Q: We are refinishing our white oak floors and want to use the safest and most durable materials. Street Shoe? Bonakemi? Rubio monocoat? We have boys and a dog and have not found anyone in our area who uses Osmo.
—Asked by Shmuel, Takoma Park, MD
A: To my knowledge, there is no cross testing that shows which product is safest or most durable. However, I have used two of the three plus AFM Safecoat Polyureseal BP, AFM Naturals Oil Wax and Vermont Natural Coatings PolyWhey Floor Finish and can provide some insight based on my experience.
In our house we used to entertain 30-40 people each month and had a normal teenage son. We require that everyone remove their shoes when entering the house which helps to keep out dirt and avoid scratching.
Water-based 'topical' sealers
In 1991 we applied Street Shoe by Basic Coatings on our flooring, stairs and woodwork around the house. It was a water-based product but still had a strong odor which dissipated over the course of several weeks. We had to wear respirators so we could breathe. It was all that was available back in the early days and it may be different now. It was a highly durable coating, and also one of the most expensive.
I’ve been in homes that had Bona applied and the odors were strong and not something our customers would want to breath. I have since used AFM Safecoat Polyureseal BP which is non-toxic water-based floor sealer with very good results. It has no odor at all when dried in about 1-2 days. The same is true for Vermont Natural Coatings Polywhey Floor Finish finish which performed very well and had no off-gassing once cured.
Air quality and durability of water-based sealers
As you may be aware, just because a product is water-based or low VOC does not make it safe. There are still many aromatic hydrocarbons or deregulated chemicals that are toxic contained in most polyurethanes and some companies even use masking agents (which are toxic) to reduce the odors. I've written extensively about this subject on the Green Home Guide as well as on our website.
All of the above water-based products can be classified as topical floor sealers because they build up a coating on the surface and eventually wear off. They may all be slightly different in chemical makeup, but they can all scratch or fade, some more than others, and they all need to be recoated after several years of wear and tear. Such recoating can be expensive, depending upon where you live, from $3 - $4 per square foot, and it usually requires the occupants to move out of the house for several days while the sanding, cleaning and refinishing takes place.
Oil-based 'penetrating' sealers
Another alternative to polyurethanes are oil-based penetrating sealers. These are very popular in Europe and gaining acceptability in the US for several reasons:
- they use natural and non-toxic ingredients
- they are relatively easy to apply
- they can scratch, but are easy to repair without moving out of the home
- they produce a rich patina that ages with the wood
- they hold up well to foot traffic and can be easily maintained
As one flooring manufacturer put it, when it comes to floor finishes,“Repairability is the new sustainability.”
Almost all of the oil-based products use one or more oils made of polymerized linseed, tung oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, china wood oil, safflower oil, hemp oil, etc. along with lead-free dryers. Some manufacturers use pure oils, resins and some add carnauba, bees, or candellila wax to give the wood more depth and add some moisture protection. The wax is usually buffed out at the end of the application process which takes a little more effort, but the results are worth it. The patina produced by hard oil or oil wax floor finishes is naturally more desirable, richer and less like the plastic finish of polyurethane. It is also allows the wood to breathe better, resulting in a living floor that tends to respond better to excessive humidity or dryness.
Choosing an oil finish
It’s difficult to say which oil is preferable as my own testing indicates very similar results depending upon how you apply and buff them out. Most of my experience is with AFM Naturals Oil Wax which I love to work with on floors, doors, trim or any wood. I also like Bioshield Hard Oil very much. Our Rubio Monocoat is the only zero VOC oil and stain all in one. With 45 color choices its a very easy one-step application. Rubio-Oil-Plus-2C-Kit I have also tried Osmo which has a good reputation, but I could not tolerate the strong odor during application.
Oils are not much different in price from polyurethanes, and they all have some odor during application. Most, but not all, are a natural linseed odor, which takes one to two weeks to dissipate completely. