It’s easy to understand why the Scandinavian approach to furnishing has become so popular. Our Nordic neighbours excel because they take care over decisions and practice restraint: whether it’s choosing just a few items of mid-century furniture to outfit a room or perfectly placing some soft, intimate lighting to make things cosy, understatement is key.
But despite being hugely influential, there’s one aspect of Scandinavian finishing that the rest of the world has only just woken up to: whitewashed floorboards.
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Bleached or soaped floorboards are an incredibly beautiful, quiet flooring choice. Traditionally, Scandinavian homes would whitewash their floorboards for the added brightness they gave a room – understandable considering the long, dark winters. Today, whitewashed floorboards are a favourite because of their versatility and ability to complement nearly every interior style. While looking fantastic, they don’t take over a room.
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Unfortunately, achieving flooring perfection isn’t easy. Whitewashing is usually a process that involves bleaching wood, which takes time and effort. It is well worth being patient though, as the finished product manages to be cool, crisp yet also cosy.
Not every wood is suitable for bleaching. Gum, beech, ash and oak work best, whereas cherry and cedar won’t react with bleach at all. Don’t bleach red oak, as it will turn hot pink, unless, of course, this is the kind of shock look you’re hoping for. Pine is possible, but it can get streaky and peachy.
Most floorboards have been treated over time with a range of different finishes and varnishes. Ultimately, knowing exactly what you’re standing on can be tricky, so bring in a flooring specialist to help you out.
There are myriad products, different whitewashing options for different woods, and a few sealant choices at the end too, so it’s best you talk it out beforehand with someone who knows their stuff. A professional will be able to bring in the exact products you want at trade price and give you a hand with the floorboards, which have to be sanded and completely cleaned before anything more happens.
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How to bleach wood
There’s no sugar coating it: bleaching is a tedious process that demands some elbow grease. Bleaching products can be anything from ordinary laundry bleach to something a lot harder like oxalic acid, but either way, your room will have to be well-ventilated and protective masks, goggles and gloves are an absolute must to avoid any toxicity.
- Before anyone gets down on their hands and knees and starts bleaching with gusto, first test a small patch in an inconspicuous area, such as a corner that’s likely to be covered or somewhere where a rug will sit. It is not advisable to skip over a test run: as already mentioned, woods will react in different ways to different products, meaning no two whitewashing processes come out the same, so don’t be blasé.
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- Start with a small amount of bleach.If it’s still not light enough, reapply.
- Bleaching is a repetitive process: most floorboards will have to be treated two if not three times, but at least this allows you to say stop when you’ve hit your perfect shade.
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Alternatives to wood bleaching
Using bleach isn’t the only way to whitewash:
- You can also use lye soap, which removes the orangey colour of wood, effectively bleaching it. Lye soap is a great alternative for pine floorboards, which won’t react well to bleach but are the flooring found most in Victorian and Edwardian homes.
- Alternatively, you can use a lime-water solution, which should be scrubbed straight into the grains and then the excess wiped off. This is perfect for highlighting beautiful grains in wood but the finished product is a more distinct look than usual whitewashing.
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Bleached or soaped floorboards will look fantastic, so protect them. You will need a sealer at the end or that single drop of red wine will ruin everything. It’s a choice between oil or water-based sealants and professionals tend side with one over the other. Don’t fret over it too much: just be firm that the sealant doesn’t change the colour and make sure it’s matt: glossy, bleached floorboards tend to look a bit plastic-fantastic.
Once everything has dried, your floor will have a gorgeous, light grey finish that works both with light and dark coloured walls. Far more sophisticated than shabby-chic chipped floorboards or just slathering the floor in white paint, bleaching leaves wood in all its natural glory while giving you that touch of modern.