Water Based Floor Finish

When you’re finishing your own wood floors, you’ve got a few options as to floor finish types–but one tends to stand out:  the water based floor finish.

After all, finishing wood floors is a messy, smelly process that often forces homeowners out of their houses for days at a time…so why make things harder by using icky,  hard-to-use oil-based or Swedish finishes?

Water based…sounds simple and pure, huh?

As with anything good, there is a downside.  But let’s look at both sides and let you decide.

Water Based Floor Finish

Water Based Finishes – Good

  • Easy clean-up due to the water base.  Cleans with water.
  • Low smell.
  • Simple application with a lambswool pad and stick–a tool that’s easy to obtain and cheap from most home improvement stores.
  • A watery consistency–it glides on, rather than thickly gooping on like an oil finish or shellac.
  • Penetrates into the wood well, due to its water base and thin consistency.
  • And the best…water-based floor finishes are really quite idiot-proof.  It’s easy to take a half-assed approach and still end up with a great looking floor.

Water-based floor finishes are fairly “half-assed-proof.”  Even if you screw it up, it’s hard to screw it up.

Water Based Finishes – Bad

I hate using the word “bad,” so can we say “not so good”?  With water based floor finishes there is nothing truly horrific.  More than anything, these finishes lack the “oomph” factor that some of the other finishes have.

  • So watery that you can hardly believe it’s doing anything for your floor.  Consequently, you tend to over-apply it.
  • Its milky white color is hard to discern on the floor.  You don’t quite know where you’ve applied it, so again, you tend to over-apply it.
  • As with any type of thin or water-based finish, it raises the grain of the wood.
  • If you’re looking for a real dramatic color change (without using stains), you won’t get it with the water based finish.  Light tone only here.
  • Less protection than with poly-based finishes, due to fewer solids (and more water!) in the mix.

Shellac Floor Finish

Two things regarding floor finishes are somehow lodged in the popular mind, and they are:  varnish and shellac.  Here, we’re examining just one of them–shellac floor finish–and hopefully by the end of the article, we will have straightened you out.

In other words, shellac is a pain in the ass and I have no idea why anyone would considered using shellac as a floor finish.

Since the days of yore, when bugs were crushed up to make shellac, the paint and finishes industry has developed far better floor finishes than shellac.  So, why not use them instead?  But first let’s deal with shellac.

The Mush Factor

Shellac is a resin that comes from the female lac bug in S.E. Asia–the same resin that glazes the candy Skittles.

Shellac is alcohol-based, and even though this means it dries rapidly, this still complicates matters because dilution is a tricky process.  Overly thick shellac applied to the flooring can form a shell-like surface that traps the alcohol base below.  This gives the shellac an outwardly “dry” feeling, when in reality it’s a mushy mess below.  Put your finger on it, step on it, or God forbid, set a paint or shellac can on it, and you have an indentation that lasts forever.

So, you’ll need to dilute your shellac; but unless you’re a pro at working with shellac, this is difficult to calibrate.

More Shellac Needed

Shellac Floor

Also, shellac is not a one-coat-does-all type of floor finish.  After that first coat, you’ve got to basically roughen it up again with fine-grit sandpaper in the 300’s range.  Then, wipe off the sanded shellac dust with tack cloth.  Then reapply the shellac finish.

Are you done yet?  No way.  Do it all over again.

Three coats of shellac is the minimum.  After that, you’ve got waxing to contend with, buffing, another waxing, and buffing again.

Shellac floor finish should be reserved for historic houses that demand this type of accuracy–not the average residential home.

Applying Floor Stain on Wood Floors

After you’ve done the “hard” work of installing your wood floor, sanded it…and sanded it again…and cleaned it, the process of applying floor stain seems as easy as eating a piece of cake.  And while it’s true that nothing can compare to the work of actual floor installation, you can seriously screw up your beautiful installation if you get the floor staining wrong.

Keep in mind that the close-grained hardwoods like maple and walnut will accept less stain and at a slower rate than an open-grain softwood like pine.

One way to improve stain penetration quantity and rate is to thin out the stain.

Test the Stain

Start by locating some of those scrap pieces of wood flooring that you saved from the installation.  You did save these pieces, didn’t you?  Practice-stain these wood pieces.  You’re doing two things here.  First, you’re trying to figure out if this is the stain you really want.  Second, you’re getting a feel for applying the stain.

