The Great Floorboard Dilemma

October 14, 2010

So, people. To paint white? Or to stain dark? That is the question. And I need your help!

Wearing pyjamas, dust masks and furry Primark ear muffs (last-minute but surprisingly effective ear drum protectors) the boyfriend and I just spent the best part of three days sanding all of the floorboards in our house. It’s been dusty. It’s been noisy. It’s been exhausting. It’s been scary (the sanders came covered with labels warning about explosive sawdust and spontaneous combustion which made us a bit OCD about emptying dust bags and the like…) but ultimately, worth it. The overall process was a cross between walking a large disobedient dog, mowing the lawn, and using a supermarket trolley with a dodgy wheel. But now, there’s no trace of orange, minging varnish and although my shoulders hurt, our boards are bare and beautiful. All these lovely images are from House to Home:

I’ve fantasised about white painted floorboards for years. Shooting in lovely location houses, you see a lot of gorgeous, airy rooms with white floors. I’ve even been to Leyland and bought the floor paint…

…but suddenly, at the last minute, I’ve got cold feet. Because I keep seeing houses with gorgeous dark brown stained floorboards and it’s MESSING WITH MY MIND.

White is impractical. It chips – but does that add to the shabby-chic charm? It shows every bit of dirt and fluff (and we have black cats who shed lots of hair). However, it’s much more practical than pale carpets! AND, it will make the whole house, which is quite dark, feel spacious and light. Discussing white floorboards, the interior designer Gill Richardson once said: “Be prepared for scorn and ridicule, but never apologise for harbouring such a deeply impractical desire – the effect of creating a light, airy space will be worth it.” My parents (staunch advocators of the 1980s orange pine look – they believe that to cover natural wood is sinful, criminal and practically style suicide…) and the in-laws (who possibly favour the pine look, too…) have all helpfully branded the white painted plan ‘ridiculous’. But then again they don’t ‘get’ the cake plate collection, either. Or the vintage bus blinds. So WHATEVER. There are some lovely blog posts about floor painting on Door Sixteen, which almost persuaded me to take the plunge. But then I opened our November issue and saw Catherine Williams’s beautiful home on page 62, complete with dramatic, black floorboards. And I love it!

Dark brown or black floorboards would hide the dirt – but my home’s a dark Victorian terraced house. Would dark floorboards make the house feel gloomy? Oh, woe is me. What should I do? Do you have white painted floors? Do you have dark stained floorboards? Which do you prefer and why?! Please leave a comment below with your advice. If you can be bothered. If not, I understand. It’s mostly me who cares about this, after all. The boyfriend seems indifferent, my friends are bored by my constant floor chat, and the cats don’t seem to mind about anything much really, except for food and sleep. Sigh. – Ellie

53 Responses to “The Great Floorboard Dilemma”

  1. Lara P Says:

    WHITE WHITE WHITE! You can always re-paint them if they get chipped/tatty! 🙂 x

  2. Grace Says:

    I actualy prefer white floor boards to dark becasue the rooms feel a lot bigger and lighter if they are white, but you have to decide what is best for your home. Both looks nice!

  3. Alison Says:

    When we bought a flat we sanded and stained the floorboards dark brown and they looked fantastic but I’m also a big fan of white. If I had to choose I’d go dark though.

  4. Lisa Cooney Says:

    I do spent days sanding my brand spanking new pine tongue and groove floorboards (great cheap way to get real wood floor) and then my plan was to dye them (soaks into the wood more than stain) and then paint them white so that as the paint wore off you would see what looked like old dark floorboards underneath. However, by the time I finished dying them (jacobean oak) I loved the colour so much that I did not paint them white at all and now that 3 years have passed, people always ask me where I found my reclaimed floor – so I say go with dark!!

  5. Lou Says:

    I have had natural, brown and white and the white wins hands down on style and brightness, but from experience i now have confined the loveliness to the bedrooms as 5 adults (4 of us work outside) + 4 dogs = too much cleaning!

  6. homeshoppingspy Says:

    Thanks! Now I am swaying towards the dark again…!

  7. After the industrial sander, I added floorboard oil with a huge paintbrush, which brings out the natural colour of the wood. We have a Gallery and always receive lovely comments on how warming the floor is. I used to have white floor boards in my flat, after a while the scratches became annoying. I say use oil. If you are very keen I am happy to look in my shed and tell you the brand!

