How to Varnish a Wooden Floor

Are you tackling a DIY floor restoration? We can help. In this post, we’ll show you how to varnish a wooden floor. There are a number of ways you can finish a floor. For instance, with or without stain. Likewise, using oil or wax or varnish to seal and protect the surface. Each option has pros and cons. Here we’ll go through them all, hoping to give you the information to make the best choice for your floors.

Finally, if you haven’t already you should first read parts 1 & 2 of our DIY Guide to Floor Sanding:

  1. Preparation for sanding floorboards
  2. Sanding wooden floors

Okay, let’s assume that your floors are sanded and ready for finishing. What’s your next step? Your first decision is whether or not to use a stain.

Varnishing a wooden floor: Staining wooden floors
Natural floors create a calm, subdued look

Staining Wooden Floors

At the end of the day, the choice to use a stain or not is down to your personal preference. While some people prefer the natural colour of their floors, others want a richer tone. In fact, some homeowners choose to paint their floorboards black or grey. However, for this post, we’ll stick with staining rather than painting. So, if you do want to stain your floors how do you first choose your stain, and second apply the stain? Let’s learn how!

1. How to Choose a Stain

Choosing the right floor stain can be stressful. Redoing your floors is a big, messy job. You want it done right the first time. So, taking the time to choose a stain is important. Firstly, from a design perspective, your floor’s stain colour can make a bit impact. For instance, are you more interested in brightening a room with lighter floors, or do you prefer a dramatic contrast between darker floors and lighter walls? Answering these kinds of questions can help you find colours that will work best for you.

Next, what kind of floors do you have? In other words, what wood is used with your floor. Hardwoods and exotics such as maple, oak, mahogany or cherry are often best left without stain. Why? Firstly, these – now rare – wooden floors are considered very desirable. Therefore, to ensure the value of your home, maintain but do not change these floors. Secondly, the tight grains of these woods do not stain very well.

Before varnishing a wooden floor, stain it
Darker stains contrast beautifully with white walls

Finally, how do you and your family use the floors? For example, do you have pets? In this case, a lighter stain can help hide light hairs, or a darker stain for dark hairs. Similarly, if you have children or are very house proud a lighter stain might be for you, as this will hide crumbs and dirt better than darker floors.

In summary, ask yourself a couple of questions before choosing your stain. Firstly, how much or how little contrast do you want in your room. Are you matching existing cabinetry or just trying to flood the room with light? In other words, know your design goals. Next, consider the wood used with your floors. All woods accept stains differently, so knowing how well your floor will colour can help you choose. Lastly, reflect on your lifestyle. Do you have children or pets that might create more mess? Are you concerned more about design or about lower-maintenance? Taking the time to understand these ideas will help you make the best choice of stain.

2. How to Stain a Floor

So, now that you’ve chosen your colour how do you apply it to the floor? How you stain a floor will vary depending on the manufacturer’s instructions. However, there are some general steps to follow:

  1. Condition the wood: use the ‘water popping’ method to raise the grain and better accept stain. To do so, run a wet mop or cloth over a newly-sanded floor. Wait 30 minutes
  2. Apply the stain: follow manufacture’s instructions and always work with the grain. Work from one side of the room to the other.
  3. Remove excess stain: wait 5 or 10 minutes and then vigorously wipe up any extra stain. The longer you leave it the darker the colour.
Varnish a wooden floor to protect the stain
Even coverage of stain is key to a good result

Once the floor is stained and completely dry, you are ready to finish your floor.

Varnish a Wooden Floor

There are a number of ways to finish your floor after staining. One of the most durable is varnish. When you varnish a wooden floor, you apply a sealant that protects the wood from wear and wetness. This helps prevent damage to the stain or surface of the wood. Skimping on varnish is a false economy. Your varnish is your last best line of defence for your floors. You’ve worked really hard on this floor restoration. Protect your investment by choosing a high-quality varnish to seal your floors.

How to Varnish a Wooden Floor

As with applying a stain, how you varnish a wooden floor will vary slightly based on the manufacturer’s instructions. However, there are some best practices that you can follow in all cases.

