Experts weigh in on the dos and don’ts of painted floors, plus share top patterns and colors to try.

By Elizabeth Sweet
November 05, 2020
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While popular in today's farmhouse-style homes, painted floors are anything but new. In fact, they can be seen in historic American homes as far back as the 18th century, where painted floors were favored for their cost-effectiveness, durability, and beauty. The rustic finish was often found in New England, along the East Coast, and throughout rural farmhouses across the United States.

Today's painted floors suit a range of design tastes and add a sense of rustic charm, traditional elegance, or playful whimsy depending on the style of home. Plus, floor painting can be a wonderful way to add character, especially for those hoping to cut costs. “Painting floorboards can bring in a lovely charm to a room and is great for those with a tighter budget,” says Patrick O’Donnell, Farrow & Ball’s international brand ambassador.

If you've ever wondered if your floors could benefit from a paint makeover, read on for must-know situations when painting floors is a do and when it's a definite don’t. We reached out to paint professionals and interiors designers to help make your choice easier.

Credit: John Bessler

Painting Floors: When It's a Do

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According to Mike Mundwiller, field development manager at Benjamin Moore, proper surface preparation is essential. “Particularly with floors, there can be underlying issues that will not only affect the performance of the paint, but also the durability and ‘health’ of the substrate over time,” he says. Paint professionals can help identify and repair issues, plus suggest the best products for your project.

If professional help for the entire project is not in the budget, hire a pro for the preparation process alone, and complete the painting yourself. “Preparation is the most important part of the job,” says Julie Lawrence, decorative painter for Chicago’s DiVinci Painters. “When you hear about painted floors that didn’t last, you know they didn’t prepare correctly.”

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Interior designer and preservationist Olivia Brock of Torrance Mitchell Designs has painted floors in her own home and for clients. Her advice? If you own a historic home, keep the original floors as is. Instead, opt for painting a room where the flooring has been more recently installed. “Often if you own a historic house that has beautiful heart pine floors, it has an addition or a section where previous owners have replaced the floors at some point,” she says. "In this case, painting the newer floor is a great option so you don’t have to spend the money to replace them.” Consider a forgiving and durable shade of gray for painted floors that pair well with a mix of contemporary and historical accents.

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If your goal is to brighten a dark room, white floor paint creates a sense of height and expansiveness in a space. “Use floor paint to help create more light in a poorly lit room,” says O’Donnell. This reliable solution is ideal for tight quarters and rooms with few windows. O’Donnell recommends painting the floor of a north-facing room a white or subtle off-white shade to help bounce light around the space.

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Occasionally, wood floors have been refinished many times already. If they are too thin to refinish once more, and you’re struggling with their current appearance, paint can preserve original elements, which Brock refers to as a home’s living history. “If the finish or color is difficult for you to live with, I might advocate painting it, because what I would never want to advocate for is ripping out original floors if you can avoid it, even if there’s not that much left,” she says. “Any opportunity to keep things in their original place, I try to.” Try a decorative diamond pattern that uses your existing wood finish as the second accent shade. This allows the beauty of your original planks to shine through while reinventing the style.

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Some new construction can lack character and a sense of history. To add interest, a traditional painted floor pattern with a modern twist is a great solution. If you’re nervous about committing to a large, colorful design, try a border around the perimeter of a room or a subtle checkerboard pattern to start. “Painted floors are a wonderful way to frame a much loved rug with the added bonus of not having to paint the whole floor,” O’Donnell says “This means less hard labor and commitment.” Enlist the help of an interior designer or decorative painter to reimagine a historic floor design that jives with your home’s architectural style.

Credit: Courtesy of Benjamin Moore

Painting Floors: When It's a Don't

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It might go without saying, correcting structural issues takes precedent over flooring aesthetics. “If a floor has significant damage, such as damage from water [or] wood-boring insects that the homeowner cannot confidently repair, we wouldn’t advise simply painting over it,” says Mundwiller. “Anything below the surface needs to be in good condition in order for paint to adhere, cure, and last the way it is intended.” Consult a professional’s help to rectify such problems prior to painting floors.

