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Whitewashing floorboards: what you need to know

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.

Whitewashed wooden floor

Image Source: Tone on Tone

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.

bleached living room floor

Image Source: Homes & Property

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.

The wood

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.

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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.

open plan living room

Image Source: designrulz

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.

    1. 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.

room in white

Image Source: lightlocations

  1. Start with a small amount of bleach.If it’s still not light enough, reapply.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

stylish chair and table

Image Source: House & Home

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.

Planning to whitewash your wooden floors but not sure where to start? Why don’t you post a job for free and up to 3 local flooring specialists will provide you with quotes?

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19 Comments

  1. wiuld like to have my tas oak floors whitewashed … Can you please recommend tradespeople on the Gold Coast

    1. Hi Colette,

      I’m afraid we only operate in the UK but hopefully another reader will be able to help you.

      Thanks,
      Natalie

  2. Hello, do you know anyone in the Brighton, Sussex area who’d be able to help with the bleaching of my bathroom floorboards?

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      How we work is that a job is posted on Rated People (at http://www.ratedpeople.com) and then sent out to the tradespeople whose trade type and work area matches your posting. After that, between 1 and 3 tradespeople are free to contact you to quote and you’ll be able to review their profile pages to help you decide which tradesperson to hire. A flooring specialist would be the best tradesperson to do this job for you. I’d also recommend having a read of our homeowner checklist too before you hire a tradesperson: http://www.ratedpeople.com/c/homeowner-checklist

      Best of luck! If you decide to progress with the project, do let me know how it goes by emailing [email protected]!

      Kind regards,
      Natalie

  3. I am looking for floorboards to be put down in a large area then bleached is there someone in the Cardiff area that can give me a price?

    1. Hi Heidi,

      If you’d like a quote for the work, I would recommend posting a job on our homepage at ratedpeople(dot)com. We will prompt you to select whether you’re looking for a quote or ready to hire etc. Once posted, your job will be sent out to tradespeople who work in your area and up to three will be able to contact you to quote for the work.

      Kind regards,
      Natalie

  4. hi! I love this look so much! Can you do grey lye treatment on red oak and that way it will not turn pink?

  5. Hello, I’ve white washed my floorboards using a white emulsion used for walls mixed with water. I let this completely dry but once I have added a clear varnish, used for floors, it has cleaned some of the paint off back to the wood! Why is this? Should I be using an oil based protector instead? Thanks

  6. What type of bleach do you use?Is it a household bleach or a wood bleach or are they the same thing? I have an oak engineered floor and wondered if I could bleach this, thanks
    Bev

  7. Hi

    We use Junckers Prelak White and Bona White Primer to achieve that whitewash finish. Can you recommend any other brands or products that achieve the same finish?

    Superb content

  8. Any floor experts in Beveley Hull area please, I have a room with scaffolding boards as flooring and would like them lighter

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