Years ago, my husband and I bought our first house in Upstate New York: a 1930s cottage with small rooms, low ceilings and mediocre wood floors. I knew that the best way to lighten up the rooms and make the whole house look bigger was to paint the floors white. Our contractor expressed nervous doubt. He, like many traditionalists, thought that painting the wood – despite its inferiority – was sacrilege.
What he may not have known was that there is a long tradition of painting wood floors. Throughout the Gustavian period, from about 1780 to 1810, Swedes painted floors to mimic ornate parquetry and expensive Italian marble floors, a practice that had an added benefit: The painted floors were lighter in color, so the rooms appeared brighter, a welcome change especially during the dark Swedish winters.
Painted floors were also common in American homes during the 19th century because the paint acted as a sealant on soft pine floors, making them easy to clean and less prone to staining. But painting floors had a decorative purpose as well: Common in American homes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries were floors stenciled with intricate patterns meant to resemble expensive European wool and silk woven carpets.
We sold our cottage about seven years ago, and although my decorating taste has changed, my love of painted floors has not. In our current house, I had a more ambitious floor-painting plan, one that required a professional. My search led me to decorative painter and artist James Alan Smith, who began his career as an apprentice for the legendary muralist, decorative painter and interior designer Richard Lowell Neas. Smith teaches at the Isabel O’Neil Studio Workshop in New York and travels across the country painting floors and murals for top decorators and designers. He graciously shared some of his floor-painting tips.
Painting floors is time-consuming and takes patience. Smith cautions that the most important step in the process is waiting long enough between coats for curing.
Start by removing everything from the room. Then sand the floors. This is very messy, and although you can rent the necessary equipment, it’s worth having a professional do it. Once the floor is sanded and cleaned of dust, Smith coats the floor with a white pigmented oil-based primer and lets it cure for a day. He then applies two base coats of Benjamin Moore’s oil-based Satin Impervo in whatever color the client wishes, again allowing the paint to cure overnight between applications.
Once the floor is dry, Smith layers on whatever stencil, pattern or design the client wants using acrylic paints (his favorites are by Golden), which dry in an hour.
The easiest – and most popular – pattern for DIYers, according to Smith, is the classic checkerboard. He says the trick is to paint the checkerboard squares on a diagonal because it “hides a lot of the ins and outs, nooks and crannies, and imperfections of the room.” Painting the checkerboard on a diagonal also gives the illusion that your room is bigger by optically pushing out the walls. Smith cautions against adding a border to the room because it confines the space. It’s much better to let pattern run through the baseboard.
Smith starts the checkerboard by picking a center point in the room, which may not be the exact center. Smith says you want to play off what you feel is the center of the room, which is typically related to the main architectural element, such as a fireplace.
Smith marks that point on the floor with intersecting horizontal and vertical lines. Then, using a square template made from mat board, he works from the center point, marking squares on the floor in pencil. Smith uses square templates that range from 16 to 22 inches, but he never uses a 12-inch square – he says that size ends up looking like linoleum.
Once the checkerboard is outlined, Smith uses low-tack 3M blue tape to tape off alternating squares. (Smith suggests taping off only as much as you can paint in a day because he says it’s better to not leave the tape on overnight, as it can still pull up the paint.) He then paints alternating squares in whatever color the client has chosen.
The final step, whether you are painting a solid floor or a patterned floor, is to apply a water-based polyurethane. Smith suggests letting the polyurethane cure 24 hours before light traffic and seven days before moving furniture back into the room.
Painted floors are no different from any finished floor in terms of durability – they are covered in poly. Of course, if you drag a heavy piece of furniture across a painted floor, it will scratch the paint, but the same would happen if you had regular wood-finished floors. And many who choose this look like that they show some wear – it adds to the charm.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”
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