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Painting your floors is a permanent choice, not a temporary fix. “In general, a painted floor is not reversible; your floors only have so many times that they can be sanded down,” says Lawrence. “You could change a painted floor by painting over it again, should you want to do that in the future. But it is difficult to go back to the original wood once it’s been painted.” She suggests creating a pattern with a subtle wood stain as opposed to painting if you’re nervous about a big commitment.

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Painted floors, especially tile, won’t be perfect, and might not be a long-term solution. “The expectations for painting floor tiles should be low, being that you typically can’t open up the tile to accept a coating," says Mundwiller. "However, for low foot traffic floors, success has been achieved by thoroughly cleaning and using Benjamin Moore Floor & Patio."

Lawrence reinforces how important it is to prepare the surface professionally prior to painting, particularly for tile, stone, and brick. “Ten to twenty years ago, the products didn’t exist to properly paint tile, stone, and brick. I would have been very nervous painting them, and I would have always thought of it as a temporary solution,” she says. “But the binding agents have improved. I paint wood floors more than anything else, but all surfaces are really stable if prepared correctly.”

Painting floor tile successfully requires professional grout cleaning (using degreasers). Ensure that you’ve prepared the surface adequately prior to painting and sealing, or you can expect eventual chipping.

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Lawrence says decorative painters can tell if a floor has been a DIY project because the scale is often too small for the space. “You can really tell a DIY floor by the scale being too timid, and it just doesn’t work,” she says. “This is why we do large sample boards at DiVinci so people can actually experience the scale in person." To get it right, cut your own sample boards to-scale out of cardboard pieces (or use tape) and view them in the room you plan to paint. Increase the size slightly for a result that feels fresh.

Credit: Courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Floor Paint Colors and Patterns to Try

When it comes to painting your floors, the color and design possibilities are endless. Plus, they offer cost savings. “It’s such an affordable option for a big design impact in your house, so if you don’t have a big budget right now, it’s a great way to have a huge impact,” says Lawrence.

For inspiration, do your research, but don’t just look for recent projects. “There are so many good references out there, and it’s not just all modern,” Lawrence says. “There is a vast historical record to research, too.” If you love your furnishings and plan to keep them, consider the colors and color combinations within your space. And make sure to test, test, test! With something as permanent as painted floors, it’s important to take your time to get it exactly right. Conduct multiple tests in the space you plan to redesign.

Design-wise, Lawrence is seeing an abundance of hazy neutrals. To capture this aesthetic, try Skylight by Farrow & Ball, or Benjamin Moore’s Ice Cap or Collingwood. “The softer Swedish palette is really nice because it’s beautiful and hides dirt," she says. "If there is a footprint on the floor, it’s less noticeable because the colors are visually soft." For fans of blue, O’Donnell recommends Parma Gray and Cook’s Blue in Farrow & Balls’s modern eggshell finish, which was developed to stand up to years of family messes, bumps, and scrapes.

For larger rooms, a pattern with multiple colors can be a showstopper. “If you have an open expanse, try creating a diamond design of two colors for a truly bespoke look, although this will require a little patience and some basic understanding of mathematics,” O’Donnell says. A contrasting checkerboard pattern in black and white is a reliable classic, as well. Try Tricorn Black and Pure White by Sherwin-Williams for this style.

Credit: Gordon Beall

Painted Floor Care Tips

According to Lawrence, the biggest myth about painted floors is that they are delicate. “People are not used to walking on paint,” she says. “Of course, they could be fragile if not done correctly, but if they are properly done and maintained, you shouldn’t have to babysit them.”

However, painted floors can become slippery after painting with certain coatings. “Coatings can cause the floor to be slippery when wet," says Mundwiller. "Factor that into your decisions and if this is a concern, use an anti-slip additive in the paint."

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