How do you get blonde flooring? How do you get light hardwood floors? Which types are the lightest?
There are 3 main factors that will impact the lightness of hardwood:
2. Stain color (or no stain color)
3. Type of polyurethane (oil based vs water based poly)
Background on light (or blonde) types of hardwood
Now, let me first explain that there is no one size fits all and different people have different preferences. Some people like stronger graining; some prefer less graining; and others like smooth graining.
Some like more color variation in the planks and others prefer less.
And, importantly, different people have different definitions or opinions as to what is light or what is blonde hardwood.
I will also mention that you can alter all 3 of these components (species, stain and type of poly) or just 1 or 2 of these components. And, it’s important to know that sometimes the stain color and/or species of wood will help dictate which type of polyurethane you should use.
If you are buying new hardwood, you can choose your preferred species – based on look and price point. If you are refinishing existing wood, you’ll need to work with what you have and read below on colors/polyurethanes that work/don’t work on certain species. (Skip to section 2)
So with that said, let’s explore the 3 components one at a time.
1. Which types of hardwood species are the lightest in color?
Red oak is the most common hardwood in the US as it’s also the most abundant. Many are surprised to learn that it is lighter than white oak and has pinkish undertones. It also has stronger graining than white oak. For some, this is a big plus. Others prefer the look of white oak.
You can learn more about red oak and white oak here. If you want a reasonably wood and you like light wood, red oak can be a great choice. But, if you prefer smoother and a bit more golden, than white oak may be a better choice.
White oak is on the lighter side, but it’s slightly darker and more golden than red oak. It’s also slightly harder than red oak.
White oak often has more mineral streaks which make it look a bit more modern where as red oak’s strong graining give it a more traditional look.
White Oak tends to look better than red oak with water borne poly as well as white wash and gray finishes. More about that below.
Maple is generally the lightest hardwood (in terms of color). The graining is very smooth and gives a modern chic look. You will often find this wood in Scandinavian furniture and homes. If you’re looking for super blonde wood in it’s natural form, this is probably your best choice.
Hard Maple is more expensive than oak and it’s a bit harder than oak (1450 on the janka scale vs 1290 for red oak). Because its graining is smoother than oak, it tends to show scratches a bit more.
If you’re looking for hardness, it’s important to get Northern Maple/hard maple which (as the name implies) harder. Some older homes (from the 1920’s and before) have soft maple and southern maple tends to be softer, too.
Please note that maple color variation can vary greatly pending on the grade. For those looking for a modern and light look, choose clear grade. Other grades will have much more color variation with darker boards that will not only make the floors look darker, but also more rustic. See below pictures for the contrast. Clear grade is more expensive.
If you are seeing a maple that costs a lot less, chances are because it is a lower grade and will have more color variation and knots.
You can learn more about Maple flooring here.
Birch is very similar to maple. It is light and has smooth graining. It’s not as strong as maple (1260 vs. 1290 for red oak and 1450 for hard maple.
Like maple, Birch doesn’t stain well and it’s best to use water borne polyurethane to prevent yellowing.
Ash is another light wood and graining looks similar to oak. It’s less popular than oak. It’s not quite as hard as oak, but it is a touch lighter.
Please note that I wasn’t able to find a picture of Ash Natural. This one on the right has a stain on it.
Bamboo is technically a grass and most Bamboo is grown and/or made in China. In it’s natural form, it is one of the lighter flooring choices available.
It grows and replenishes quickly so it’s seen as a green product, but there are some definite drawbacks to this product and some controversy as to whether it really is eco-friendly or good for the environment.
Bamboo is certainly your cheapest option. But, cheaper generally does not mean better…there is a reason for everything. Bamboo generally does not hold up well to foot traffic. It dents and scratches easily and does not hold up well to water especially due to its water borne poly.
