Experiences with finishing Walnut Floors

3 Jun

Brownstoneboy and brownstonegirl have been known to hold different positions on certain decisions that have had to be made over the course of this renovation, but our mutual dislike for oak flooring made one choice very easy: our floors.

Early on we settled on walnut with inspiration from pictures like this one:

Walnut flooring.

Walnut flooring.

The warm colors and great grain would provide great character to our house. With brownstonegirl having secured a good deal for 5″ inch wide extra long walnut flooring (from PC Wood Flooring in Brooklyn), we were looking forward to seeing the final product. With our sublet ending at the end of April, we had to move back into the house before everything was finished. And that’s when the floor finish problems began.

After researching many floor finish options, we decided to pursue a tung oil finish. Because tung oil won’t absorb easily into wood on its own, you need to mix it with a solvent. Usually, this is some type of chemical but at an online store named Real Milk Paint, I was able to find a natural citrus based solvent along with some very detailed instructions on how to apply. After testing a few samples, we went ahead and bought 8 gallons of solvent and 8 gallons of oil (enough to do more than one floor).

Our floor finisher had experience with tung oil but not with the natural solvent, so we were a little nervous as they began their work. Unfortunately they didn’t follow the provided instructions as requested; they did not apply 3-4 coats as requests and other earlier coats were either left on too long or not mixed properly. Because the ratio of solvent to oil was off, the third layer didn’t really soak in at all and I had to wipe it off by hand when I arrived at the house on the morning of moving day.

Wet floors – great color showed us what the floors could be.

A few hours later we moved in with wax paper down to protect the floors (we’d read this tip online – wax paper allowing the floor to breathe while it cured). Right away we could start to see the floors being scratched and dirtied despite our best efforts to protect them (the rain that day didn’t help either).

Over the course of the next few weeks the only way we could clean the floor (or removed the scratched areas) was to take a clean cloth, damp it with a mix of solvent and oil, buff the surface by hand (or even better, by feet) and let is dry overnight. The result looked great but it was no way to clean a floor (especially with 2 kids!). The feeling of walking on raw wood also felt uncomfortable on our feet. It was then that we started to research other options for the two upper (unfinished floors).

First we looked at a water-based poly which is what our GC had recommended from the beginning. We bought a small satin finish and grabbed some left-over wood. We followed the instructions and waited to see how it would look. Rather than bringing out the amber colors we particularly liked about walnut, it dulled the color and looked grey and cloudy to us.

Water based piece in the middle of a piece of restored flooring.

Back to the internet for more hours reading through flooring forums and we discovered an interesting option. We wanted the coloring of oil without the harmful effects and resultant smell and found that a number of floor finishing companies made an oil-modified water based poly that changed the color of the floors as with oil without the long curing time and other already mentioned side-effects of oil finish (we were encouraged by the discussion at http://www.hardwoodflooringtalk.com/forum/toughest-coating-for-american-black-walnut-t8941.html). We narrowed our choice to a product by Bona called Woodline and tried to buy a sample.

With the floor finishers coming in a week we didn’t really have the option to order online so we started calling the places Bona listed on their site as distributors. Most didn’t even carry Bona but we found that the place where we’d originally bought our floors (PC Wood Flooring) carried it and had in quart size containers of semi-gloss and satin; they also had the sealer that Bona recommends applying before applying the finish. I jumped on the train and headed to their store on 3rd Avenue and picked up a quart of each.

With the painters still working upstairs we setup a little testing area in the cellar and opened up the hatches for ventilation. We didn’t have time that day to do a full sealer application following by a coat of the finish so I just applied the finish to a piece of wood to see if there were any color changes.

One coat of the satin oil finish (on the left) next to an unfinished piece of wood.

We were encouraged by the result so setup another test the next day, this time applying the sealer and then applying the semi-gloss and the satin finish to each side of our mini-floor that we put together.

Semi-gloss on left and satin on right.

 We were satisfied enough with the result to speak with our GC and ditch the tung oil plan in favor of the Woodline product.

