A DIYer Has Limited Choices for an Eco-Friendly Floor Finish
Are your battered old wood floors in dire need of refinishing? There are some nasty products out there, but you still can be green and keep the sheen.
Not Eco-Friendly Floor Finishes?
In modern times, say in the last 50 years, you might sand the floors smooth and have a licensed floorer apply a Swedish finish--long lasting and extremely hard, the premier finish. But the only thing green about it is the color it makes you turn when you breathe the fumes.
Described as "alcohol-based acid-curing conversion varnish," it is supposed to be applied only by licensed professionals. The fumes exuded during application and curing are strong enough to corrode the fangs off Dracula.
Floor Finishes: VOC
The evil elements that make so many floor finishes--and many other household items--eco-unfriendly are the volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic fumes released by solvents that cause air pollution and serious illness in humans. One VOC, formaldehyde, which is great for preserving dead things, is common in Swedish finishes.
Manufacturers, pushed by customer demand for green products and federal rules regulating VOCs, are striving for more environmentally friendly floor finishes.
Floor Finishes: Getting More Eco-Friendly
There are alternatives that can be applied by the DIYer. Some are greener than others, and what you can use depends a little on your situation.
- Water-borne Polyurethanes. Water-borne (sometimes "water-based") polyurethane is lowest in VOCs. It is relatively easy to apply--it dries after a couple of hours, though it requires up to four coats. This product has been around only 20 years or so, and technological advances are made regularly. It is the most expensive of the common finishes.
- Oil Modified Polyurethanes. For years the most common of the surface finishes, oil-modified polyurethanes release much higher levels of VOCs than water-borne, and for that reason rank low on the eco-friendly scale. Many areas, including California and the Northeast, restrict their use. They are much slower drying and require two or three coats, thus they take a couple of days to apply. They also are a little more finicky to apply than water-borne. Oil-based poly imparts an amber tone to the floor. It also is a harder finish than water-borne.
- Penetrating finishes. Some oil and wax finishes are designed to penetrate the wood, unlike polyurethanes, which create a hard surface on the top of the wood. Often used on old softwood floors, such as pine and fir, low-VOC versions of these finishes are available. Some floor finishers feel penetrating finishes are superior to polyurethanes on old softwoods because they accept more floor movement. While not as durable as polyurethane finishes, they are easier to touch up. Penetrating finishes are typically cheaper than the polys.
By considering today's alternatives, you should be able to find a eco-friendly floor finish that keeps your floors looking great and your face a bit less green.