An oak floor with a cherry inlay creates a dramatic design in the foyer

Varying finish applications in the kitchen and hallway make a subtle design statement
This case study is one of four in the tenth installment of “Tips & Techniques” from The Hardwood Council.

The challenge of creating distinct personalities for an adjoining kitchen, hallway and living room that all feature ¾-inch red oak strip flooring can be daunting. One solution is to use a clear finish to create natural warmth in the kitchen, and design a decorative inlay for the hallway or stencil a pattern in the living room.

Design Techniques
With the advent of laser technology, decorative inlays have become an affordable way to create hardwood floors with signature style. While many decorative inlays are still produced by highly skilled craftsmen, new laser-cutting techniques are stirring a revival of this classic “Old World” design tradition.

Decorative inlays are most often constructed from a carefully designed combination of individual hardwood components. Once the design is created, components are laser-cut from hardwood flooring planks, usually 5/16-inch thick. The components are then joined with glue or a urethane adhesive. When the inlay is dry, the edges are routed to match the tongue-and-groove joints for the rest of the floor, and the inlay is set in place.

To create more dramatic inlays, hardwood components are sometimes saturated with aniline dyes to add color and contrast that remains even after re-sanding. While stock inlays are becoming plentiful, it is also relatively easy to create customized designs with details as intricate as a family crest or a map of a favorite vacation island.

Stenciling decorative designs onto hardwood floors is another low-cost way to achieve a one-of-a-kind look. Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a stenciled hardwood floor.

  • Clean the floor. Make sure it’s smooth and in good condition.
  • Measure the floor and map out the stencil locations.
  • Set the stencils in place with masking tape or spray mount, then apply the stain or paint with a brush or spray.
  • With the paint still wet, carefully remove the stencil.
  • When stenciling a border, reposition the stencil by overlapping slightly with the previous application and continue until the border is complete.
  • When the floor is completely dry, remove any remaining tape and glue.
  • Wait at least 24 hours, then apply a protective coating such as polyurethane or varnish.

    Finishes are the most commonly used tools for expanding design and decorating options with hardwood floors. Specialty finishes include bleaching, pickling, antiquing and coloring. Pre-finished floors are the best choice for these applications (Note: Experts do not recommend bleaching or white-washing hardwood floors, as it can cause chemical damage to the surface, resulting in a weakening of the wood fibers).

    Stains darken hardwood but maintain the appearance of the grain. Clear finishes showcase the natural grain and color. Varnishes and shellacs provide a hard finish but are not waterproof, limiting their use. Lacquers are more water-resistant than varnishes and shellacs, but can be susceptible to cracking and peeling.

    Moisture-cure urethanes provide the hardest finish, but most are limited to a glossy appearance. Acid-curing Swedish finishes are fast-drying and resist yellowing. Penetrating finishes preserve the appearance of the grain while soaking into hardwood pores. They are an effective way to “color” a hardwood’s natural grain.

    Spicing up a hardwood floor design with decorative inlays, stencils and finishes can be easy and affordable. For more information, contact The Hardwood Council at P.O. Box 525, Oakmont, PA 15139 or go to