Hardwood Flooring
Hardwood Flooring

Why floor finish VOC is a poor evaluation tool

I want to explain a critical item regarding site finished hardwood flooring… Despite all of the brilliant marketing campaigns by finish manufacturers, some finishes ARE GOING TO FAIL when you partner them with a poorly acclimated wood floor of the wrong species. A while ago there was an article written by the NWFA about white lines syndrome in which multiple contributors weighed in on the issue prior to the release of the article. In the end, what came of the article in my opinion is that the industry sort of acknowledged the issue, but didn’t really talk about the repercussions of how floor finishes need to be left alone by the ever tightening standards of the EPA on VOC. Just read the comments from real people in the industry and contractors who have been flustered over this issue and you will feel the real impact.

Architectural coatings account for less than 5% of the total VOC emissions worldwide according to this PDF.

Why are we attacking this side of things? So that other pollutants (from the gasoline consuming and hydrocarbon emitting hybrids people drive) can flow freely as a part of the bureaucratic emissions trading process. That’s right, if you are worried about the environment then cut your driving by 20% and you’ll be doing something good for the environment. Either way, just consider that wildfires (which we cannot predict) release lots of VOC.



Let’s not greenwash here folks, removing the solvents from floor finish has decreased coating elasticity and adhesion potential. This is why white lines claims are on the rise and will continue, because few contractors are willing to change into a finish system that is well married to the wood floor installation scenario. In the last blog post I discussed how not all wood species are equally stable. Rift and quartered white oak flooring is considerably more stable than exotic species such as cumaru. SO why would you apply a coating with poor elasticity to a wood species that is prone to significant seasonal movement? I’m calling out contractors here and also homeowners who are blindly sold on particular finish systems with investigating all finishing options.

Floor finishes fall within two arenas:

Penetrating finishes– These are traditionally known as being high VOC finishes. Recently there have been many new low VOC hardening oils gaining popularity such as Rubio Monocoat, Pallman Magic Oil, OSMO Poly-X etc… Penetrating finishes bind down into the grain of the wood and protect the wood in this way. Penetrating finishes are a great match for wood species that are prone to seasonal movement because they are considerably less likely to experience white lines syndrome (almost no cases at all).

Film finishes-Wood floor finishes that are applied to a floor and form one continuous protective “sheet” such as traditional oil modified polyurethane and waterbased wood floor finishes are in this category. These finishes CAN do a great job protecting your floor and will serve you well. However, when they are applied improperly or subjected to significant seasonal movement, then they will exhibit white lines syndrome. Another factor impacting film finishes is solvent trapping from too many successive finish coats with inadequate ventilation can make coatings brittle and greatly reduce adhesion.

This is simply my pragmatic experience in play coupled with research online. I want to warn consumers to become much better at questioning the type of finish being applied to your floor if your floor is a trick new wood species that is to be finished on site.

Green Blog : Evaluating Production Sources

Green Blog : Evaluating Production Sources.

Here is a great article by Elizabeth Baldwin. Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé’s “Special Skills” section includes “the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion.” She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring’s (metrofloors.com) ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer)

Home Depot fools you once again!

What you don’t know sometimes can surprise you.

I was discussing with a distributor colleague the other day about how amazed I was with the cost of the stair treads that you can purchase at Home Depot and Lowe’s. He informed me that the treads are a veneer and not solid oak and I was blown away.






Take a look at the profile from the side and you will see exactly what I am talking about. The tread on the left is solid oak the one on the right is an oak veneer. My other issue is with the China factor regarding material quality and sustainability.

Regarding sustainability: Oak doesn’t grow in China so the oak veneer had to be be shipped to China for manufacturing (for cheap) and then the tread is shipped back to the US for purchase. How GREEN is that?

Regarding longevity (life-cycle analysis): The veneer tread can likely be sanded 3 times before you burn through the veneer. My other issue is that poorly glued veneer can de-laminate and who wants a staircase that is falling apart. Let’s call the tread on the right what it is… JUNK.