  8. Heidi Says:

    Such a nice decision to have to make!

    Try flipping a coin: heads for white and tails for natural/stained. Note your reaction to the result – disappointed, relieved, excited, etc. – and that might tell you what you most want.

    Worth a try, anyway 🙂

  9. Catherine Says:

    It is Catherine, she of black floor fame. I love the Black obviously and it is not too gloomy because of the light walls and windows BUT it does scratch easily. I believe that is because we went for shiny black. If we had gone for a Matt black I think that may have been the answer!

    I am going to throw something else out there. How about a “greige” paint, gets around the grubbiness of white, the gloominess of black and the orangeyness of natural… I am thinking Farrow and Ball Stony Ground.

    • homeshoppingspy Says:

      Thanks Catherine! You might have just found the answer to all my problems! 🙂

      And your house is SO beautiful.

  10. 30in2005 Says:

    Dark dark dark! Lovely for winter and summer and can be accessorised so beautifully..

  11. Argh! It’s like we’re the SAME PERSON. I also live in a potentially gloomy Victorian terraced house and the floors are currently that glorious orange wood colour so much favoured some time ago, but I would LOVE to paint them white. My husband has been resisting, resisting, resisting, but the other day I overheard him on the phone mentioning the possibility, so maybe I have begun to chip away at his resolve.

    Like you, I do occasionally get seduced by the dark-stained floor temptation, but again – SMALL VICTORIAN TERRACED HOUSE. Keep those words in your mind. None of the dark-floor pictures above is of a house quite as wee as mine, whatever about yours, so one could ALMOST say that they are irrelevant to my (your?) choice.

    • homeshoppingspy Says:

      Spooky! I love your shop by the way – perhaps we were separated at birth?!

      My boyfriend has been resisting (change generally, but white floorboards in particular) too. But this is a man who thinks shabby chic is ‘shabby sheikh’ so I don’t pay much attention. And I have recently struck a deal, which involves carpeting the bedroom 😦

      I think you’re right about the gloomy effect – my hallway is practically pitch black already (we need to get a door with glass in it to put between the kitchen and hall!) so perhaps white IS best. Thanks!

  12. Will Says:

    I think you should go for dark, pref. black! I had white floorboards in an old flat and it was such an effort to keep them looking fresh. Good luck, I’m sure it will look lovely once it’s finished and the cats may well appreciate it, too!

  13. JulieB Says:

    We have the “orange pine” varnished floorboards in most of our house, except the two bathrooms, where they are stained dark. Yep, the two smallest rooms in the entire house! It looked great when we moved in and had obviously been recently done, but after 3 years they are chipped and the wrong kind of shabby. I’ve been dreaming of white for ages, even getting as far as buying a load of tester pots. The thing that makes me hesitate is that we have some quite large gaps in places, and I can’t help thinking that these will look dark and dirty with white, whereas the stain hides that a bit.
    Sorry for slightly rambling comment; final verdict – go white if your floorboards are good enough; go dark if they still show too many sins. Whatever you do – good luck, and I would love to see the final outcome!

  14. sandra Says:

    We’ve recently decorated our ‘middle room’ in our 1905 house and went for dark floorboards with a lovely bright rug. However in my parallel life, where there is no such thing as housework and cleaning, all the boards in my house would be white!! One day …

  15. manmakehome Says:

    I’d say don’t go white! I think it’s a trendy look that you’ll regret in a few years time. Go classic dark stain – it’ll help anchor the rooms and give you the freedom to put light, bright colours on the walls. I live in a small Victorian terrace as well, and really can’t imagine the place with white floors.

    Good luck!

    • homeshoppingspy Says:

      Oh my goodness. This is getting really complicated! I basically agree with every comment written… SIGH!!
      Nice blog, Guy 🙂

      • manmakehome Says:

        Yes, it’s tough decision! Although – I bet you’ll be happy either way, so don’t stress.

        ALSO – maybe think about what other items you have (furniture, artwork, rugs, etc.) and what they’d look better with. I’ve got quite an eclectic mix of stuff that just wouldn’t work on white – but if you’ve got a pale/neutral palette then maybe white would work?

        And thanks for your compliments!

  16. Mary Says:

    I say go with a dark stain first and see how you like it. It will be much easier to cover up if you change your mind.

