Refinish Red Oak Flooring – How to Make it Like White Oak

Refinish red oak floors and remove the red tones to reveal a stunning natural look!

When we bought our current house, we inherited a red oak floor that spanned most of the first floor and the entire second level. Our house was built in the early 2000’s, and red oak and rich cherry were very popular choices at that time. Fast forward 20 years and people are spending big money to remove the red elements from their homes.  However, you can remove the “red” in many of these elements for a fraction of the cost of replacing by painting or refinishing.  Ready to learn how to refinish red oak flooring? You’re in luck – read on to learn how we did it!

We really like the look of white oak– it’s warm and inviting without being overly red.  If we wanted to rip up the existing red oak and replace it with white oak, it would easily cost six figures. Instead, we did our research and found out that we could get close to the look of white oak by sanding the red oak and applying a white wash. We decided to go for it and spoiler alert, we are so glad we did! However, we want to share some of the things we learned (the hard way) and the products that we used. The below 5 steps are designed to help anyone looking to refinish a wood floor, no matter what wood species or stain is used, but I will highlight the products and process we went through when refinishing red oak to be less “red”. 

Before we could refinish red oak flooring in our house, we removed the old carpet
Prep work for refinish red oak flooring

1. Research Online

Use online resources such as Pinterest, Houzz, and Instagram to see what other people have done to refinish their floors, and what products they use. Find a few examples that you like and keep the links or save them to you phone so you can show your contractor. Examples that list the products they use are best – the more detail you can provide your contractor, the better.

2. Hire a Good Contractor

This is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the process, and definitely one of the most important. A contractor can make or break a refinishing project, so finding the right contractor, at the right price, is key.  Use online resources such as Angie’s List, Yelp, and Google (reviews) to find a wood floor contractor that specializes in refinishing. There are many contractors that can rip out a floor and install a new one, but refinishing an existing floor is more of an artform, and experience matters.

Always get at least three quotes (more is better) and select a contractor that offers a fair price, and one that you get a good vibe from. Show them pictures and products of the look you want (from step 1 above) and make sure they understand what you want. The contractor we chose had many positive, recent reviews from previous customers (on Angie’s List), and they arrived on time to give their quote. They were also very responsive (via texts and calls) when I had questions about their quote or their services.  

Download our free guide on how to refinish red oak flooring

3. Sand and Prep the Existing Red Oak

Watching the sanding machines strip the old stain or paint off a wood floor is one of the most satisfying things to watch! Make sure your contractor sands all the nooks and crannies around walls, stairs, and doorways. If you have any water damage in certain areas or other imperfections, now is the time to replace those boards and fill the imperfections with high-quality (stainable) filler.  If you are considering extending your wood floor into other rooms, now is the time to install it. For our project, we removed the dated marble in the entryway and powder room and installed matching red oak to create a consistent look on the main level. This is where a good contractor can be a huge asset – having one that knows what wood to use to perfectly match your existing floor is key.

Stripping the old finish as part of the job to refinish red oak flooring
Top view of the foyer as we refinish red oak flooring throughout the first level

4. Find the Right Stain and Sealer to Refinish Red Oak

Use painters tape to create squares on your floor in several areas of your home. Have your contractor apply the stains so you can see what you like best. For our red oak, we went through quite a few different combinations of stains before settling on the one we liked best. It is important in this step to take your time deciding – you will likely feel pressured by your contractor to select a stain as soon as possible (so they have time to order it so they can complete the job).  But this is a HUGE decision that can be very costly if you end up choosing a stain you don’t like, so don’t rush.

Tape off sections to test your stains and finishes
Three stains we tried

For our project, the contractor mixed some options for us and applied them in our sample squares. Some stains were mixed with others, while others were diluted to be lighter in tone. Ultimately, we went with two coats of Bona NordicSeal and topped with one coat of Bona Traffic HD Satin finish.  The NordicSeal is a great product for red oak – it safely “bleaches” the wood and removes the harsh red tones. The more coats you apply, the lighter it becomes. 

For the finish, use a water-based product, not an oil-based product which can yellow from sun exposure over time. The water-based products are also much easier to work with. One of the big trends right now is matte finishes, and this is what we “thought” we wanted, but after a slight debacle (more detail about that in the next step), we realized that the matte look for flooring just looks unfinished and consistently dirty. A satin sheen is still soft enough for our taste but looks finished and clean.

5. Application Quality is Key

Many products have to be applied in a certain way or with certain tools/applicators. Make sure your contractor knows how to apply the products you selected. Application quality can make or break your final product, especially in an open concept floorplan or large expanse of hardwood. Stay on top of your contractor! We have a big tip to share for this step, but before we give it, let me give you the back story on how our contractor gave us a two-tone floor.

Our Two-Toned Floor Story

We were on a tight timeline – our goal was to have the floors finished before moving day. The contractor was scheduled to apply the Bona HD sealer two days before we moved in, so it had time to cure completely before the movers walked all over it. They texted and said they were done, and the next day I drive out to the property to inspect the floors and found that some rooms had a matte finish, while others had a satin finish, and a clear line could be seen. Check out the pictures below. Obviously, this was a big problem since we were moving in the next day. Long story short, we had to move in and a week later, move all the furniture to the garage so the contractor could sand the top finish off the floor and reapply the sealer.  

This was actually a blessing in disguise because in the week that we lived with the matte floor sections, we realized just how much dirt they showed and how unfinished they looked. We had the contractor apply the satin sealer when they came back to redo their work. However, what they did this time to ensure a consistent finish (this is our big tip) is to mix all the containers of sealer in one big container/barrel before applying. Apparently, there was enough variation in the many containers of sealer (all labeled as the same matte finish) that it dried differently when applied. Mixing everything together ensures that the product will be consistent across your entire area.

Uneven sealer when we refinished our  red oak
Can you see the differences in the finish sealer (matte vs. satin)?

That’s it! We hope these 5 steps (and the tips and products below) help you in your refinishing project and if you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section at the bottom of the page.     


Tips

  • Spend the time to find a good contractor. Research online, read reviews, talk to friends, family, and realtor to see if they have any recommendations.
  • When selecting your contractor, pay attention to if they show up on time to give a quote, and send them texts and/or call them to see how responsive they are. This trait/quality in a contractor is crucial in a project like this.
  • Stay on top of your contractor during the entire process and ensure their quality meets your standards. Don’t be afraid to show them areas they missed or that you want redone.
  • If you want to extend your wood floor into other spaces, this is a perfect time to do it.
  • Don’t feel pressured by your contractor to hurry and select a stain/finish. You are going to live with your decision for years to come, so make sure you spend the time to evaluate the sample stain in different locations and at different times of the day.
  • Ensure all nooks and crannies are sanded before the stain is applied.
  • Use a water-based stain to avoid any yellowing in future years.
  • Avoid high-gloss finishes – they were common in the 1990’s and 2000’s, but are now out of fashion.
  • Before applying your sealer, combine and mix all containers into one large container/barrel before applying. This will ensure a consistent finish across your entire floor.

Shop the Products Used


Refinish red oak guide is available to download!

View the floors in other rooms of our home



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