Bamboo generally can not be sanded and refinished, and/or if it is, it doesn’t absorb the stain or poly well, so it will look worn down after 1-2 years after being sanded on site. So generally when it wears down, it needs to be replaced.
Strand woven bamboo is stronger and holds up better, but strand woven is darker than the basic horizontal or vertical grain.
If you search around on the internet, you will see tons of complaints on all types of bamboo and anecdotally, customers I’ve met who have had this have been regretful of their choice.
Also, bamboo uses a lot of adhesive to adhere the pieces of grass together, so there are many who are skeptical of the impact of this on air quality and how truly sustainable this product is (not to mention the impact on the carbon footprint from all of the importing).
Grade of wood
In addition to the species of wood, you’ll want to look at the grade of wood. Is it select grade? (Sometimes called select and better). Is it No 1/No 1 common (lower grade) or No 2 Common (even lower?. The lower you go in the grade, the more color variation (i.e. more darker pieces) and more knots you’ll get (as well as shorter lengths.).
The left side (below) is red oak select grade; the right side is Red Oak No. 1.
On the higher end of the spectrum, there are different and specialized cuts of wood such as rifted and quarter-sawn, or rifted only or quarter-sawn only. Think here of different cuts of meat. They all come from the same tree, but only a small percent of the wood qualifies and they create more wasted wood.
These woods are significantly more expensive and they have less color variation. You will rarely see these cuts in pre-finished wood. They are often used in site-finished woods either because they are going over radiant heat (these work over radiant heat due to their cuts and lower expansion) as well as higher end homes where some customers prefer the look and want less expansion/contraction of the wood.
So, if your objective is to go light, purchase the higher grades such as select, select and better or clear. (Note: the names of these grades will vary based on the species of wood. You can read a bit more about grades of oak in this article.
2. Which types of hardwood stains are the lightest?
When you sand and refinish wood floors, they look like raw hardwood again. So, if you have solid hardwood, you can go lighter in color, even if your floors currently have a dark stain on them. Most floors in the US, and especially in the Westchester NY/NYC metro area are oak, and these can go fairly light.
There are some exceptions though. If you have a dark or red species such as Brazilian Walnut, American Walnut, Brazilian Cherry, American Cherry, etc. there is only so light you can go as these woods are naturally dark. Also, some of the pines are a bit darker, although most can go fairly light. Remember, you need to work with the wood you already have (unless you want to replace it). If you are unsure what species you have, call in a flooring expert to get their opinion. Also, this article on popular hardwood species may help you identify what you have.
In addition, most wood species darken a bit over time due to light (both sunlight and ambient light). So, when you refinish them, they become a bit lighter as the top layer is removed. (Think about our skin and sun tans and what happens when your skin peels).
Natural (i.e. no stain) is generally the lightest you can you go (among the traditional colors)
Natural is one of the most popular choices. It means that you have no stain and are letting the natural color of the wood shine through. Natural tends to hold up better as it shows the scratches less (as it is more similar to the natural wood underneath vs a scratch through a dark stain shows the contrast). Natural tends to show dirt less, too. Generally, to when you refinish natural, it will cost you a bit less and it will dry a bit faster (vs. having a stain).
Above picture is white oak with a walnut border – all natural (i.e. no stain).
Natural will (obviously) look slightly different on different species of wood, different grades and different ages of wood. But, as I mentioned above, it’s generally the lightest you can go (before adding a white wash). More about that in second.
White wash is the big up and coming trend. It can give you a refreshed and contemporary look in your home. It tends to work well with cool colors on the wall (e.g. whites, grays, light blues).
We have been getting many requests for white washed wood from our more upscale and fashion forward customers, especially those moving to Westchester from NYC.
White wash is the more modern up-to-date version of pickled oak. The coloring is slightly different and it gives the home a clean, modern and often beachy feel.
It’s a great way to also add more light to your home.
White washed floors are more expensive than typical stains both due to the process as well as the fact that you need to use a water borne poly, so that the floors don’t have a yellow tint.