  17. Houseenvy Says:

    Mmmm, I share your dilemma! I love the light-enhancing properties of white floors, but always remember a feature in a magazine in which a white-floored-house owner explained how she would whip out a roller every six months to repaint the floors. If you do go for dark flooring, oil is much more more forgiving in terms of wear and tear (you can easily touch it up, unlike varnish). But high gloss would create more light. I’ve heard Bonakemi do a good treatment which is hard-wearing and glossy but patch-repairable. Good luck with the decision!

  18. martha brown Says:

    I’d say go with white. Or greige. My mom painted the floorboards in their big old Nova Scotia farmhouse and it looked spectacular! Some of the floors were white — but some were a pale robin’s egg blue. When they got worn, they looked so beautifully “shabby”. (They used the house as a bed and breakfast, so it got lots of floor traffic)

    Although I kind of agree with Mary who suggested you try the dark stain, and if you don’t like it, paint them white…… much easier than sanding it all down again 🙂

  19. I’ve had white floor boards (in my last place) and they weren’t as impractical as you’d think… They’ll need a once a year touch-up but we have dark grey painted floorboards in our current place (which I adore!) and they are starting to need touching up.

    So my heart says go white, while my head says stain… I usually ignore my head as you might have guessed 😉

  20. Not sure if if this will help but this is my old place… you’ll see it’s a victorian period features place but with white floor boards…

  21. I painted my small office floorboards white & really like it… Even though the boards were quite rickety it’s really brought them up nice. I’d love to do the whole house but I think my boyfriend might have a break down if I suggested it!! My vote is White for yours though! 🙂

  22. Isobel Says:

    I’ve had both Ellie, and from a practical point of view, it has to be dark. Then again, depends on how dark your house is. But I tried white boards for two years and I reckon they stay looking nice for around, say, 4 weeks, unless you wear slippers or go barefoot. Dark has a lovely schoolroom purity about it – industrial, even. Trend alert… all white is a bit footballers wives…

  23. Bethan Says:

    I vote for white or even pale grey (imagine that with white walls, mmmmm)… For a ground floor Victorian hallway I’d be worried about dark floorboards sucking up all the light. But then there are the cat prints to consider…

  24. beth Says:

    I vote for canary yellow! Just kidding. We are NOT bored by your “constant floor chat”… we understand your dilemma completely and comiserate with you. White will certainly add light to small dark spaces, its a fresh and inspiring backdrop for furnishings and art. Darker floors on the other hand are certainly warmer in feeling, more “grown up”, with white walls it evokes the exotic idea of British Raj tents with tapestry laying about [ but what do i know, i only dream of India.] And then there’s pale dove grey…a lovely bit of compromise which looks so beautiful and dreamy with white walls. Good luck, we here all understand the insanity of “this dreamscape or that dreamscape?”

  25. MelD Says:

    Houseowners with dark floors often resort to lighter coloured carpets when the dark feels too dark! Dark can be good if it’s shiny and light-reflecting- so that kind of puts any kind of matte paint out of the running…
    I would have thought it depended a little bit on what kind of wood floors/floorboards you have. If they are a good wood (e.g. oak) then you would want a finish that showed off the natural look, whether lighter or darker. If you’re talking about simple deal boards, I think they look better disguised with paint (rather than oil or varnish or whatever). And again, re. warmth, people often end up putting rugs down just to feel warm (my 94-yr old grandmother is totally amazed that I could consider removing carpet, in her 1936 terraced house, she remembers the bad-old-days of bare boards, painting round the edge of the bit of carpet they could afford etc. and shivers at the memories…!!) as well as to introduce texture, light and colour…
    As for the choice (finally) between white and shiny dark, maybe look at what direction the individual rooms are lit from (windows north or west or whatever) and at what angle the sun comes in at different times of the year (and climate, are in the north or the south, the light is different!) to achieve the airiest look for you – plus the style and colour of your furniture, which again will affect your look: more subtle or more contrast?!!
    Good luck, it’d be great to hear what the final decision is ;))

  26. Leanne Says:

    Definitely dark! We have both and the dark stain (topped with quite a few coats of varnish) bounces the light beautifully making our skinny hallway (victorian terrace) feel spacious and smart. The white painted floor in our bedroom is constantly grubby and scratches so easily.