  1. Apply the varnish. Using a paint brush or roller – as advised by the manufacturer – apply the varnish to the floor. Work in small sections and always follow the wood’s grain.
  2. Let the varnish dry for 24 – 36 hours.
  3. Lightly sand the floor with a fine grit. This will smooth out the finish and prepare the surface for a second coat.
  4. Clean the floor. It is essential that the floor is clear of dust before applying a second coat.
  5. Apply a second coat of varnish.
Junkers Sealant to varnish a wooden floors
We recommend Junkers’ commercial-grade sealants to varnish your wooden floors

Yeah! You’re done! Well, almost. You’ll need to wait at least 48 – 72 hours before putting your room back together. This will help make sure the varnish is completely dry and hardened before placing furniture on it. At this point, it would be wise to invest in felt pads or furniture sliders to protect your finished floors.

How to Wax Wooden Floors

Varnish is just one way to finish floors. You can also choose to wax wooden floors. The process of waxing is similar to varnishing. Both require a clean, dust-free surface before beginning. Then, while following the manufacturer’s instructions, you can wax your floors like this:

  1. Apply a thin layer of the wax with a cloth or sponge mop. Always work in the direction of the grain.
  2. Allow the wax to dry.
  3. Repeat until a thin film remains. NOTE: the wood will absorb the initial coats.
  4. Polish

Once waxed, care for your floor with regular cleaning and area rugs. These precautions will prevent wear to the wax. However, it is important to know that will need to reapply wax once a year or so.

Protect floors with varnish
A finished floor is a sight to behold

How to Oil Wooden Floors

Finally, you can finish your floors with oil. Again, the process depends on good preparation and cleaning before starting. When you’re ready, here’s what to do:

  1. Apply a liberal amount of oil to the floor.
  2. Allow the oil to soak into the floor for about 15 minutes.
  3. Now, buff the floor with a mechanical floor buffer.
  4. Wipe excess oil from the floor.
  5. Buff the floor again.
  6. Allow the oil to harden for at least 6 hours.
  7. Finally, apply a thin coat of oil and buff with a mechanical buffer.
  8. Wait 8 hours before walking on the floor.

Of course, you should always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. These are the typical steps for oiling a floor, however some oils and floors may have different needs.

Oil, or Wax or Varnish a Wooden Floor?

With so many options for finishing a wooden floor what should you choose?! First, you need to understand the difference between varnish and wax. When you varnish a wooden floor, you are adding a protective coating to the surface. Varnish doesn’t penetrate the wood like wax does. As varnish dries and ‘cures’, a chemical reaction called polymerisation occurs. On the upside, a hard protective coating shields the wood. However, on the downside, your floor will require at least light sanding if a new coat of varnish is needed.

In contrast, floor wax penetrates the wood’s pores after it is rubbed in and polished. The result is a really natural looking. Unlike with varnish, when you touch the floor, you’re touching the wood, not the coating. However, wax is not as durable as varnish. Though it protects against water and some wear, it will need to be reapplied on an annual basis.

Similarly, oil is different from varnish. Like wax, oil penetrates into the wood and protects from within. Oil gives the surface a rich patina and works especially well with antique flooring or exotic hardwood. However, oil doesn’t prevent damage as effectively as varnish. Though, you can do repairs to areas of the floor without entirely refinishing the floors.

So what is best for you? All depends on your floor’s wood, your lifestyle and design considerations. Wax or oil or varnish will all protect your floors. Understanding their pros and cons is the best way to make a choice.

Sanding wooden floors diagonal
A great result starts with great preparation and sanding

Key to a Beautiful Finish

As with sanding your floors, preparation and following best practices are essential. The more time you spend on getting a clean, smooth surface the better the final result. Some other things to keep in mind:

  • Before making a final choice on stain, do a spot test.
  • Whether you choose varnish or wax or oil, make sure the room is well ventilated at all times.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Yes, restoring your floors is a huge job. We get that. As Essex floor sanders since 2004, we’ve got a lot of experience. So, if you’d rather hire the pros than tackle this yourself, let us know! Contact us for a free no-obligation quote.