Most will opt for the higher grade of this (Bona Traffic) as it looks better and lasts longer. It also yellows less over time. It is well worth the extra money for the look and longevity of this product.
White washed floor look much better on white oak than red oak. Red oak will have pinkish undertones and stronger graining. It just looks better color-wise and graining wise with white oak. White washed floors also work well with maple (although they are harder and more expensive to do due to pores).
White wash does not work well with Douglas Fir nor other pines, both as these woods have golden and red tones (so the colors don’t work well) and the resin in the pines reacts with the white wash and it usually looks blotchy. I would avoid trying this with dark or red woods (e.g. brazilian walnut, brazilian cherry) as I’ve heard these look terrible and you may permanently damage these woods. Better safe than sorry.
Gray is the new hot hot color (even though it has cool tones LOL). It is the new and trendy version of white wash. It mixes white and ebony and you can go from light gray to dark gray. In terms of species of wood and type of polyurethane, the same principles for white wash apply (read above). A light gray can give your home a refreshed and it may even turn out slightly lighter than natural.
You can read more about refinishing hardwood floor gray in this article.
Other traditional light stains
A light stain will always be darker than natural, but there are some light stains that may appeal to you. Some feel that some of these give your floors a bit more depth and character. Some to consider are:
- Golden Oak
- Golden Pecan
- Ipswich Pine
- Puritan Pine
3. What is the impact of polyurethane on color of floor?
There are 2 broad classes of polyurethane – oil based and water-borne polyurethane and you can read more about the pros and cons of oil and water-borne poly here. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the impact of color on the wood.
The picture above right is oil based poly (on red oak).
Water-borne poly will be lighter than oil based poly. And, over time, oil based polyurethane will darken and amberize more. That is not necessarily a bad thing. For many, they prefer for look of the oil based poly as it is typically what they see in most homes, and this is light enough for them; for others, they prefer an even lighter look and they prefer the look of the water borne poly.
The picture above right is white oak with water borne poly. (white oak is typically darker than red oak).
Above left is white oak with water borne poly. The picture on the right shows water borne on left and oil based poly on right (note: it’s worn down).
Personally, I prefer the look of water-borne poly on white oak floors, but that is a matter of taste. On oak floors either oil based or water based poly can be used (but don’t mix). This is a matter of preference on looks and longevity.
But, with certain species and certain colors, water based is a better choice and should be the only consideration. Below is a quick guide by species and color.
- Red Oak – either oil based or water borne…unless using white or gray…in that case use water-borne
- White Oak – either oil based or water…unless using white or gray…in which case water-borne
- Maple – best to use water-borne poly
- Birch – best to use water-borne poly
- Douglas Fir or other pines – best to use oil based (esp since these are softer woods)
- Ash – either water or oil based
Conclusion on Blonde hardwood and light flooring and which types are lightest?
So there are 3 ways to get light or blonde hardwood floors.
1. If you are buying new wood, get a light colored species, especially red oak, white oak, or maple.
2. If you are refinishing existing wood, either go natural or use a white wash stain.
3. If you want to go even lighter, consider a water-borne polyurethane (and if using white wash or gray, definitely use a water-borne poly).
Other useful flooring articles:
- 2015 hardwood flooring trends
- How long does it take to sand and refinish hardwood floors?
- Can you change the color of your hardwood floors?
- Stain color trends on hardwood flooring
- What types of hardwood are best for dogs (and pets)?
- What types of wood are best if you have kids?
- FAQ’s for hardwood floor refinishing
I wrote this e-book to help new home buyers make smart decisions when looking for homes with hardwood floors…or looking to buy a home and then add hardwood. I’ve packaged all of my best tips into this book and hope it will help you make smarter choices in your flooring choices and in buying a home that can support high quality floors.
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Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors, whether they are light or dark
Blonde hardwood and light flooring – Which types are lightest?