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Light vs. Dark Wood: Which is Best For You?

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

What are the Pros and Cons of Dark Wood Floors vs Light Wood Floors?

Hold up a white index card over half of this to shift from light to dark hardwood floors. There are several other examples throughout this article. Which do you prefer – dark or light wood? Thankfully, when it comes to hardwood floors, there is no one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer light woods, and some people prefer dark woods. The right for your friend may not be right for you or your home. And, if it is your house, you get to choose.

No floor is perfect. There are trade-offs and only you can decide which factors are most important to you and your family.

Here are some factors to consider when choosing the color of your hardwood floors:

  • What do you like, what do you prefer?

  • What is the style of your home? What is the style of your decor?

  • Do you have a busy household? Do you have pets?

  • How often do you clean? How particular are you when it comes to dirt showing?

  • What are the sizes of the rooms? How much light do you get? What colors are the walls (and/or will you be changing the paint color)?

  • What goes best with your furniture? What color are your cabinets goes best with them?

But just because dark is in, it may not necessarily be the best choice for you. There are pros and cons to both light and dark hardwoods, so read on.

Is it Easier to Keep Dark or Light Hardwood Clean? Light hardwood floors have a distinct advantage here. They tend to show less dirt than dark hardwood floors. But, if you love dark wood, go for a dark color that is slightly lighter (e.g., choose Jacobean rather than ebony, or dark walnut over Jacobean). Also, choose a satin finish as this shows dirt, scratches, dents, and imperfections less, regardless of stain color (it is also more stylish).

And, of course, there is always the option to clean more and remove your shoes at the door. Both actions will also help you preserve your hardwood floors longer, too.

Which Will Show More Scratches – Dark or Light Wood?

All hardwood dents and scratches, but dark hardwood tends to show the scratches more. The primary reason for this is that most wood floor species are light and if you scratch through the dark colored stain, it shows more of a contrast with the wood underneath vs. a lighter colored floor.

But here is a good maintenance solution – Screen and Re-coat once every 3 to 4 years. This will give your floors an extra coat of poly and help your floors last longer.

Which Shades of Wood are Best if You Have Dogs?

Because light hardwood floors show scratches less, they are better if you have dogs (and/or a busy household). If you are staining your floors dark, you may want to consider adding an extra coat of polyurethane so that they last longer.

Will Dark Floors Make My Home Look Smaller? Will it Be Too Dark?

Dark floors do you make your space a bit smaller and light floors make the space look a bit larger. However, it is really the combo of colors on the floors and walls that give the total impression, and there is more wall space than floor space. Dark floors tend to work better in larger homes and homes with larger rooms and open floor plans.

If you prefer dark floors and are concerned that your space will look too dark, consider going lighter in the painting and consider adding overhead lighting (or lighter). Lighter window treatments and window treatments that show more windows also help as does getting a front door with glass.

If You're Going Dark, How Dark Should You Go?

This really is a matter of taste. The most popular is currently Jacobean.

The darkest you go is ebony. Sometimes ebony is not a dark as some people expect, so there is an option to do a “water pop” which darkens it a bit further (or aniline dye which gets it even darker). Because dark shows the dirt more, many professionals are opting for a 50/50 blend of ebony and Jacobean. It’s a bit darker than Jacobean, and a bit warmer than ebony.

If You are Going Light, How Light Should it Be?

Again, this is a matter of preference. Most that are going light select natural (as many like the natural color of the wood). Natural tends to hold up better (vs. a stain) and it tends to dry faster. There are options to use a water borne poly to make the floors lighter or even use a whitewash.

Which Costs More – Dark or Light Wood Floors?

This depends on whether you are doing pre-finished or refinishing existing floors. If you are installing pre-finished floors, the cost is usually the same for all colors on a board. However, prices can vary based on species as well as brand and sub-line selected.

If you are refinishing existing hardwood floors, natural is less expensive than a stain. And, if you are upgrading to whitewash or gray stains, the prices will be a bit more (both due to stain/process and type of polyurethane use. We strongly recommend Bona Traffic HD for gray or whitewashed floors.

The Impact of Pre-Finished vs Site Finished Wood When It Comes to Stain Color

If you are refinishing existing floors, the world is your oyster. Just choose your desired stain color (and test it). If, however, you are installing pre-finished hardwood floors, be careful about the micro-bevel edges.

Site finished floors are smoothed out and the stain penetrates all areas. But pre-finished wood (or factory finished) has beveled edges and often the edges will show lines where the stain has not penetrated (and you can see the underlying wood color underneath). This is not always apparent on the samples (as some samples only show one piece) and as you are looking at them up closely. When they are installed on the floor, and you view them at a standing height, you notice these more. And you notice them much more on darker floors as there is a large contrast in colors. If you are choosing natural, these are barely noticeable. So, check this out carefully.

Which Color Goes Best With Your Furniture?

Believe it or not, this is much less of an issue than most realize. Most wood floors go with most furniture. The reason is that the wood is neutral. Also, many people have different types of furniture in different rooms and even multiple wood colors and species in most rooms.

In general, most dark wood floors and most light wood floors go with most furniture. The tricky part is generally if you have red toned or mahogany furniture. These go better with brown toned floors – and often either very dark or very light. You don’t want to have floors with red tones as they may compete with your furniture, and you want the floors to complement the furniture. Also, don’t forget that you can add area rugs to help unify areas and make the colors more cohesive.

Which Color Will Go Best With Your Kitchen Cabinets

If you have hardwood in the kitchen, you’ll want to consider the color of the cabinets. If you have white cabinets, virtually any hardwood color will go. If you have a wood-colored cabinet, you’ll want to select a color with a nice contrast. Darker floors look better with lighter cabinets and lighter floors look better with darker cabinets. And be sure not to mix and match reds as these usually do not work out right.

If you are having challenges making this combo work consider refacing, replacing, or painting cabinets (even if done later) and/or consider the more extreme colors of very dark, very light, whitewashed, or gray hardwood floors.

Dark Wood Hides “Problems” Better

If your floor is old and has a bunch of imperfections (e.g., gaps in floor, water stains, knots), darker stains will cover this up better. Darker stains will camouflage stains better and the shadows of the gaps (which sometimes is due to normal expansion/contraction and other times from the wood drying out a bit after exposure for 80-100 years). Of course, if your flooring is damaged or has holes, new wood can usually be woven in for a repair, especially if it is a small area.

We hope that this has been helpful if you are planning a new hardwood flooring installation and are considering Red or White Oak. As previously stated, either is a fine choice for long-term durability and beauty. It is just a matter of taste as to which you prefer and what your overall goals are for a specific finish or look! A hardwood flooring expert can advise you as to which would be best for any color or finish.


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