Can you ever get the ‘perfect’ stain color?

We recently did a phone consult for a customer who needed help with a stain job that didn’t quite go to plan.

She hired a contractor to sand, stain, and finish her floors, and asked for some actual stain samples to choose from.

You may not know this, but not every hardwood flooring contractor can stain a floor well, and even fewer of them are willing to actually mix different stain colors and test them on your actual floor. This contractor is clearly a professional and was willing to put in the extra effort to match the customer’s vision.

Even better, the customer had a clear idea of what she wanted:

We want the floors to be a neutral brown and match. No red at all. Our house is a mid century house but I don’t want yellow or orange or red floors.” 

The customer dutifully chose a stain mixture from the options offered, then went on vacation so the work could be done while they were away.

But then, things start to go sideways:


“We got home and the floor looks nothing like the stain test.” 

“It looks very different, and very red. We choose to go with a matte oil polyurethane. 

At the time of the stain test, I had asked our floor person if the floor would get darker with the poly and  he said just a little bit. So I was surprised to come home to a very different floor all together. He informed me that the oil made it red and it always does and I should have known that!”

The floor has clearly been properly and professionally stained; the stain is even – and look at the complete absence of sanding marks and edger swirl!

But that color match: ouch. 

How did this go so wrong, when all the preparation seemed so right?

The answer is that custom floor staining is complex and it is rare that everything goes right the first time. If you have a vision of a perfect color for your floor, here are some suggestions that will help make it a reality:

1. Definitely do any stain tests on your actual floor, as this customer’s contractor did. Don’t just go to a lumber yard and buy the same type of wood – age and origin affect wood’s “undercolor”, which can change the appearance of your chosen stain. You could fall in love with a color on a new piece of northern red oak, but struggle to recreate that same color on the 50 year old southern red oak that is actually in your house.

2. Make sure you or your contractor sand the testing zone EXACTLY the same way you plan to sand the entire floor: same sanding grits using the same machines. 

2. Take photos of the stain test. Once a color is chosen, those sample areas are sanded off and you won’t have a reference to compare the final floor to.

3. Choose the simplest stain mix that achieves your look. Mixing more than two colors, especially in odd ratios, is hard to scale up accurately. If the proportions weren’t perfectly measured for the sample, the mix is more likely to be off the mark in a larger batch. Stain pigments settle in their cans. If a can wasn’t thoroughly stirred when they measured out the proportions for the stain test, it will be difficult to recreate that color.

4. Insist on seeing the stain samples with your chosen topcoats applied over them. The color of the stain on bare wood is different than stain with finish. If you have chosen a tricky, nuanced shade, even minor changes like this can prevent you from nailing your color. Oil-based polyurethanes will definitely add more warm amber tones to your stain.

5. Contractors don’t like it when you stand over them when they work on your floor, but there is an argument for being present when they start to stain. That way, if there is a color issue, it is caught before it becomes a whole-floor resand.

In this particular case, the final color was so clearly different from the approved sample that I think they simply used the wrong recipe. The contractor suggesting that the top coat caused the color difference was just a hail-mary pass to avoid having to resand the floor. In the end, the contractor voluntarily made the honorable choice to re-sand and re-stain the floor for the customer.

So, how did it all turn out in the end? As of the publication of this post, the customer was considering skipping stain altogether and using a red-canceling treatment on her oak to keep it as light as possible (like this example of Bona Red Out on red oak). Stay tuned and we’ll post a picture when they make a final choice!