Floor Color in a Quarantine : Stress and Triumph

Buckle up – this a long one. We started getting nervous when it came near the end. Firstly, because choosing a color was terrifying for such a big process. And secondly – we didn’t want to move out. The idea of leaving the house and staying in a hotel when we hadn’t gone inside a store since March was terrifying.

(Okay – a little exaggeration. We picked up a few meals at restaurants, got beer at a liquor store once, and went to CVS once since March. But that’s it.)

So when we started talking about the finish for the floors, we were intrigued by Rubio Monocoat. It’s a plant-based, 0% VOC, hard wax oil wood finish. You can find out more about it here. (I’m not cool enough to have sponsored links, so this isn’t sponsored.) We loved a few things about this product when weighing the pros and cons – we loved that it wasn’t super shiny, that it is great for pets and is supposed to hold up well to them (we can’t attest to that yet), that it’s DIY-friendly to do repairs if needed, and mostly – that we can stay home during the process, even during a pandemic. Stacy over at Blake Hill House used it, and reviewed it a year later, and that helped us to feel more confident.

Here are a few more pictures of the unfinished floor, including the pre-steps of setting nails, an troweling the nail holes and gaps.


I’m going to turn this over to Everett from Virtuoso Hardwoods now – his words in blue, mine are in black! His Original blog posts on this are Here and Here.

Now for one of the more unpredictable processes we encounter on any given job- coming up with a color. We only get one shot at this, so it has to be perfect. (Amy edit : FOR REAL. I was so nervous, because even though they made us swatch after swatch, WHAT IF WE’RE WRONG? Literally – I was ready to buy this house no questions asked within 5 minutes of being in it. But this decision? This was hard.) The client wanted something similar to what they had, but we always do samples to make absolutely sure. Rather than do the samples on their actual floor, which would require additional sanding to remove the samples once the decision is made, we built a panel with half old wood and half new wood to make sure there wouldn’t be a color difference. The existing color was sort of a reddish brownish orangish color, so we just chose 3 colors in those tones and coated it twice with Glitsa’s new Platinum formaldehyde free conversion varnish. We want the client to see exactly what they’re getting. Long ago we learned that if you just put down a stain color, once it dries the color seems to wash out a little bit. It really needs to have at least a sealer coat on it to see the true color.

The problem with this is that even though it has no formaldehyde, that particular conversion varnish still has a very harsh odor, comparable to lacquer. Because of all this stay at home craziness, a finish like that simply isn’t going to work. Enter Rubio Monocoat penetrating finish. RMC oil actually smells pretty good, so that’s certainly a plus for this situation, but we’re still sort of apprehensive about products like this. It’s not a thing where there’s a legitimate concern about its durability, there are loads of flooring contractors out there who swear by it. It’s just a matter of having relatively little experience with it generally, and not having seen jobs that were done years ago that we could use to judge the durability of it specifically. Again this is one of those things where, for now at least, we just make the client aware of it, have them do their own research online and decide for themselves if they’d like to try it. In this case, the client did exactly that and was sold on it. (Amy edit : I must’ve said a million times that I was either a dream client or a nightmare because of how much research I do. I’m certain I was annoying during this process, but they were so patient and AMAZING everytime I said, “But what about this?”)

This makes coming up with a color even more challenging and unpredictable than it usually is because we don’t have years and years of experience with these colors- ie what each color looks like, which colors dominate others when blended, etc.. Not to mention, we don’t have every color on hand to try out like we do with the standard solvent based flooring stains. Rubio sells these tiny little bottles of their RMC oil for doing color samples, which is great but it’s still a whole new range of color options that we need to familiarize ourselves with- and fast. Another disadvantage is our lack of existing stain samples. Years ago I made small wood panels for every solvent based stain color, which is immensely helpful when trying to narrow down a color. 

(Amy Edit : This was also hard for me, because when I’m staining, I’m just playing mad scientist and mixing everything. I didn’t get to play this time (jealous) and nothing was immediate. Wit social distancing, they came up with colors, and then we’d wait until the evening to look, and then give feedback, and then the process started again the next day.)

One thing we learned pretty much at the outset of our career in this field is that when doing stain samples, they need to be done on many boards rather than just one. When you look at a wood floor, each individual board has a slightly different shade. If we were to do one color on a dark board, then another color on a light board, and a decision were to be made based off of those- when done over the entire floor the color wouldn’t look like the single board sample. The sample panel or area on the floor that the color is applied to needs to be representative of the entire floor to accurately show what that color will look like when the whole floor is done in that color. I’m sure some have had the experience when painting walls where you go to the big box store, see millions of tiny paint swatches, choose one and have the guy behind the counter mix it up, only to start painting the walls with it and realize it’s not the color you had envisioned when you see it on your walls next to your trim. (Amy edit : I’m a big fan of analogies, and this gets an A+)

The reason I bring all that up is that because we don’t have multi-board panels with all the RMC colors on them, we have no choice but to rely on their little fan decks they hand out at demonstration days. These are just tiny little samples with printouts on paper of their colors, and like all fan decks they’re not really accurate at all. The only real purpose they served for us in this case is that the client could use them to give us some idea of the direction they wanted to go.

The floor was to be a light orange to go with the trim, and they wanted the stairs to match the risers, which was a brownish red. After doing 49 colors on 3 or 4 panels, it was narrowed down to 8 colors. 49 colors sounds bad, but again this was mostly experimentation to see what these colors actually looked like on our panels. So I did those 8 colors on the half old half new panels I had made for this job. From there the client chose a floor color, and just wanted a small amount of brown added to the stair color. (Amy edit : They made it so easy and accommodating, but IT WAS SO HARD FOR ME TO CHOOSE)

The only issue was that the floor color also had to look good on the border, I had of course made a small panel of the leftover border pieces for this exact reason. I did the color they chose for the floor on one whole panel and on the small border panel as a final sample just to make sure, and added some brown on the color we were close to on the stairs as well.

