Refinishing Our Hardwood Floors with Natural Hardwax Oil: Part One

Like many of you, when looking to buy a house, hardwood floors were at the top of our list, knowing that refinishing them eventually would lead to a big boost in both the aesthetics and the value of the house. Well, now that we’ve been in our home for nearly two years (but really, how did that happen?!), “eventually” is finally here and I couldn’t be more excited.

Here’s the lowdown: we have pretty basic 3” wide Red Oak hardwood floors. Red Oak is among the most common domestic hardwoods, so they aren’t exactly the most special. One distinguishing feature of Red Oak is that it has very strong red undertones that will often lead to them looking very pink or orange if left a light or natural tone. One upside to Red Oak is that, unlike some softer woods like Pine, it takes a stain very uniformly, and can hold up to a good deal of abuse.

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While our house was built in 1940, there was an addition to the home in the early 1980s, which is I believe, in part, when the hardwood floors were installed. We wish the species of our floors had more character or at least were more unique, but alas, you make the most of what you’ve got, and these floors are going to be gorgeous once we’re done with them.

As you may know by now, we’re obsessed with researching projects for months in advance of starting them, so we’re as educated as possible when executing on a project. I have been researching refinishing hardwood floors for at least a year now, so I feel very confident in the direction we’ve decided upon. Let’s dig in.

1. Decide on a type of flooring finish

Spoiler alert: we’re going in a different direction than the average DIYer.

Since buying our house, I had always been stressed about some of the downsides to refinishing your floors while living in your home – 1) I’d heard that the fumes could be so bad that we may need to move out for a few days, and 2) we’d heard some horror stories about the risk of ruining the finish during the lengthy cure time when the floors are at their most delicate.

So, I set off to understand what other options were out there on the market, besides polyurethane, that might make the process easier and also friendlier to our health. This lead me to discover hardwax oil, as an alternative that addressed the downsides posed by poly finishes, more specifically we landed on Rubio Monocoat, which was recommended to me by a few in-the-know design friends. I went deep down the research rabbit hole and discovered that Rubio Monocoat addressed all the issues I’d been stressing about:

  1. Rubio Monocoat is natural and VOC free. No really, when I opened up a sample bottle it actually smelled GOOD. I was shocked that I actually enjoyed the smell of the product.
  2. It’s a penetrating oil, which creates a molecular bond on the top layer of the wood. What I love about this is that it allows your floors to feel like wood, and not that somewhat plastic feel that you get with a Poly finish. I love the idea of enhancing the natural properties of wood, instead of preserving it under a layer of sheen.
  3. If we get a scratch in the finished floors, you can buff it out and refinish the single plank of wood, instead of needing to refinish the entire space, as with Poly. We live in a constant construction zone, so knowing that if somehow something happens while we’re working down the road, it’s fixable, which gives me some peace of mind.
  4. Rubio Monocoat goes down in a single step, so it’s both faster and easier to apply than Poly. That’s a win-win.

I will note one downside to natural hardwax oil that I came across in my research: if water sits on top of the surface for too long, it can cause discoloration (which can be fixed, as in reason 3 above), but that might make it a less ideal choice if you have pets that drool a lot.

Once I had dug into researching Rubio Monocoat, it became pretty clear it was the right choice for our lifestyle and home. Plus, it helped that I had watched Michelle transform her floors for the One Room Challenge using Rubio Monocoat and her floors came out absolutely stunning.

And don’t get me started on these gorgeous floors in Laura’s house, as featured in the Washingtonian last month.

2. Determine if you’re going light, medium or dark in your space

Knowing that this is one of the only upgrades you make in your home that actually impacts the visuals of every. single. room. in your house, I’ve been thinking about the color ever since we moved in. I have gone back and forth on a light finish v. a dark finish on the floors so, so many times.

Light floors are very in vogue right now, and for good reason. They feel more casual and approachable, can elongate rooms with low ceilings and they allow your floors to be a more organic feature in your home. Light floors are also less likely to show dust, so they’re a good choice for lazy homeowners (guilty).

Darker floors feel more formal, more classic and are more forgiving to wood that was installed at different times. When you stain wood, you can neutralize more of the natural undertones in the wood to truly create a neutral base. We need to feather in new wood in our kitchen and in our sunroom, so the ability to make this new wood look seamless is very important.

