If you think about it from the surface level, wooden floors are bad for the environment. After all, you have to cut trees and damage habitats to source the wood. However, wood for construction is often grown for that specific purpose, and you can choose to work with lumberyards that use sustainable methods. They might replant, or use other techniques to preserve forest cover. Another option is to use ‘less wood’. Engineered floor boards are a good example of this. They use multiple layers of timber for the flooring.
Each layer is thinner – maybe 6mm to 10mm thick. Sometimes, every layer is solid wood. Other times, cheaper materials like plywood or block-board are sandwiched between the top and bottom layer of hardwood floor boards. This style gives the look of solid wooden blocks, but it’s far cheaper. Because it’s real wood, it’s breathable and organic. This – ironically – makes engineered hardwood timber flooring a good environmental choice. To enhance the beauty of your floors, you need to top it off with the right finish.
Mixing Oil And Water
Popular options include shellac, lacquer, polyurethane, hard wax, and varnish. Your finish can be water-based or oil-based, depending in the look you’re going for. You can also have a UV-finish (the wood and oil are dried using quick intense exposure to ultraviolet lamps, leaving the wood smooth and glossy), or oxidised oil (the oil and wood are dried slowly in the open air, creating a matte finish). Water-based finishes usually have the same ingredients as their oil-based cousins, but the oil is replaced with water or ‘modified oil’.
One example is water-based polyurethane. Because the flammable ingredients have been substituted, these floors are less susceptible to fire. However, that same quality affects its ability to resist heat and solvents. It costs more than oil-based varnish, but it retains the natural colour of the wood. It’s safer to apply, with no toxins or potentially intoxicating fumes. Selecting a water-based ‘stain’ finish is a largely environmental choice, because it doesn’t last as long as oil-finished floors, but is still more expensive to install.
Oxidised Oil and Natural Hard Wax
One step above water-based finish is air-dried oil. It leaves a matte surface, just like its denser liquid cousin. But because the drying process happens in open air, there are no potentially harmful drying solvents involved. The process takes longer though, because you need multiple coats, each one takes days to dry, and the floor is sanded between layers. The finished product has a ‘soft’ look. This oil is usually a mix of greasy natural options like linseed, tung, teak, soy, or paraffin. Hard wax works too, like caranaruba or beeswax.
Waxes can be applied to ‘raw’ wood or used to polish any other finish. On raw wood, wax offers waterproofing properties and a beautiful shine. They’re easy to apply, and can resist dirt and spills. However, they have solvents that can affect you during application. They keep your wood from going grey but don’t offer much protection beyond that. Some natural oils give a more glossy ‘wet’ look’. They’re referred to as non-drying oils and include mineral oils and vegetable oils. Be careful though – washing with soap and water will rinse it right off.
Resins, Lacquers, and Clear Varnishes
Varnishes are transparent coatings that give your wooden floors a glorious shine. They dry faster because they’re constituted with solvent, and don’t need as many coats as natural oil. Their dried surface is harder, so it resists scratches and scuffs. A varnish is usually built off a resin like alkyd (for interiors), phenolic (for exteriors), or polyurethane (resists abrasion, heat, and solvents).
While ‘true varnish’ is a see-through blend of drying oil, thinner, and resin, you can opt for variants that contain colour for a glossy stain effect. Varnishes can be mixed with oil to combine their qualities. A popular blend is Danish teak and tung oil (marketed as tung modified oil). But if you want to use a plain resin, you can opt for shellac. It’s an organic resin from South East Asia, extracted from lac bugs.
It doesn’t emit fumes and is safe for kids and pets. It’s resistant to sunlight so it doesn’t get darker or yellower when exposed to UV rays. It retains its true shade over time. There’s not much protection though. Shellac is susceptible to heat and condensation, leaving unsightly white rings. It rinses off if it runs into alcohol, ammonia, and other chemicals. It can even be erased by water. At the other extreme, lacquer is impregnable. This high-gloss finish resists mould and withstands damage better than any other finish.