Plan Your Staining

Staining Wood Floor

Take a good look at your floor.  You will never want to step on a stained area of the floor.  While this might seem obvious, it really isn’t.  Because floor stain sinks into the wood grain fairly rapidly, it feels dry to the touch almost immediately.  The problem is, it’s not really dry.  Best solution:  just never step on stained parts at all.

So, you will want to plan your staining out so this doesn’t happen.  Think of it like using one of those old electric mowers with a cord on it.  You never want to run over the cord, right?

Clean the Floor

Then clean down the flooring with tack cloth.  It is vitally important to get that wood floor spick and span.  Tack cloth should be your last method of cleaning.  Before this, you already used a broom, Shop-Vac…and Shop-Vac again…and maybe even a very mildly damp dust mop.

“Experts” will disagree about using a damp mop, saying that it raises the grain of the wood.  My take:  if the mop is “dryly damp” and the room rapidly dries, it’s fine to do this.

Mix the Flooring Stain

Stains need to be mixed.  If the stain happened to get shaken up, you’ll want it to settle for awhile because the thin consistency of stain can give you a frothy mixture.

Apply the Stain

Face it, there is no easy way to apply floor stain.  Get down on your knees and wipe on the stain with one of the huge number of clean, dry cotton rags you bought.  Or use a wide brush.

Wipe Off the Stain

The stain is on.  Now it’s got to come off?  That’s right.  It does help to have two people on this job, because one person can be the “stainer” and the other the “wiper.”  After the stain is first applied, you need to let it set for a few minutes before wiping off.  Make sure you are consistent about the time you allow, or some areas will get darker than others.  Also, as you go from row to row, make sure that you minimize the overlap between rows.  Wide overlap will leave dark stained lines.

Flooring Topcoat Finish

You are at the end of your floor installation process.  You have built layer upon layer, possibly starting as far down as the joists and subfloor, upward through the underlayment, finish flooring, and stain.  Now you are at the final layer: the flooring topcoat finish.  What to do now?

Glossy vs. Semi-Gloss Topcoats

Your floor’s topcoat finish is all about looks and practicality.  Many homeowners desire a highly glossy topcoat finish on the basis of its durability, but forget that these glossy finishes tend to show scratches quicker and are more slippery when wet.

Taking it down a notch, the semi-gloss and low-gloss topcoat finishes tend to be the best of both worlds: they have a moderate amount of gloss, yet they are still quite hardy and durable.

Oil-Modified Urethane Finishes

Topcoat Floor Finish

You will probably find that oil modified urethanes are much easier to fix than any kind of moisture cured urethane or acid-curing Swedish finishes.  These moisture cured finishes are highly toxic and are difficult to deal with.

Every type of floor topcoat has its ups and downs.  Waxes and oil finishes sound good on paper, but they are highly flammable and provide only a moderate amount of durability.  Swedish finishes are toxic and have an overpowering odor, yet are considered extremely durable.

Moisture-Cured Urethane Finishes

If you live in a place with a lot of humidity, any moisture-cured urethane is just the ticket.  These urethanes dry rather quickly in high humidity, yet these urethanes are also flammable and have a strong odor.

The oil modified urethanes are very smelly and dry slowly, but they are very resistant to abrasion and scratches.  And finally, one of the most popular topcoat finishes, the water-based urethanes, have almost no odor, are very durable, and are not flammable.

Staining Wood Floor After Sanding

Staining your wood floor after sanding changes wood’s natural pigment; stain, by itself, does nothing to seal the floor against moisture and wear.

Floor staining is not a requirement, of course, because many homeowners prefer their floors clear-coated after sanding.  But many types of flooring species such as lighter grained soft woods like pine (see image) can benefit from stain.

Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Floor Stains

Pine Flooring

Typically, floor stains are either water-based, oil-based.  Most homeowners who use water-based floor stains use them because these stains do not smell as bad as oil based stains.  One minor downfall of these water-based stains that they do absorb into the grain of the wood and make the grain stand out more.  With this prominent floor grain, you need to make an additional pass with the sander to bring it down, but only with the finest grit paper on the sander.

Oil based stains smell horrible and take far longer to dry than the water-based stains, but are considered to be highly durable stains.

Fast-Drying Floor Stains

There is a third category of stains, though:  fast-drying stains.  Fast drying stains are just as they sound:  partially oil-based stains with some drying additives to help the stain set rather quickly.

Tip:  How to Get Floor Stain Shade Right

When your floor was installed, you probably received a lot of waste materials.  Waste materials are scraps of floorboards that were cut off of longer pieces, but deemed unusable.  These waste pieces of floor boards have great value because you can use them as test pieces for your stain.