At the end of the day, I adore light floors and we’ll no doubt try them out in a future home, but given our current circumstances and species of wood, I think the best thing for our current home is to go darker on the finish. Yes, I know it will mean I’ll have to clean more often (but, shouldn’t I be doing that anyways? probably.), but I know I’ll be able to decorate my home without fighting the undertones in the floors and will also feel more confident in the longevity of the more classic finish.

3. Decide on a specific color

Once you’ve narrowed down the tone of the color, the more challenging part is deciding on a specific color. Since we’d already narrowed down the product to Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus 2C, we had to choose from the 40 colors it’s available in. To start, I jumped on Pinterest and Instagram to find examples of the colors that caught my eye the most on our species of wood, Red Oak. This was super helpful in aiding us in narrowing down the colors we wanted to sample, but as always, you can’t trust a photograph to choose any colour in your home, so this is just to narrow the playing field.

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We narrowed it down to Castle Brown, Ash Grey, Black, Chocolate and Smoke 5%, then ordered the samples and moved on to the next step.

4. Create samples

Since we’re doing our floors throughout our house in phases (master suite first, then the remainder of the upstairs + the stairs, and finally the full first floor), I wanted to make sure my samples were portable, so I could see how the finished floors will look in different rooms and different lighting. So, we made some sample boards from spare hardwoods that we had ripped up in order to construct our new master bathroom. I followed the Rubio Monocoat application instructions and created cross-sections of each colour that spanned multiple boards, since our hardwoods have a lot of variation in color, tone and wood grain.

On the top board, from left to right is Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus 2C in Ash Grey, Castle Brown, Black, Chocolate and Smoke 5%.

On the bottom board, I first did a coat of Rubio Monocoat Pre-Color Easy in Vintage Brown as an undercoat beneath the Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus 2C in the same order as the first board.

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Once the colors were lined up, it was easy to see the undertones in each of the samples and the depth of color. The chocolate reads too purple for us, with the red undertones, coming through. The grey in the Ash Grey was beautiful, but not quite right for the pretty traditional bones of our house. Smoke 5% looked good on a small sample, but I was still stressed about the pink coming through.

When I polled you all on Instagram, the winner was clearly Castle Brown (2nd on the top and 7th on the bottom), and our personal front runner was Black, so once we sanded down the floors, we put both colors down in an area that would be covered by closet cabinetry, so we knew exactly how the colors would look. Seeing both colors side by side in context made for a difficult but educated decision.

Here we added one extra step, waterpopping the wood, on recommendation from Rubio Monocoat to deepen the stain. I’ll go into more detail in our next post, but lightly wetting the raw wood and then allowing it to dry opens up the wood pores that get closed up during the sanding process, which richens the finish.

Clockwise from top: Castle Brown over waterpopped wood, Castle Brown over Vintage Brown Pre-Color Easy, Black over Vintage Brown Pre-Color Easy and Black over waterpopped wood. You can see how similar the finish looks between the Pre-Color and the waterpopping. Up close, the Pre-Color makes the finish look more uniform across varying boards of wood, but for the super subtle difference, it didn’t seem necessary for us to use the Pre-Color Easy.

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For us, red isn’t a color we use much at all in our home, so the brown-red of the Castle Brown, while very beautiful and classic, we knew was going to be more challenging for us to design around than the more neutralized Black. Now that we have made the final decision to use the Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus 2C in Black, we’re ready to roll and will be tackling the floors this weekend – wish us luck!

I’d love to know, if you have refinished your floors, what finish did you go with? Have you heard of natural hardwax oils like Rubio Monocoat before?

*The product featured in this post was gifted by Rubio Monocoat®. All content, ideas, and words are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that allow us to create unique content while featuring products we use and enjoy!

2 thoughts on “Refinishing Our Hardwood Floors with Natural Hardwax Oil: Part One

    • erinkestenbaum says:

      I’m working on a blog post that details the actual process, but it was surprisingly less dusty and messy than expected! The biggest challenge was moving all the furniture out of the space for a week, which is why we’re tackling it in phases. Hope that helps!

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