What if I don't want to use polyurethane on my hardwood floor?
In Europe, they have been using penetrating finishes as an alternative to varnishes and polyurethanes for years. This product type has been slower to reach our shores. But we were getting sick (literally) and tired of the solvents and stink of conventional hardwood flooring finishes. So, back in 2008, with much hesitation and skepticism, Pete's began to explore options in the vast field of hardened oil and hardwax oil finshes.
All we wanted was a zero-VOC finish! Was that asking too much?
Apparently it was.
Zero VOC means no Volatile Organic Compounds – those long-chain hydrocarbons that contribute to interior air pollution and can combine with nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone – are released as the finish cures.
A zero-VOC finish is hard to find in the floor coating industry and we had been searching for one for a while. It’s not exactly clear why the floor finishing business is so far behind the paint industry – VOC-free paints have been available in mainstream retail for years.
Flooring finishes have relied heavily on those volatile petroleum-distillate-based solvents that keep the solids and resins in solution until applied but evaporate quickly to allow the finish to dry and cure in a reasonable time.
But mineral spirits and petroleum distillates release high levels of VOCs that can cause eye, skin, nose and throat irritation, and they are neurotoxins that may depress or damage the brain and nervous system. Short-term exposure to VOCs can cause dizziness, headache, drowsiness and nausea.
While you can use a respirator to minimize your risk during the actual application of these finishes, the VOCs can linger in upholstery fabrics or curtains and even in the air after the finishes have dried.
Even waterborne finishes are not completely VOC-free and can also release unspecified amounts of ammoniates and biocides as they cure. So we really needed to have another option for our customers who are pregnant or respiratorily sensitive.
Can you see why we wanted another option? This class of solvent-free, oil finishes seemed to present a possible solution.
But we were skeptical, not just because these products were new to us, but because these finishes promise protection using only a very small amount of product on the wood. To us, this was unheard of! Current floor finishing wisdom says that the best way to protect wood is to encase it in multiple layers of tough plastic – that is why polyurethane is so adored! But hardened oils work differently: they are driven into the floor and harden and strengthen the wood itself; there is minimal build on top of your floor. The very notion of whisper-thin layer of oil being able to protect wood not only from spills, but from the grinding onslaught of a Minnesota winter was, frankly, outlandish.
The only reason we were willing to give it a chance was because we needed a zero-VOC finish option to offer customers, especially those who were pregnant or who had chemical sensitivities. But, the notion of a finish with solids tough enough to resist traffic, but without equally tough, toxic solvents seemed too good to be true, so our expectations were low.
So, we tested these products as hard as we could. We spilled red wine. We left wet metal on them overnight. We poured coffee on them. We burned them with fire. We applied them under rolling chairs, in doorways, and all the places where customers stand with their salty, wet boots. Maintenance guidelines? We ignored them. We were ruthless.
These products should have failed miserably.
But they didn’t.
And we now carry three different brands of penetrating finish and they now make up over half of all the finish we sell.
Penetrating finishes are not categorically better than polyurethane, but they do solve some of the inherent problems of that type of finish.
Here’s what we’ve learned about why these hardened oils will hold their own against polyurethane and are here to stay:
1. The safety factor: hardwax oils do not contain toxic solvents and are extremely low in Volatile Organic Compounds.
Hardwax oils are far safer for both respiratory and neural systems, especially during application. Yes, even for pregnant people, babies, and other beings with tiny lungs- like gerbils and Chihuahuas.
Extremely low odor! Even in winter, hardwax oils are so inoffensive that you don’t have to move out of your home during coating.
They do not promote the formation of ozone in our atmosphere (all VOC-containing finishes contribute to ozone formation).
Hardwax oils are food safe for countertops; some brands are even cut-safe for cutting boardsHardwax oils are extraordinarily tough for their thickness.
These finishes are a fraction of the thickness of a conventional polyurethane finish, but if you refresh your hardwax oil just once a year, and it will deliver the performance of a conventional multi-coat poly or varnish. Yes, the hardened oil involves more maintenance, but it is a small price to pay for a VOC-free and solvent free experience.
Excellent wear and chemical resistance. But, no, you cannot let your pets pee repeatedly on hardwax oils and expect them to hold up. Heck, you can’t do that with any finish.
2. Repairing isolated wear spots, stains, or wayward cross-grain scratches is much easier.
The biggest weakness of the conventional multi-coat finishes is how hard they are to spot-fix. But seamless repairs are much easier with hardwax oils precisely because they are thinner and don’t build – the repairs blend more smoothly. It’s like ninja restoration.
3. Hardwax oils don't get more yellow over time
All modern build finishes (varnishes, as well as oil- and water-based polyurethanes) have either acrylic or petroleum-derived solids in them, all of which take on a faint yellowish patina over time. It happens slowly and isn’t discernible until finishes are about 8 years old, but once it develops, it can’t be removed without completely sanding the finish and replacing it with new. Recoating those floors can restore sheen and fill in small scratches, but it can’t remove the “Dinge Factor!”
4. Hardwax oils don’t look like plastic. Because they aren’t plastic.
We don’t mean any disrespect to plastic, but there are some finishes out there that take beautiful, natural wood and make it look like Formica. What is the point having wood if you can’t tell? Hardwax oils leave wood with a matte sheen and a velvety texture. And because hardwax oils are naturally matte, they don’t need to add flattening agents to their finishes. Flatteners are what make conventional satin polyurethanes look slightly opaque and milky, especially after multiple coats. Hardwax oils consistently stay transparent over time.
Wait, are you saying that Pete’s thinks hardened oils are BETTER than polyurethane?
Penetrating finishes are not categorically better than polyurethanes, but polyurethanes are far from perfect. Penetrating finishes are a legitimate alternative to build finishes because they solve some of the problems (toxic solvents, long wait times for coating, poor repair ability) that make polyurethanes difficult.
But we did learn that hardened oils have limits. You can’t leave ammonia on them for any length of time. Mole sauce and turmeric will stain them. Gravel and sand will scratch them quickly. And if you don’t reapply the oil in heavy traffic areas at least every two years, you will see a walking path. But, unlike polyurethane, we could spot repair most of these problems without leaving evidence of the repair.
The overall takeaway: the limits of these finishes were far higher than we expected, especially when we followed the manufacturers’ application and maintenance guidelines. And today fully half of our finish sales are some form of a natural hardened oil.
There are dozens of brands of hardwax oil out there. How do you know which one to choose?
Some brands and colors are easier to repair than others. Some colors are more difficult to apply and take longer to cure, some brands last longer because they can be double coated. But we’ve made all the mistakes and we know where all the pitfalls are and we can tell you if this type of product will work for your project, and which brand is best suited to your needs.
Here are the three products we love. We love them equally, but for different reasons. Like you do your children.
Pallman Magic Oil