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Our Top Green Finishes for Hardwood Floors

Hardwood floors are beautiful and can transform a home. The natural character and grain of wood is timeless and can transcend decor and anchor a living space.

In addition to aesthetics, incorporating more wood into a home has proven health and environmental benefits. Consider these facts:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that consumers spend 65% of their time in their home.
  • Indoor organic pollutants and allergens can be 2 to 5 times higher due to the presence and growth of mold, dust, pet dander and pollen.
  • Home furnishings such as couches and carpeting are often treated with toxins.
  • Homes with larger areas of hardwood flooring enjoy better indoor air quality than those homes with carpeting.
  • Carpet fibers can trap and grow harmful pollutants whereas hard surfaces are more difficult to penetrate and are easier to clean on a regular basis.
  • USBC and LEED have identified hardwood floors as the healthier and more sustainable choice in flooring.
  • Hardwood floors use less water and energy to produce, and can last hundreds of years with proper care.

With all these great benefits, it is no wonder that one of the top conversations we have is about preserving and protecting hardwood floors for a healthier, more dynamic living space.

It is not uncommon for a homeowner or contractor to consider polyurethane as their go- to finishing product because it is what they know. However, these default products contain synthetic components that can introduce harmful toxins into the home. Here is a quick refresher of some documented drawbacks of using such products:

  • Known respiratory toxin • Unpleasant, strong fumes requiring proper ventilation
  • Extended curing time • Potential discoloration / yellowing with age
  • Dust & scratches more visible with super high gloss film
  • Typically requires a complete refinish to correct scratches
  • Difficult to match tone and color of original flooring
  • Grinding/ sanding process produces unhealthy dust particles

Fortunately we are seeing a wider range of naturally formulated alternatives that offer comparable protection as polyurethanes with fewer to zero VOCs. There is plenty of good information out there covering these options, their features and application processes. As a true steward of the green building industry you want to support your eco- minded clients - from choosing responsibly harvested building materials to properly protecting those materials in the most natural, organic way possible. Naturally deciding on the right finish depends on the homeowner's personal style (low sheen or high sheen?), lifestyle (high traffic family?) and maintenance preference (touch up or complete overhaul?).

We have compiled a list of healthier options based on their low toxicity, lower voc's, (for full ingredients disclosure, refer to product MSDS on manufacturer’s websites or by request) and how a finish compliments the natural beauty of wood.

Tung Oil - Pure Tung oil is all natural, nontoxic, and as environmentally friendly as a finish can be. A slow drying finish, Tung oil deeply penetrates wood and a imparts a warm amber tint while preserving the natural character of the wood. Tung oil is the key ingredient in many high end mixed oil finishes because of it's durability and water resistance. It is more costly per gallon than mixed resin finishes, because it doesn't contain any fillers. As a result, less is needed per square foot, and costs can ultimately balance out. Pure raw Tung oil can take several days to cure between coats if it is applied too thickly. Care should be taken to make sure that each coat is very thin- this is where Tung oil gets its reputation of being difficult to apply. Alternatively, Tung oil can be thinned with natural solvents (citrus, turpentine, etc...) This makes it quicker and easier to apply a thin coat of finish and reduces drying time, but it increases the V.O.C's proportionate to the amount of solvent used. Three thin coats are recommended for an oiled look, and 5 or more coats will start to impart a varnished look. Either way that it is applied, however, the result of this subtle finish is a well sealed floor that preserves the authenticity of the hardwood floor. If you want to use Tung oil in its purest form, and aren't afraid of the extra work, look for 100% Pure Tung Oil, and avoid products marked "Tung Oil Finish" which usually contain fillers, and do not have to disclose the actual Tung oil content.

Boiled Linseed Oil - Similar to Tung oil, boiled linseed oil soaks into the wood and dries slowly and results in a slight shine enhancing the grain of the wood, making it an excellent natural choice . Carefully heating Linseed oil in the factory pre-polymerizes the oil, creating a thicker product which dries faster and can be used for more applications. Boiled Linseed Oil does not offer as strong of a finish as Tung oil, so more coats are usually recommended for full protection. It is important to note that Boiled Linseed Oil is not as UV resistant as Tung oil either. To ensure your flooring's natural tones and colors will not be compromised, make sure the oil you use is pure and that heavy metal driers have not been added, which can blacken with UV exposure and discolor your flooring.

Rubio Monocoat - Monocoat Natural Oil Finish uses Linseed oil and manufactured waxes as its base and contains no VOCs for a highly durable, all natural, matte finish. As the name suggests, only one coat is needed and can be applied clear, or you can choose from up to 30 color options (all of which can be blended) which means virtually endless color matching options to achieve the perfect tone of the wood grain. For the more adventurous types, Rubio also offers some dynamic design options with their Creative Effects product line that slightly manipulate the look of the wood grain to create a smoke or fumes effect.

PolyWhey® Natural Floor Finish - Vermont Natural Coatings offers a natural finish that results in a glossier appearance. It is a water-based product that uses recycled whey protein, a by-product of the cheese industry, to replace petroleum-based ingredients in its coatings. This renewable product is known for it's ease of application, even coverage, and is very quick drying resulting in a protective, hard shellac-like finish with a semi gloss sheen.

Waterlox - Carries a line of quality line of oil based finishes and sealers made with Tung Oil that offers easier application than pure tung oil. It seals well and actually strengthens wood fibers, and reportedly does not require sanding between coats. The number of coatings required depend on the species of wood being covered. Dents and scraps are less visible and only require a touch-up application directly to troubled area. The finish does not leave a film and brings out the natural color of wood. This is a popular option for homeowners because the maintenance is easy and non invasive.

AFM SafeCoat, Naturals Oil Wax Finish - is an excellent choice for active residential homes where liquid spills and traffic are common place. It is an organic, plant-based sealer containing natural resins and oils, and waxes that penetrate and seal wood, repelling moisture and preventing stains. Favorable reviews boast ease of application and that touch-ups to scratched or dented areas are easy to remedy.

Like any product, we highly recommend spot testing the preferred finish in an inconspicuous part of your flooring to determine ease of application, drying time, gloss level and color before engaging in a full application.

We hope you will consider a natural finish for your residential projects. They are non toxic, and easy to apply and maintain throughout the life of the floor. Most importantly, they allow a hardwood floor to wear naturally and build character.

Have you tried any of these products? Do you have a favorite green finish product recommendation? We'd love to hear from you, please share your comments below.

For more information about flooring and finishing options, give us a call and talk to our team:

855.WOODRIGHT (855.966.9744)