Penetrating Wood Floor Finishes

Penetrating wood floor finishes have one assigned duty:  penetrate that wood and protect it.  Here are 5 major categories of penetrating wood floor finishes:

  1. Sealers – Sealers are kind of like paint primers:  they provide a good, workable base for subsequent finish coats.
  2. Linseed and Tung Oils – These oils also penetrate the wood, but they can act as a final finish coat.  These are not considered durable coatings, and they do need to revived occasionally by recoating.
  3. Stains
  4. Stain-Sealers
  5. Waxes

The Basics of Swedish Finish Flooring

Swedish finish flooring sure sounds good and elegant and smart, doesn’t it?  But what is a Swedish finish, and is it something you really want to use on your wood flooring?

Swedish finish is not a brand name.  You will find no manufacturers going by this name.  It is a type of wood flooring finish that is high in VOC levels because it is acid-curing and contains formaldehyde.  Many professional wood flooring installers won’t touch the stuff because it requires certain approved respirators.  Maximum ventilation is mandatory when applying a Swedish finish; you don’t want to apply it in the winter.

But the chief reason why people do use Swedish finishes is because it is extremely hard and durable.

One unfortunate characteristic of Swedish finish is that it does tend to pull the grain up a bit.  So, after the 3-4 days’ curing time, you’ll probably need to do a light buffing.  Just put on the finest grit paper on your sander and give it a once-over.

Swedish Finish Quick List

So, to sum up a few basics about Swedish finish:

  • Smelly
  • Highly toxic
  • Very hard, durable
  • Requires an extra sanding
Swedish Floor Finish
Swedish Floor Finish

Wood Floor Finishes

Wood floors made their debut in the United States during the Colonial Era. The floors were practical and functional. Aesthetics at the time were not a primary concern for the pragmatic Colonists.

During the 19th century, parquetry made its way over from the Continent and wood floors slowly became more than just planks laid down and worn down by foot traffic. Innovations like the tongue-and-groove configuration were making wood floors more versatile in both use and appearance. Protecting such quality flooring eventually become desired and necessary. The wood floor finish was born.

Today, wood floors can be found in millions of homes and settings. The floors are warm and elegant, durable and unique. Each floor is different and the finish is often what defines it. The three most common wood floor finishes are: Surface, Penetrating, and Extra-durable. Which is right for you?

Surface Finishes

Surface finishes are the most popular wood floor finishes today and though tough, require minimal care. To create the surface finish, a stain is applied to achieve a particular color, followed by a polyurethane top coat for protection. The four main surface finishes are:

  1. Oil-based urethane: Available in ambers, this solvent-based finish is simple to apply and dries in less than half a day.
  2. Water-based urethane: Clear and non-yellowing, this finish is quick to dry, only taking about two to three hours.
  3. Moisture-cured urethane: A solvent-based polyurethane finish that’s durable and moisture-resistant. Available in ambers, with a finish of satin or gloss.
  4. Conversion varnish: When dried, this finish turns amber in color. A durable finish, the conversion varnish should be applied by a professional. Not a DIY choice.
Swedish Floor Finish
Swedish Floor Finish

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes are wood floor finishes that actually soak into the wood. Unlike surface finishes, which sit above the wood, penetrating finishes do exactly what their name says: penetrate. After the stain soaks into the wood, a wax coating is applied.

  • The sheen of a floor is its shine. Choose from a high gloss, low gloss or satin finish. Although high gloss has its advantages, it is also the finish that reveals the most scratches and imperfections. While this works for a commercial or contemporary setting, it’s not recommended for the traditional. For the home, go with the low gloss or satin.
  • When it comes to maintenance, water-based products should never be used on penetrating finishes. The only acceptable care is solvent-based waxes, buffing pastes, or cleaning liquids made specifically for wax-finished wood floors.

Extra-Durable Finishes

The extra-durable finish is a newcomer to wood floors but is making a name for itself. The reason being is, its finishing process fortifies wood floors, making them “extra-durable.” The two types available are: Swedish and Acrylic.

  • Swedish:  As befits the name, originating from Sweden, this resin-based finish is rather remarkable in that it is so thin, the grain of the wood can still be felt. What’s more, it doesn’t require waxing.
  • Acrylic: This finish is extremely hard, creating a barrier to dirt, moisture, and everyday wear. Yet because of its durability, it’s also among the most expensive and thus, more suitable for the commercial setting.