2023 National Wood Floor Trade show Predictions and Insights!

“Do people even go to trade shows anymore?”

It seemed like a very old-fashioned, beforetimes thing to do, going to the national convention of the National Wood Flooring Association. But this year’s expo was in Milwaukee, easy driving distance for Pete’s. And we’ve been in need of an infusion of fresh thoughts and new ideas. How bad could it be?

Turns out, it was mostly good. Here are the highlights, lowlights, and takeaways in no particular order:

1. Finish manufacturers are worried about toxic solvents.

This falls in the “good” category – we should hope they’re worried about it. But California recently removed the exemption that allowed higher VOC products to be sold, as long as they were packaged in quarts. That has removed California completely from the sale of any floor finish with more than 350 g/L of VOCs.

And while plenty of protective topcoats meet this criteria, NONE of the conventional wood stains do.

So at least three finish manufacturers (and we have our eye on the Pallmann version which has less that 50g/L VOC wow) introduced much lower-VOC floor stain products. To make matters even better, they have intentionally formulated them for application with a floor buffer, with longer working time, and less tendency to lap.

Normally, Pete’s doesn’t want to encourage DIYers to stain floors because stain is a PAIN. But these new products were designed to make the process easier and less harmful to the end user and the environment and we’re here for that. Nevermind that Waterlox’s TruTone product had already been doing this for a decade.

2. Speaking of Waterlox…

We’ve always thought Waterlox was one of the coolest, American-made family business around. But we got to have dinner with the President and founder, Kellie Schnaffner and she is even more badass than we realized.

She ran the Waterlox booth at the trade show solo. And she’s the one who negotiates with their tung oil supplies in China and Uraguay, and fixes the ancient elevator in their c.1920 paint factory building. Where they boil their tung oil varnish in 200 gallon batches? And did you know they used Waterlox to coat the East Room of the White House?

3. Rubio is getting some SHEEN!

It isn’t even available to the public yet, but Rubio is about to introduce an optional topcoat layer for customers who are not as fond of the uber-matte look. Look out polyurethane, anything you can do, Rubio might be able to do better. 

4. The floor trend predictions aren’t very trendy.

We were so excited for this session. We truly believed it would be presented by someone in touch with (or slightly ahead of) the current tone and temperature of interior design, but with a nod to to the challenges of the actual flooring contractor.

I think we got about 25% of what we hoped for.

According to the trend-predictor hired by the NWFA, the pandemic left us all feeling untethered and drifting.

The upheaval of the last three years makes us crave balance, order, and resilience. Apparently, bringing nature inside in the form of hardwood floors is the antidote for what ails us. The current trend for “natural-looking” wood grain with a limited palette soothes our attention fatigue and grounds our weary souls.

In other words: we’re shook and we don’t want anything really new or jarring.

Fair enough. This seems to be a reasonable explanation for exactly what we’ve been hearing from our customers for the past three years, which is, “Give us wide white oak and make it look as bare as possible.”

But can’t we look just a little farther into the crystal ball? The masses aren’t going to be pandemic-depressed forever and we need to be ready for what’s next.

So, here’s Pete’s hot take on what the trend oracle had to say:

First, you don’t need white oak to make you feel safe. Any wood floor, left as plain as possible, should be able to create that same sense of nature and well-being. So, should you be trying to bleach or whiten your existing red oak floors to make them look like white oak?

We suggest no. There is nothing “natural” about using multiple coats of lye or peroxide to whiten an already beautiful wood floor.

For sure greys are out of the picture – they are so 2008-financial-crisis. But the golden oaks of the 80s are NOT coming back yet. Yellows are right out. But clear coats or even soft, cool browns that help accentuate grain are right on or slightly ahead of trend.

What’s in is accepting the wood you already have or you can afford, without forcing it to look like something else.

5. Customers love Rubio Monocoat, but they are still confused about how to maintain it.

We thought it was just us.

I talked to at least two other contractors who love Rubio as much as we do, but struggle to get customers to understand its maintenance. We hear you.

Rubio in kitchens just needs an application of Renew BEFORE it starts to look thin. Maybe Rubio needs some kind of reward system for preventive maintenance. Earning badges? Helmet stickers like the NFL uses?

Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus 2C Colors plus Pure, 20ML, 100ML, 350ML and 1.3L

6. High-end floor guys (alas, most of them are still guys) really care about color.

I attended a mind-blowing breakout session on color theory and stain matching for contractors. Normally, flooring contractors aren’t on the color/design end of the flooring project. But this audience was on-the-edge-of-theirs seats riveted to this explanation of how color theory impacts their business.

Getting the right color for a customer is clearly a challenge for this industry, but nobody was complaining.

There were dozens of actionable suggestions:

Metasmerism is how a different a color can look at different times a day and under different light sources and makes sampling floor color a nightmare. I think just having a word for it makes it easier to bring it up with your customer. And one way to correct for it is to have a variable light source (did you know there’s a bulb with an app for that?) in your shop for sample making.

Making a separate sample that includes minor imperfections that might also show up in the finished floor helps with expectation control.

Did you know there is a test for color “pitch?” Just like with sound, there are people with eyes that are more attuned to nuances of color. The Farnswoth Munsell 100 Hue test can identify them – the contractors that were giving the seminar routinely administer this test to their employees to make sure their field samplers have the “eye.”

Old finishes and old wood can be particularly hard to match. The phrase they used to describe it was “dialing in the color” which was a great reminder that matching can require layers and stages; it is rarely just getting the right mix. Sometimes you have to bleach the wood, stain the bleached wood, AND tint the final coat to match the complexity of an aged finish or wood type.

7. Milwaukee is a great place for a conference.

This was the a button next to an escalator in the Milwaukee Convention Center. So you could listen to polka music as you ascended. Because, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee is the perfect town for a trade show. Clean and easy to walk around. Shout out to the gallery at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. And the Harley Davidson Museum – go there, even if you think you don’t care about motorcycles. You care about uplifting stories about the American Dream and mind-blowing industrial design. And you should eat at the Swingin’ Door Exchange in the Milwaukee chamber of Commerce Building

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