The cost for a high quality staircase is in the labor for installation and finishing. The treads really only represent about 20-25% of the cost on average. If we were to estimate installing a standard staircase with the veneered treads, then the savings would be about $250-300. That’s a rather paltry number considering that an average staircase starts at about $2500 and goes up from there depending on what features you want.

Please investigate your projects from all dimensions, from the contractor to the materials used for the project.


Clearing up the confusion in reclaimed

Often I get inquiries from people interested in “reclaimed” floors. As the conversation goes, they have a notion that the material will be cheaper in cost because it is reclaimed. Regarding my definition of reclaimed, I would say give the following:

Reclaimed flooring– material that has been provided from a source such as a barn, old building, or riverbottom (sunken logs) and has been milled into flooring.

Salvaged flooring– flooring that has been removed from a house or gymnasium and later gets re-installed in a different building or home.

Here are a few things to note:

Reclaimed flooring requires someone to go extract the material from one location and sometimes this can be difficult (underwater logging) and milled into flooring. At best, the cost as equal to but usually double the cost of traditional material because of the extra effort to recover the material that gets milled into flooring.

Salvaged flooring is typically picked up from a source where someone donates the material after removing it from a home in order to make way for new floor coverings. Unless the person removing the material is a specialist, the integrity of the flooring is usually compromised. I’ve also previously written about the amount of wear layer lost to the “over/underwood” effect of salvaged flooring.

If you’re looking for the cheap route, then the odds are less in favor of finding cheap reclaimed flooring.

Who is providing your hardwood flooring?

In a recent discussion with a colleague he was talking with me about another retailer in town doing some “mystery” shopping at a competitor. The mystery shopper (another competing retailer) continued to drill the salespeople as to how they got their prices SO low. Apparently, the prices were at a level that were untouchable by any other supplier around.

Here’s the catch… The retailer is a storefront for the product manufacturer straight from China. That’s right, you’re buying direct from China and every single dollar spent goes directly back to them. That is pretty lousy for enriching the local economics.

When we talk about sustainablity we have to admit that product source is one part of the equation as well as economics. I won’t go into the whole quality issue, but let’s just say that the “mill direct” product is quite inferior to traditional solid hardwood flooring, or even a high quality engineered floor.

Don’t say you care about the environment if you’re having throw away products installed into your home. Our previous blog and video illustrate what a throw away product looks like.

Become a detective when you are buying a new product. You are welcome to email or call me if you have a question about whether you are buying junk. Let’s take back the quality that we so rightfully deserve in buying hardwood flooring.

Happy New Year!

OSMO hardwax…So what is it?

One thing I have observed over the years in hardwood flooring is that a number of floor finish manufacturers are exceptional at marketing and miserable at doing adequate quality control of a product prior to release. It can end up a little frustrating as a contractor, especially regarding the waterborne finish market.

OSMO Poly-X Oil is a product that I have seen stand the test of time. This product is in a class of floor finishes known as hardening oils. Essentially these products all integrate deep into the fibers of the flooring and cure and harden within the floor. The oils are very high solids (usually 90% or greater) and essentially fill all voids between the wood fibers. The appearance of the finished floor is very matte and “real” looking as opposed to conventional floor finishes.

The Good News about these finishes is:

  • They are very low in VOC (Volatile Organic Compunds) which is nice for returning to your home after the refinishing process is completed
  • The cure time is very rapid. Most of the finishes are able to be walked on and have furniture applied within 12-24 hours. In fact hardening oils are a great choice for commercial applications such as bars and restaurants because of the turnaround time.
  • Improved slip resistance is a less mentioned benefit, but still great for anyone concerned about slipping on a hardwood floor.

