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Today I’m excited to share how refinishing red oak floors lighter is 100% doable and our latest hardwood floor project is proof that you can make red oak floors look like white oak!
Like many of you, we’ve been on a mission to update our home, and this hardwood floor project was one of the biggest transformations yet!
Let’s chat about how we turned our dark red oak hardwood floors into a lighter, white oak look and the step by step process to make it happen.
Refinished Red Oak Floors Before and After
When I tell you I searched for weeks, looking for ways to make our red oak floor look like white oak, that is no exaggeration.
You may be wondering, why on earth would you care?
Well for me, I love the look of white oak.
It’s light, airy and modern. The overall look of our house, prior to renovating was dark and dated, leaving a blah feel in the home.
Refinishing our dark stained floors to a lighter color is by far, one of my favorite projects to date.
Here are the same red oak floors refinished to a lighter look and all the trim work painted white.
Pretty spectacular makeover right?
The Initial Red Oak Floors
When we purchased our home 5 years ago, the dark stained hardwood floors, interior trim and doors with the stained kitchen cabinets were all projects we knew needed updating.
Over time, we have done several updates to the home but last year was by far the most interior projects tackled in a short period of time.
Let’s just say, one thing led to another and before we knew it, we blew up the inside of our house!
A few months ago we painted all of the wood trim white and refinished the floors to a lighter finish.
Back in the 90s and early 2000s, darker stains were all the rage.
While they had their moment, these orange floors with red tones were now giving our home a dated look.
Here are some ‘before’ photos to show you exactly what I mean.
Here is the kitchen before we painted the cabinets, replaced the countertops and refinished the hardwood floors to a lighter finish.
Here is the kitchen and floors after the makeover was complete.
As you can see above, the lighter finish red oak floors completely transformed our home and make it feel brighter and more modern.
Consult Flooring Professionals
If you’re refinishing oak floors lighter for the first time, getting advice from a professional can save you from potential mishaps.
We love DIY projects and if this had been just one small room, we would have no doubt, tackled this on our own but that was not the case.
We emptied 2500 square feet of space and had 4 staircases fully refinished so this was not a DIY project by any stretch of the imagination!
A hardwood floor professional will have the proper sanding and buffing equipment as well as the knowledge of colors, finishes and application techniques.
If you are planning to have your hardwood floor refinished, be sure they have a sander that has a vacuum style hose and bag attached to collect the majority of the dust.
The Sanding process of refinishing hardwood floors is VERY messy and dusty but with the proper equipment, the dust is barely noticeable.
The amount of bags filled with hardwood floor dust was dozens and I cannot even imagine if all that dust had been in my house!
Refinished Red Oak Floors After
What a difference!
The entire floor has been transformed from an old floor with dark stain to a light, airy space that feels both welcoming and modern.
We are really happy with the finished floors – they truly redefine the whole atmosphere and mood of our home.
How to Make Red Oak Floors Look Modern
Choosing the Right Stain and Finish
The key to modernizing our red oak flooring was in choosing the right stain colors and finish.
There are several different color options when it comes staining your floor. Everything from solid, transparent to whitewash.
We experimented with several light stain color options, aiming for that sought-after white oak look.
The best option after I tortured our flooring guy with 20 different colors, was the Bona Nordic Seal.
We wanted lighter floors that would brighten up our space, without the green undertones that sometimes come with red oak.
The Role of Sanding and Buffing in Modernizing Floors
The refinishing process wasn’t just about slapping on a new wood stain.
It involved a thorough sanding and buffing of the entire house’s flooring.
This step was crucial in removing the old, darker stain and preparing the raw wood for its new, lighter color.
How Do You Make Red Oak Floors Less Red
Red oak hardwood floors will look light and almost like white oak but once you apply a clear oil based stain or top coat of any kind, they will immediately turn an orangy red tone.
I remember saying to Keith, our flooring professional, can’t we just leave the floors unfinished with no stain or sealer?
I loved how the natural red oak floors with no stain but of course, that was not possible as the sealer is what protects the hardwood floor from water and wear and tear.
I do not recommend applying an oil-based clear coat to red oak flooring as the end result will be an orange brown, very warm tone.