  27. homeshoppingspy Says:

    Thank you all so much for your kind advice and words of wisdom!! After a long period of ‘consultation’ and ‘discussion’, we are going…WHITE! I’ve been painting the kitchen floorboards this week every evening, and it’s looking good already…but my love for dark boards will never die. Perhaps that will be what I have in my next house?! Reaches for slipper socks…

  28. Hello there! Yes, I posted on the the same dilemna a couple months ago…..our stairs were a starting point for us…so I’m experimenting w/ the white paint. I can tell you this…..they are constantly covered in fuzz and hair. And we have one dog that doesn’t shed that much. As much as I love the white, I’m not sure it’s worth it ~ always looking at all the fuzz & what-not while thinking….I need to clean/sweep/mop right now. I’ve been mulling over limed or pickled flooring. It’s kind of a real bleached out wood. It has a very aged/greyish look. Maybe try a small room or area in white & see how you like it. The look is awesome, but the cleaning all the time part is ….. well is….cleaning all the time…;)
    Good luck!!

  29. oh hello again, just noticed your last comment of your decision being made….disregard my comment & Go for it!!! 🙂

  30. Yay for white! (And yes do dark in the next one… that’s what I did 🙂 )

  31. Annamarie Says:

    my 2 cents:
    dark floor boards (be that painted or stained) and all white walls with hits of bright color. swoon …

    • homeshoppingspy Says:

      Controversial update, for those people who are still awake reading all these comments…?!

      I’ve painted the kitchen floorboards white and they look lovely. We eventually want to install a new kitchen and we plan to have floor tiles/rubber flooring in there one day… but instead of doing the whole downstairs white, I have decided to stain the living room, hallway and dining room boards dark walnut brown!! So I’m going to basically have the best of both worlds for a few years. There’s a door between the kitchen and the hall, so the spaces are separated and won’t look weird. I think this solves my dilemma nicely! In our kitchen we have vintage Avery kitchen scales and quite a lot of old kitchenalia which looks fabulous on the white background…but I want our living room and dining room to feel a bit more ‘grown up’. So instead of choosing, we’re having both. Cheating, really!

  32. ruhin Says:

    I was looking for <a href=""caravans for sale a while back from that website and saw a great caravan with white floors… defantly would save me the hassle everyone has had.

  33. simon Says:

    I’ve gone for dark.

    Anyone know of any good dark woodstains to achieve a similar effect to the photos above?

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  35. Clare Says:

    We went through the hell of having our Victorian house floorboards (original) sanded while we renovated a couple of months back. The only area we left unsanded was our basement which is a kitchen and in that area we used a limestone porcelain to cover which is gorgeous.

    It was worth it.

    We put dark oak stain on the floor boards in our living room. And it is fabulous. But I know what you mean in the previous posts about contrast in decor. We have F&B cornforth white (a greige) on the walls and white plantation shutters (in fact we have them around the whole house – yes a current trend which may go the way of avocado bathrooms in years to come, but for now they are practical and stylish).

    However on the next two floors of our Victorian house we have white white white on the floor boards. I started with using Annie Sloan white, which is a chalk based matte paint – and on their advice used a matte lacquer to cover and protect the paint layer. It was awful – yellow, looked like someone had missed the loo and, I felt, ruined the paint.

    I then covered it with el cheapo Ronseal floor paint which was the one my husband found in Homebase and that is perfect. No need for varnish on top. Looks amazing. I’ve only managed a couple of the rooms so far, but getting it all done is a project for the next couple of months – room by room.

    It is a real Summer holiday, shabby chic vibe etc and really brightens up the rooms making them look huge. The kids love it. Here darker walls and bright wallpapers really come into play – we’ve experimented with Orla Kiely walls and F&B Elephants breath and a few brightly coloured furnished pieces which help to provide that contrast and I am thrilled with the results and have had many compliments. Yes it’s a trend, but if worst comes to worst – we’ll cover it with the next trend.

    However, in my view painted floors have been around for donkey’s years. They’re really practical and you can use rugs to dress them in the winter if you need to. Enjoy!!