Unfortunately the floor color made the maple in the border jump out at you with this garish, in your face bright orange color, so it was back to the drawing board for that one. (Amy edit : It was shockingly bad.) The stair color was getting closer, it just needed a little more brown. On the next round I decided to build yet another panel that had maple and mahogany strips so that I could see what these colors did to the maple. Adding more brown to both colors got us even closer- we had a final decision on the stair color (yay!), but still needed a little more brown on that maple. At this point I remembered something I learned at the last Rubio demonstration day we attended. There’s this trend that some guys are doing lately called cerusing, or 2 tone. As an example, this could be an oak floor with a dark background, but with white down in the grain. When talking to the Rubio sales rep, it came out that you can also achieve this look by doing a dark color with RMC, then applying a product they offer called Universal Maintenance Oil in white over it. The reason that this occurred to me is that they also offer UMO in brown, which might just be the slight tinge of brown we need to calm this maple down. (Amy edit : The other nice thing about the Maintenance Oil is that it adds just a touch of sheen, which I liked. I loved that Rubio floors aren’t shiny, but that touch of sheen was PERFECT – so this was a win.)

So after one final round with the brown Universal Maintenance Oil over the floor sample panel (far right in the final pic), the client loved it and we had a final decision on the floor and stair colors. What a relief! (BUT FOR REAL THOUGH)

The day has finally come, it’s time to apply the Rubio Monocoat. This stuff is similar to staining but a little more difficult. You have to apply it in smaller sections, wait for it to react with the wood for 3-5 minutes, buff it with a red pad to knock the grain down from the water popping, then buff over it with the white pad, and finally a couple times with terry cloth towels– all within 15 minutes. So it’s kind of hair raising at first.

I’m sure that some day I’ll be as comfortable with this procedure as I am with anything else we do, but for now it’s a little nerve wracking until we do the first couple stints and get into something of a groove. (Amy edit : I am ALL ABOUT being a house for people to use the latests and greatest and hone new skills. That’s what Victorians were all about, so I love this aspect.)

The two most popular ways to apply RMC oil are buffing or troweling. My preference is generally to trowel it on, the two main reasons being that it makes the material go further since you’re not saturating a pad with so much oil (which just gets thrown away), and secondly I read once that by buffing it on you’re also introducing heat. This can reduce the open time of the product and make it set up faster, making it more difficult to buff off. The problem is that I’ve never troweled RMC onto a water popped floor. When a floor is water popped, you have to be very careful not to crush the grain back down. Tipping the buffer on the corner of the wheel, stepping on the floor with the side of your shoe, or stepping on a cord, things like that can and will crush the grain down and show up at the worst possible time. Now you’re getting out the sand paper and doing a spot fix right then and there during the application. So my worry was that I would crush the grain down with the corners of the trowel, luckily this turned out to not be a concern.

(Look at those stairs!!!!)

I’m glad I decided to go forward with troweling too- we hit this one close on the material we had, way too close. We mixed up 2L of the custom color blend, which ends up being 2.6L after adding the activator. This should have been more than enough but apparently it wasn’t. I don’t know if it was the gaps in the old floor (they shouldn’t have been much of a factor since we trowel filled it) or if it was just the old wood itself absorbing more oil, but towards the end we had just a few square feet left and we were out.

I was wiping the inside of my cup out with gloved hands trying to get every last drop. In the end our red pad had enough oil in it to cover that last little bit and we had dodged a huge bullet. Had we run out we would have had to order more of the main color of the blend and that wouldn’t have come in until mid week the next week. Needless to say we were ecstatic to be able to finish up that day.

(These couple of pictures are of the water popping stage, which opens the grain int he floor before you add a finish.)

Still to this day I worry a little about looming stain days. Even though we’ve been at this for almost 20 years and produced countless near perfect jobs, there’s always that nagging possibility in the back of my head that as soon as we start applying color, there’s going to be a horrid scratch pattern or some bad scratch from a previous grit that got missed. What little thought I had of this happening here was unwarranted. Thanks to good ol’ Norton MeshPower, while sanding I could see the scratches from the last pass disappearing as I went across the floor with only one(!) set for just over 1000 square feet. It’s weird, it kind of polishes the wood but doesn’t burnish it somehow. It’s so nice to have products available to us that allow us to be confident in our work when that staining day comes.

Here’s another mesmerizing video of the Rubio Monocoat going on! Forever grateful to have such great craftsmen, who were also willing to go the extra mile to document everything.




  1. I enjoyed this process so much. Thank you. Thank you. I also imagined dollar signs rolling over my eyeballs like a slot machine. But also appreciate excellent craftsman work so much. Thanks again for sharing this process. It’s absolutely BEAUTIFUL.

  2. I know replacing and refinishing the wood floors had not been at the top of your to-do list, but it has to be satisfying to have it done now and done so well. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

  3. Good news: those floors are stunning. More good news: they are so stunning you shouldn’t waste money on furniture which would hide them. Just put on some fluffy socks, put down a blanket and some bean bags in a corner and just bask in their loveliness.

  4. I am so impressed. I love wood and love seeing the process. Bless you for sharing!

  5. I’m kind of struggling to come up with the right color for my floors right now. I’m going through Fabulous Floors Charleston for a floor refinishing, and it’s awesome because they really do have a lot of colors to choose from. But that’s also kind of the problem haha Thanks for sharing these tips. I did find them helpful in trying to narrow down what I’m looking for.

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