With the continued push towards lower VOC products, we actually are in support of products such as OSMO as opposed to waterborne finishes. This is primarily because unlike waterborne finishes, hardening oils are not prone to white lines syndrome. This makes them a much better candidate for radiant flooring, which can tend to exacerbate seasonal movement in certain flooring products thus increasing the odds of white lines syndrome.

Prefinished handscraped floors ruined? Maybe not

One of my primary objectives as a hardwood flooring contractor is to blog about my field in a very practical manner. In order to have a high value in my opinion, most hardwood flooring materials must be durable AND serviceable. If you purchased a new car and drove it for three years and it broke down, would you haul it away and buy a new one? In most cases the answer is no. You would take the car to a mechanic and pay for a repair and continue to drive the car. Then why would you purchase a floor that could be used only for a few years and then torn out and thrown away?

We recently were contacted to address a badly worn pre-finished hand-scraped floor. The house was located on the lake in Lake Oswego, OR and had seen a great deal of traffic. There were a couple of other hardwood flooring contractors who had talked with the customer as well. They all suggested that the only measure was to sand the flooring completely flat and finish the floor. The homeowner wanted to preserve the integrity of the flooring.

Our proposal was to re-handscrape the floor and hand-brush the finish on the floor. After an initial very light sanding with a machine, the remainder of the job was done the old-fashioned way using scrapers and sandpaper. As you can see in this photo there is a lot of remaining finish in difficult to access locations.

The end result of this story was that the homeowner received exactly what they wanted for their floor. There are two cautions that I must make in closing the blog.

1) Maintenance-It was evident to me upon seeing the floor initially that the first homeowner never groomed the nails of their dogs. $30 a month for pet grooming x 12 months a year = $360. A pretty cheap cost compared to the cost of the refinishing process.

2) Cost– This floor cost approximately twice the normal cost of a standard hardwood floor refinish. The labor of the project was tremendous and very detailed and reflected in the price. I would equate this floor to buying a nice Mercedes or Audi. They are beautiful cars, but the service for these cars is costly and necessary for ownership.

When you purchase a floor, besides appearance your second question should be how serviceable the floor is. The durability is a factor of your own care for the floor just as much as the finish.

FSC versus true sustainability

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is a hot ticket item right now. It’s a pretty sweet concept regarding what it has done for educating countries globally about proper forestry. The essence of FSC relies in “chain of custody”, which in flooring basically means the people have are able to know exactly what tree in a specific forest created the boards in the floor. They can track where the wood was warehoused, etc… The process provides a real accountability for the logging industry in countries that used to clear cut and sell cheap flooring.

Let’s look closer at this though and look at the flipside.

1) The record keeping and data load from such a process is quite intense. It creates a demand for electronics and e-waste is  one of our biggest global threats.

2) Warehouses that distribute FSC certified material have to house the material in a separate location from non-certified material, thus increasing the footprint of commercial spaces in our community. Yet, we’re all complaining America is running out of farmland.

3) The FSC does regular site audits (by third parties) of all points within a chain of custody, thus requiring fossil fuels to be burned in order to get an auditor to and from the site.

Wanna read more about the other side of FSC then go here.

Sustainability is truly independent of standards set by a well marketed non-profit. It relies more on the measure of local economics, carbon footprint, and life-cycle analysis of a product or process. Flooring products from foreign countries that abide by arbitrarily governed associations don’t put money into the pockets of our domestic population and they require additional fossil fuel expenditure to transport. That’s why LEED gets it right because they give scores to building projects based a series of qualifications, some of which factor the origination point of building materials to the project location.

Ask any scientist and they will tell you that the proving or dis-proving of a hypothesis is given significant weight when you bring together multiple lines of evidence in the experimental data. I am not suggesting FSC is an evil entity by any means. On  the contrary they have done great things for education of forest management for countries with little to no understanding of these principles. I am suggesting that  granting the term “green” or “sustainable” to a product because it carries  the FSC label is simply a politically correct form of greenwashing that adds additional cost to products if you do not consider other factors, particularly life cycle analysis and local economic benefits.