  36. Alison Says:

    Hi, I have just come across your blog on a search in google about painting floorboards! I will soon be moving into a Victorian terrace which has black painted floorboards that need redoing because of white splashes of paint, as I was reading through all the comments here I remembered that the boards have quite big gaps in some areas and then my mind started wandering… umm about what lived under the floorboards, spiders and such forth \o/ !! and if there are big gaps do they come through the gaps in the middle of the night to have a party etc. etc..! sorry my mind has gone into the ‘looking under the bed after a scary film’ mode, which I used to do as a child! must be all the stress of moving! lol! so I’m thinking maybe I should cover the gaps with carpeting… does anyone else have big gaps in there floorboards and think about these things? Or is it just me? ….

    • Adrienne Says:

      Hi Alison,
      About 10 years ago my sister and I stripped the floor of my Victorian terrace, then varnished it etc. The gaps were big and great cold drafts came through, and probably spiders and other horrors. I fiddled about for ages with various ways to plug them, all of which basically involved string and glue and were a real nuisance. However this was pretty successful in that the drafts were reduced and I don’t think the house was any more spidery than one with carpet. Since then some geniuses have invented various things on rolls that you bung in the gaps called draughtex and StopGap, and if I have to redo the gaps I am going to try one of these. Might be worth thinking about.

  37. Elizabeth McIntyre Says:

    I came on line to find what to do with my bedroom floor and am now going for white
    Thanks all

  38. Gail Says:

    I understand completely. I’m just you when making these decisions, and it drives me mad! Downstairs I have waxed my floorboards and they are a beautiful honey colour but upstairs I have only yesterday sanded my dressing room floorbards. I can’t decide whether to wax or paint white!!! I have a thing about white painted floorboarrds but one thing I have learnt is to have what you’ve always wanted. If it doesn’t look how you want you can paint over it. If you paint them white first, it will be easier to paint them black than the other way round. And if your house is already dark, I’d go for the white. I think I’m definitely going for a shade of white.

  39. Laura Says:

    hi, i am moving into a victoria property and the floor is just cheap laminate. I wanted to get some painted floor boards installed but solid oak is a fortune. can anyone recommend a way to ‘create the look’ at a reasonable, more affordable price? Thx. L.

  40. Tara McLaren Says:

    I am trying to decide what to do with my bedroom floor. I want to paint it white but my family think I’m mad as the floors boards aren’t even and are stained in some places. I had originally planned to have white washed sea side look where you could see the grain through the paint but my floor boards have black oily looking marks on them so I will have to paint it solid white. After all if it doesn’t work I could always buy white laminate and put that down. Do you think it matters if the boards are not all even and are painted a solid white? I’m going for a shabby chic look

  41. Annie Ryan Says:

    Hello fellow obsessives!

    I have a room painted in FB Cornforth White with horrible pine floor boards.

    I could stain it dark, but I’m keen to paint it, as it’s such soft wood. I know it would look great with white, but there is a lot of traffic. It’s not a very large room.

    There are stunning photos of FB’s Down Pipe —

    I got some advice saying that very dark or very white floors can be tricky and a mid grey could work – Plummett, Manor House Grey? I don’t want it to look too muddy.

    Any advice out there?


  42. jo Says:

    Oh! I wish I hadn’t started reading this. I was going for white, no question. Now I’m thinking hmmm… black…? grey…?

  43. Ben Hayes Says:

    Deciding on floors seems to be harder than walls, because it’s harder to change if you get it wrong. We’ve got old pine boards in our living room, which we just sanded down. That left them a little bit orange. Then I put on matte hard wax oil (made by Osmo). This seems to have brought out the orange tint even more. Quite annoying. Unfortunately in order to paint them or stain them, I think we’d need to sand them down again… something I’d really love to avoid. My parents say it looks fine the way it is. I can’t decide. Maybe will live with it for a while. I wish we’d tested on a spare board first!

  44. Fiona Says:

    Very helpful to read all these comments. We’re excavating a basement below our Victorian terrace and have decided to go for a white painted floor to maximise the light and space. But what wood should we use? We want underfloor heating, so I think that means we need engineered wood, but any particular kind? Has anyone else done this and have any tips to share?

  45. Rachel Says:

    What an incredibly helpful blog! Huge dilema like everybody else on here…white or not! Definitely leaning towards white for the bedroom and dark for downstairs. Why do none of my friends/family understand the draw of white floorboards or the inevitable obsessive indecision that they throw up?!?!?

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