Oil-modified (amber tones)

Toby Merrill is a senior technical and training specialist for DuraSeal, a wood floor finish manufacturer. He can be reached at

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