When it comes to wood staining, the technique of applying a pigmented coating to a wood surface for color and protection, that’s usually a good thing. But what if the stain on your floor is water stains, or unidentified black streaks? Or maybe it’s a pigmented stain that has become too yellow, or orange, or just plain dingy, over the years. You may envision walking on natural planks that feel good on the foot, something light, bright and clean. Depending on the type of wood species you have it’s possible to get a beautiful scrubbed look to your wood … by literally bleaching it.
Take a look at Kathy’s wood floor in her greenhouse. Wood bleaching is simply part of her spring cleaning ritual, as she explains in her Instagram feed. “Spent some time cleaning, bleaching the wood floors, painting, weeding out some old furnishings, and bringing in some new.”
There are certain species of wood that bleach better than others. If your wood is pine, you’re golden. Other species that play nice with bleach include ash, beech, gum and red oak. Bleaching exotic hardwoods like mahogany or cherry is not a good idea. Also keep in mind that you will need to sand off any existing wood stain in order for the bleach to work its magic. Sanding will also remove some of the bad stains and even out the wood tone.
Wood bleaches fall into a few categories:
- Common household bleach. If your wood is in decent shape and you just want to brighten it up a little, then wiping or spraying on household bleach (like Clorox) could be all you need. Kathy says she uses a common bathroom bleach cleaner and simply sprays it on her wood floors, then wipes. It doesn’t appear that her floors have been stained or sealed, so the bleach will penetrate into the grain and do its job.
- Oxalic acid. A somewhat stronger lightening agent, wood “brighteners” containing oxalic acid (such as Cabot wood brightener) are great for cleaning up streaked, water-stained and discolored wood floors. You mix it with hot water and mop it over a sanded and dust-free surface.
- 2 part bleach system. Often called “A and B” bleaching solution, this product is considered the most effective for removing tough stains and discoloration. Here is one example. You apply A, wait 15 or 20 minutes, then apply B. Then you rinse the whole area with water.
Tips and Tricks
The overall advice here is to take your time and do it right. Use proper protection for your eyes, hands and lungs. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for whatever product you choose to use.
And now for the tips:
- If your wood floors simply need stain removal here and there, then try using a common household bleach spray like Kathy.
- For black spots, from water damage or tannins, use oxalic acid. Dissolve in hot water and apply to stains with a scrub brush. Watch the spots lighten and disappear! Then rinse carefully with water.
- Wanna take on the whole floor? That’s great, but make the commitment: you want a nice, clean stripped floor as your canvas. The first step is to thoroughly remove all traces of sealant and stain. You may need to scrape first, then sand. Or you might be able to get rid of it with a chemical stain remover. Use your eagle eye to make sure all traces have been removed to get the best possible results. Rent a sander or, if the area is large and really damaged, you could hire a pro to help.
- Once smooth, the wood should be vacuumed thoroughly, then wiped with a damp cloth. The less dust you leave behind, the better.
- Apply your bleach carefully and evenly, using a glass or plastic bowl to mix (don’t use metal). Spread with a cloth or a paintbrush; you can even use a paint roller with an extender. Layer wet on wet, keep moving at a steady pace that allows for thorough, even coverage. Let dry, then apply an even coating of neutralizer–1:1 ration of white vinegar and water. Finally, wipe down again with clear water. Let dry overnight.
- If wood still isn’t light enough for your liking, do a repeat of Step 5. You might try starting with oxalic acid for the first go-round, then move to “A and B” for the next. Always neutralize at the end and wipe clean with damp rags. Dry overnight.
- You should see a pretty dramatic difference at this point. Hooray! Sand again with a medium-to-fine grit paper if necessary, then … yes you know it,` vacuum like crazy and wipe down like crazy. Then finish with a neutral sealer of your choice, to protect the wood. A suggestion: penetrating oil sealer, like this one by Rockler, is easy to apply and lets the gorgeous grain and coloring of your wood to show through.
Norwegian Wood Technique
We came across Rikke, a journalist and interior designer/stylist in the Nordic aesthetic. She mapped out a very clever technique to clean and transform wood floors into a dreamy, whisper-white hue. Warning: it ain’t easy. She states “OK let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves of the look we’re going for” before taking you along through the steps.
We think the end result is worth the effort, though; don’t you?