Staining and Varnishing Hardwood Floors

You have spent an entire weekend sanding your wood floors and they look spectacular. Most likely, the idea has crossed your mind, “I don’t know why I can’t leave it like that. They look okay.”

But it’s not. The next step is to stain and varnish those nice smooth floors. First of all, staining penetrates into the wood itself, giving it a new color or enhancing its natural color. Varnishing protects that new floor from most damage that may occur over time. This said, remember even the best varnish cannot protect against major damage like large pet’s claws or heavy objects being dropped causing gouging, cracks or marks. This is a wood floor, after all.

They are available in matte, semi-gloss and gloss finishes. You can also use the varnish alone or after the stain has been applied. Also, using a colored varnish that may simulate various types of wood is advisable.

Stains and varnishes are available in environmentally friendly, water-base variations as well as the traditional oil-base products. However, these should never be used together. Stains also can be mixed to form a new color. A water-base stain raises the wood grain that requires a light sanding after it dries. This can be accomplished with a fine sanding block.

This is also the time when you can lime your wooden floor if so desired. Liming enhances the natural grain of open-grain wood such as oak and ash. It gives it that light/white look that is popular in many beach homes. Some refer to it as bleaching.


Steel wool

Lint-free clean cloth

4-inch (100-mm) wide paintbrush

Fine abrasive paper

Sanding block

Paint bucket (if required)

Drop cloth or newspapers

Small brush (if required)

Rubber gloves

Water-base stain or oil-base stain

Water-base varnish or oil-base varnish

Mineral spirits (if required)

Liming Floorboards

Wire brush

Small brush

Burlap cloth or fine steel wool

Rubber gloves

(See above for varnishing)

Liming wax or liming paste

Water-base varnish or oil-base varnish

Before you apply a stain, clean the floorboards with steel wool and mineral spirits to make sure that there is no wax or grease residue. Even though you have just sanded your floor, it might be a good idea to go over this since you may have waited a day or two after sanding. Any type of residue can prevent the stain from absorbing evenly and leave patches.

Unless you want just one color of stain, this would be the point to begin mixing different stains to achieve the desired color. Use a folded drop cloth or newspaper to prevent spills on the floor. A small brush is the best for mixing. You can also mix colored varnishes. In any case, always use compatible products from the same manufacturer. Different manufacturers may have different versions of the same color so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Apply the stain using a clean, lint-free cloth such as cheesecloth or a section of an old sheet or paintbrush. Work quickly along the length of a few boards at a time so that the stain doesn’t dry out in the middle of the floor. If the color is not deep enough after one application, apply a second coat.


After the stain dries, apply the varnish. Thin the first coat, which acts as a primer, by 10% with mineral spirits for an oil-base varnish or polyurethane or water for a water-base varnish. Remember never to mix water with the oil-base and oil with the water-base. This will definitely spell disaster. Use a clean, lint-free cloth to rub the coast into the wood.

NOTE: Never shake a can of varnish for this will create bubbles. This can disfigure the finish.

After the varnish dries, lightly rub the surface with fine abrasive paper wrapped around a sanding block. Work with the grain to avoid scratches. Before applying a new coat of varnish, use a clean and dry cloth to remove the dust created by the sanding block.

Apply up to three coats of varnish to achieve the necessary protection and sand between coats. Use a 4-inch (100-mm) wide brush to apply the varnish quickly. If applying a colored varnish, use a clean varnish for the last coast or coats if the varnish color is dark enough. Each new coat of colored varnish will make the floor darker.


If you have decided to go the route of liming, then the steps will be different but not difficult. Using a paste or wax creates liming. The wax is easier to apply but it will eventually wear away. The wood should be sanded and clean but unvarnished. It can be stained however. Before applying the wax or paste, use a wire brush in the direction of the grain. This opens the grain and helps it to take the wax or paste. Apply the paste with a burlap cloth or extra-fine steel wool, first in one direction and then the other. Remove the dried paste with a rag or burlap cloth.

Well done! You have completed repairing, standing and now staining and varnishing your floors. Please check out the last article in this series for tips on how to paint, stencil and even age your floors for that special touch!

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