Beyond The Pale

Oct 19, 2023

Long before he was even born, Henry Ford has seemingly played a pivotal role in influencing the ‘natural’ colour of a wooden floor.

‘You can have any colour you like as long as it’s…’

Those traditional dark oak floors in serious venues such as libraries and studies lead automatically to associations with heavy bookshelves, a mahogany desk, a roaring fire and a row of cherrywood pipes in a rack on the mantelpiece.

This brooding Victorian/Edwardian atmosphere certainly has its place even today, but it’s not always winter in the UK.  A brighter, more informal style has penetrated all aspects of modern life. Today’s public libraries are now airy places in line with the flexibility and choice offered by the age of the computer and DVD, rather than being solely repositories for books bound with appropriately dark, plain covers.

That a wooden floor is capable of lightening – or even enlightening – an interior seems to have been relatively slow to catch on. Of course, floors may be covered in a light-coloured rug or carpet. Or even painted to brush over its imperfections..

Yet the whole purpose of using natural materials such as timber is to enjoy a product whose grain not only provides beauty but will allow the floor to breathe. At some time down the line, one more than suspects, the floor sanders will be summoned to restore dignity and integrity to the unfortunate painted floor.

That grim Victorian lacquer has been superseded by the wide range of modern water-based stains. Paler shades are in vogue for the current eco-conscious, energy-saving properties of wood and glass with their large open-plan rooms.

It seems strange that white has taken so long to come to the forefront in modest domestic properties. After all, gardens have been influenced by the concept of colour themes as expounded by Gertrude Jekyll in the early 20th century. A famous development can be found in the bold single splendour of the white garden at Sissinghurst in Kent – designed by owners Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s.

Why should such pure pleasures be confined to a garden? Within a building, a floor can be the starting point for a fresh approach. Scandinavian white is currently a very popular look. With their long dark evenings, our Nordic friends want to make the most of every ray of light. Whitening floorboards can be effected through whitewash, but a longer lasting effect is through pickling or bleaching the wood, to allow the underlying stain to shine through.  This works particularly well on oak, ash and pine.

Young wood can be made to look mature through traditional methods such as steeping galvanised nails in white vinegar.The ensuing ‘brew’ gives a dusty grey appearance. Applying lye is another method that draws out the tannins in fresh wood and prevents the inevitable yellowing of an untreated floor.

Such a toxic substance is off limits for today’s safety-conscious DIY enthusiastic. White floor soap and a range of coloured water-based stains are available. Better still – call on the experts to provide a smooth, sanded surface ready for the colour and look you desire.