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Can You Lighten Dark Hardwood Floors?

Can You Lighten Dark Hardwood Floors?

Obviously, it’s always possible to darken up hardwood floors by simply applying a darker stain, but what if you want to lighten up dark wood?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. You can lighten dark hardwood floors to create a paler tint. That is, however, so long as the flooring is able to be sanded down to the natural wood grain.

However, how light you can go will depend largely on the type of wood you are working with. Also, getting the exact lighter look you want is going to require knowing the proper steps to take to get good results.

How To Lighten Dark Hardwood Floors in 7 Easy Steps

Starting with a pale or blond, light color of wood, will end with better lightening up results than if you are trying to lighten up naturally darker woods. Some pale, or lighter colored woods that work great in obtaining a brighter color floor include:

  • Pine
  • Maple
  • White Oak
  • White Beech
  • White Ash

Although, it’s possible to lighten dark wood floors made out of mahogany, oak, or even walnut and other darker shades as well as wood that has been previously treated to appear darker from the use of dark stains.

You may be thinking, “well, why don’t I just slap on a coat of light-colored paint to get the job done.” If so, it’s important to realize that paint on a wood floor will usually end up looking cheaply finished and will tend to wear out over time, especially in high-traffic areas. It’s better to take some time and effort to do it right by first sanding the wood down to its natural state.

Follow these helpful step-by-step guidelines to lighten your dark hardwood floors:

1. Prepare the area

First, clear the room of all furniture and other items. Don’t just move out the obvious, heavy furniture. You will also want to take down drapes, so you let in plenty of light to help in the final drying process.

Also, clear out all clutter. Your best bet is to clear out absolutely everything as if it were move-in ready.

When everything is cleared out of the room, you will have a clean area to work with plenty of space to move and without the worry of flying wood dust and debris damaging furnishings. Also, it’s a good idea to remove any baseboards.

2. Examine the floor carefully

Make sure no nails or staples are sticking up from the floor. If there are any, you will need to remove them or hammer or smooth them down, so you don’t damage the sander or get hurt yourself.

3. Remove Existing Stain, and Sand the Floor

If you prefer, you can start with a chemical stripper to remove dark stain from the floor, but sanding it down is going to take it down to the natural grain leaving it ready to lighten in the most professional manner.

Start by sanding the floors with a sanding machine. Begin with the lowest grit level in the back corner of the room and walk backwards as you go, ending at the doorway. Expect to do three standings, increasing the fine grit with each pass and finishing up with a palm sander to reach into the corners and other hard-to-reach areas.

Finally go over the entire floor again with a 100-grit, 115-162 micrometers, or fine sandpaper. It is important to take your time with this sanding step to make sure you get a smooth surface that will accept the stain or polyurethane on top.

When this step is done properly, the wood will look like new raw wood.

4. Clean Up The Dust

After the sanding is complete, you will need to clean up all of the dust and debris so none of it falls into the final finishing coating. Use a broom and a vacuum or wet/dry vac. To reach corners, use a cloth to make sure all of the dust and debris is cleaned up before the next step.

5. Bleach or Whitewash

If the natural wood is not as light as you want after you sand it, you may be able to bleach or use a whitewash finish before sealing it.

After you have sanded down the wood and removed any residue of previous sealants or stains, mix 12 ounces of oxalic acid powder to 1 gallon of hot water. Make sure you mix this inside a clean plastic bucket since the oxalic acid will react to metal, and use a wooden stick.

You can also alter the natural color of the sanded wood by using a two-part bleach solution consisting of sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide. If you opt to bleach the wood with this method, be sure to wear protective gloves and goggles so none of it gets into your eyes.

If it is not light enough after the first bleaching, do the process again until you achieve the desired lightness.

When you are done, be sure to remove all of the bleaching agents from the wood with water and a shop vac, and then sand down with fine-grit sandpaper. If you opted to use whitewash, let it completely dry between coats, and then sand down between coats or before applying a polyurethane clear sealer.

6. Light Stain

Once you have prepared the floor to the point of revealing the natural wood grain color, you might choose to lightly stain it with a pale-colored stain.

If you choose to stain the sanded wood, choose a light stain, and test the stain you want to use on a small portion of the wood since different wood accepts stain differently for a final look. Apply the stain by working along the grain.

Start staining in the farthest corner of the room, so you don’t have to walk over the stain and potentially ruin it all. Leave it to dry for at least 4 hours. Letting it dry overnight is better. Apply the stain. Since a wood stain is often used to darken and bring out the grain in wood, to go light, choose a light stain.

7. Seal with a Clear Polyurethane Sealer

The finishing touch is going to be sealing in the new lighter wood color so that it lasts for as long as another decade if well maintained. Apply two to three coats of polyurethane allowing the proper amount of time to dry between each coat.

Be sure to apply the polyurethane using even strokes. And, don’t add too much. If you are using an oil-based polyurethane sealant, it will take about 24 hours between each layer to dry. An oil-based polyurethane will change color over time.

A water-based coating will remain clear and seal in the wood color for longer.


A few things to consider when lightening wood floors include using the right tools and sandpaper grit, knowing how to maintain the newly lightened hardwood floor, and understanding realistic results.

Darker When Wet

Don’t worry if the floor looks darker than you want it to look after you’ve applied the polyurethane or light stain. It will usually look darker while it’s wet and lighten up as it dries. To avoid having to redo anything, always test a small section of the floor before applying anything to the entire hardwood floor.

Sanding Between Coats

You will only need to sand between coats if you are using a water-based sealer. If you do sand between coats, always follow up with a tack cloth to pick up minute particles and leave it smooth before adding a new layer of coating.

However, to be sure, always follow the manufacturer’s suggestions and directions for use from the sealer you choose.

Proper Tools and Sanding

Use a sanding pad with different grit levels. Usually, be prepared to use three levels of sanding starting with the 60 grit, 254 microns, then 80 grit, 165 microns, and finally 100 grit, 122 microns.

You may also need:

  • A drum sander
  • A palm sander with a 60 grit, 254 microns, pad
  • Plastic scraper to remove stubborn stain
  • A drop cloth
  • Wet/dry vac or other type of vacuum
  • Broom
  • Clean cloth, sponge, or paintbrush
  • A T-Bar
  • Rubber gloves
  • Mask
  • Goggles

It is best to completely sand down to the natural wood to get the best results. However, you can gently use steel wool to help remove any existing stain. Or, you can use a furniture stripper to remove the stain.

Safety Concerns

Be sure to wear a mask to avoid inhaling wood dust or vapors. If you want, also wear goggles to protect your eyes and gloves. Additionally, if you have a central, forced air cooling or heating system in the house, turn it off so no wood dust or fumes gets blown throughout the house.

Maintaining the New Floor

Refinishing the floor every 5 to 10 years will help to keep the wood looking its best. Use mineral spirits to maintain a lighter look.

Realistic Expectations

Keep in mind that the lightest color you will be able to lighten your wood floors to will be its natural wood grain. The only exception to this rule is if you choose to bleach or whitewash the floor to make it even lighter or white.

Final Thoughts

It’s possible to change the color of hardwood floors, even to make a dark floor lighter. Before you start the process of lightening up a dark wood floor, know that it will take a lot of work and time. But, the end result will be well worth it and easy to maintain.