While clear oil-based is the most affordable option when refinishing floors, it will not give you a white oak look.
Clear oil-based sealers also tend to yellow over time so just keep that in mind if you chose to use an oil-base finish top coat.
The Best Stain For Red Oak Floors
Red oak naturally has warm undertones, often displaying a range of red to pink tones.
The Bona Floor product we chose was a water based product that had minimal smell with a variety of colors to pick from.
Red oak will literally pick up an orange or green tone depending on the sealer.
The image below shows the sealers still wet but you will notice, the ClassicSeal was too orange, the NaturalSeal seemed a bit to pinkish but the Nordic Seal completely toned down the red and pink leaving it as close to a white oak look as we could get.
The challenge was to tone down these red hues without losing the natural beauty of the wood and the Nordic Seal did exactly that.
Natural Red Oak Floors With Water Based Finish
A careful selection of water based finish.
After several trials, we landed on a combination that significantly reduced the redness.
The Bona NordicSeal played a hero’s role in giving us new floors that looked like white oak.
This product not only helped in achieving a lighter floor but also minimized the red and pink tones, steering closer to the neutral, light color we desired.
Our flooring professional painted several swatches of the NordicSeal throughout our home in varying lighting scenarios so we could see exactly how it looked before making the final decision.
You can see the swatch colors below once they were dry and the Nordic was the closest to a white oak look!
We considered a matte finish but honestly, it was so dull and looked dirty.
How Do You Lighten Red Oak Wood
There are a handful of products on the market that claim to remove the red from red oak.
If your ultimate goal is to refinish your oak floors lighter but still have a light brown tone, be sure to find a product that will not leave too much orange pigment on the floor.
Here is a picture of our foyer entrance when we moved into the house 5 years ago.
Here is the same foyer after we painted the walls, woodwork and refinished the floors.
We still need to apply another coat of paint to the risers as the hardwood flooring install scuffed up some of the paint but you can see, the refinished red oak looks amazing!
Our flooring professional was not familiar with any of them so we opted to use the Bona Nordic Sealer as it provided a whitewash effect which essentially neutralized and toned down any red.
Bona does make a red out bleaching product that is specific for making red oak flooring look like white oak but it’s a fairly new product and we were not willing to risk it.
If you have used it, I would love to know your thoughts in the comments below.
Additional Tips and Tricks
Test in a Small Area
When refinishing oak floors, always test your stain choice and sealer in a small, inconspicuous area first.
Different light can change how the color appears.
For example, I tried several stain colors in different areas of our home over the course of 3 days.
Natural light and artificial light will make your floor look like a totally different color.
I flip flopped back and forth between Bona Nordic Seal and Bona Natural Seal which didn’t have too much variation except in the artificial light.
At nighttime, the Natural Seal had more of an orange undertone to me (it was very faint but I still noticed it) so that was the tipping point!
Anything that looked like orange was a NO GO!
Patience is Key
Each layer needs to dry thoroughly.
Rushing can lead to uneven tones or a finish that doesn’t last.
We waited a full 24 hours in between each sealer and finishing phase.
Refinishing Red Oak Floors
Refinishing our red oak floors was a challenging and rewarding process.
It took 3.5 months of continuous work, including painting trim and doors white, updating the kitchen cabinets to gray (the new kitchen floor looks amazing with the updated cabinets!), installing new countertops and backsplash, on top of the floor work.
It was a big project, but the significant boost in our home’s equity and its overall transformation made it all worthwhile.
It’s incredible how the new flooring has modernized our space, making it feel lighter, brighter, and more welcoming.
This project, among the many other home improvement ventures we undertook in the last 12 months, has truly redefined our living environment.
Have you been thinking about updating your own red oak floors?
Or maybe you’ve already taken the plunge?
I’d love to hear about your experiences and see your before-and-after pictures. Share your stories in the comments below, and let’s inspire each other in our continuous journey of making our homes our happy place!
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- Refinishing red oak floors lighter (see how we made red oak look like white oak!)
What started as a hobby, Jessica’s blog now has millions of people visit yearly and while many of the projects and posts look and sound perfect, life hasn’t always been easy. Read Jessica’s story and how overcoming death, divorce and dementia was one of her biggest life lessons to date.