Fast forward a week: we left the house for a few days and the floor guys came in again. We were a little nervous on our return and walked up the stairs to take a look at the final results.

Kitchen floor

Living Room Floor

Top floor hall (with bonus view of our new stairs).

I’m not sure if we were more excited or relieved. The floors looked stunning. Exactly what we’d hoped for from that first time we saw those inspirational floors on Houzz. They are still curing upstairs but feel great under the feet and show the amazing grain and variation present in the walnut flooring. The one downside is that we’ll have to redo the floor that we are living in (with the tung oil) but in the end it’ll be worth it (at least that’s what we keep saying at each bump).




  • monaco5683

    This is super helpful.. Hoping to find the British equivalent here in London! do you have any pictures of how the floors look after some wear and tear? Also, what do you use to clean them? If there are scratches, what do you use to deal with those? Thanks!!!

    • brownstonegirl

      Hi there – Glad you find the blog helpful. Here’s a very long-winded answer to your question.

      I’m afraid we haven’t really been finished renovating long enough to have “after” wear and tear photos. Walnut floors dent – they are soft and we expected dents, so if we did take photos you’d see little dings here and there. However, we purposely chose the character grade because it already effectively has such imperfections as part of the wood’s natural character, so you don’t really notice it. We finished the floors with Bona Oil-Modified finish in Satin. I wish sincerely that we had disregarded Bona’s very poor instructions online concerning their top coat option, Traffic, which they seemed to suggest would only be needed in very high traffic areas. Our finish has scratched more easily than it would have with that extra protection, and we’ve learned since it is a very commonly used product. We use a Bona cleaner to clean them, but since we hardly ever have shoes on in the house, it really needs very infrequent regular cleaning other than sweeping. Not a whole lot you can do about scratches with any floor finish. I would suggest speaking with your floor finisher about making sure they provide a top coat that deals well with the heaviest traffic, and also see if you can hire someone who is considered certified by whatever floor finish company/product you choose. Our finisher was chosen by our contractor, and while he did a great job, he was not familiar with this product and thus did not advise us about the top coat options. Hope that helps, and good luck!

  • amy scribner

    Stunning floors!Did you end up going with the satin or the semigloss? We just installed walnut and the distributor I found only has Satin. Which did you like better? THANK YOU!!!!

    • brownstonegirl

      Hi Amy – how funny! I see that indeed we never actually said one way or another. Satin. We love it. It’s beautiful – warm, rich…the beauty of the wood shines through, not a shiny overcoat. Just be sure to look into using Traffic as a topcoat. When we read the materials on Bona’s website, we had a strong sense that it was only recommended for commercial areas, but after already having the floors finished, moving back in, and discovering the finish scratches very easily, we called Bona – they said they recommend Traffic for all applications. I’d suggest taking two or three test pieces of wood, sealing them with Satin and with Traffic (do one without the Traffic) and try scratching them with shoes, dropped forks, etc. It may take a few days but it will give you peace of mind. Trust me – it will be much harder to add the topcoat later (which is what the Bona rep recommended). Good luck!

  • Kathleen Thame

    These look great! Have you noticed your floors fading from the sun?

    • brownstonegirl

      Hi Kathleen – Sorry for the delayed reply! I didn’t receive a notice that you’d written. I have not noticed any fading from the sun. We have really high quality windows but we also don’t get a ton of direct sunlight in our house because we are on the North side of street. We are very lucky to have a super sunny backyard that reflects a great deal of light in the house, but I think that because it isn’t direct, there hasn’t been much change in the color of the wood.

  • Preeti Sarkar

    Hi! The floor looks amazing! My husband and I are in love with Walnut and are having a similar ups and downs with it. We purchased it prefinished as we loved the look of it but were really disappointed as the boards were coming out of the box already dented and scratched. We can wait for another lot or just go with another wood.

    How has the durability been for you since you installed the floors with having children? Do you think that it’s stronger since you had it finished in house? We are being swayed to go with a harder wood floor by everyone but we really just are not happy with the look (nothing compares to the walnut in our eyes). Would love your perspective since you have it in similar areas of the home that we will. Thank you so much!!!