How to Make a Plywood Floor Look Like a Hardwood Floor

Perhaps you just removed your old carpeting in the hopes of finding vintage, restorable hardwood, only to reveal a plywood subfloor instead. Or maybe you'd like to convert an attic space and don't quite have the budget this year for hardwood flooring. A solution for situations like this is to sand the plywood and paint it to look like hardwood. The concept is simple enough, but the results depend entirely on execution. Luckily, you'll find tools to simplify every step of the process.

Get Ready

Before you can fill and sand the plywood -- the procedures that will probably affect the quality of the finished job the most -- you need to:

  • Remove all staples and fasteners left over from carpeting.
  • Sink any screws or nails that protrude.
  • Bolster the number of 1 3/4-inch screws holding the plywood to the joists -- especially at the corners of the sheets. You don't want lifting or squeaking to ruin the hardwood effect.
  • Sink every screw and nail at least 1/16 inch into the wood so you can cover the head with filler.

Fill Joints, Gaps and Wood Grain

You need to undertake two separate filling procedures.

Filling Gaps and Joints

Use epoxy wood filler to fill gaps between sheets of plywood. This type of filler bonds well to wood and won't crack; apply it with a putty knife and scrape off the excess before it sets. Sand it flat with a palm sander before moving on to the next filling procedure.

Filling the Wood Grain

Although you want the finished floor to resemble wood grain, leaving the plywood grain exposed will belie the painted effect you create because the grain of some sheets runs perpendicular to the the painted grain. To hide the plywood grain, mix dilute floor-leveling compound and spread it over the whole floor, using a 6-inch drywall knife. Scrape it as flat as possible, then let it set.

Sand the Plywood

You won't be able to get the plywood very flat with a hand sander, and you'll strain your back and knees trying. The ideal tool for the job is an orbital flooring sander. Make one pass with 100-grit paper to remove excess leveling compound and filler. Apply more filler where needed, then make another pass with 120-grit paper. If you're going for the ultimate results, make a final pass with 150-grit paper.

Paint and Finish

You can use a handy rocking tool to paint the wood grain, but before you use it, you need to paint on a base coat. Two coats of clear finish will protect the painted grain.

Step 1 Apply the Base Coat

Brush or roll a coat of floor-grade primer to seal the grain and prevent bleed-through, wait for it to dry, then apply a coat of floor enamel. Choose the color most prevalent in the type of wood you want to replicate; for example, yellow-brown for oak or reddish-brown for mahogany.

Step 2 Draw Planks

Measure the width of the rocking tool -- that is the ideal width for the "planks." Draw a series of lines that far apart, stretching from one wall to another, to simulate real wood planks, using a straightedge and a pencil. Draw perpendicular lines across each row to denote end joints; make sure the joints on adjacent rows are staggered at least 6 inches from each other for realism.

Step 3 Gouge the Lines and Stain the Floor

Gouge along each line with the corner of a putty knife to create a depression. Use the straightedge when you do this to ensure a straight gouge mark. When all the lines have been gouged, wipe wood stain that is slightly darker than the base color over the floor with a rag. It will settle into the gouge marks to make the lines look like realistic joints. Wait for the stain to dry before proceeding.

Step 4 Make a Glaze

Mix equal parts of latex floor enamel with a color that matches the grain of the wood you're trying to replicate with acrylic glaze. The mixture should be translucent.

Step 5 Paint the Grain

Apply a coat of glaze to a section of the floor, using a paint roller. Drag a plastic comb -- which comes with the wood graining kit -- lengthwise along plank to form distinct lines of glaze. Draw the rocker along each "plank," rocking as you go, to redistribute the glaze and produce the wavy lines characteristic of wood grain. If you like, you can repeat this procedure with a different glaze for a more realistic effect. Wait for the first glaze to dry before you do this.

Step 6 Apply Clear Finish

Apply two coats of clear polyurethane to protect your handiwork. Scuff the first coat lightly with 150-grit sandpaper before applying the second coat.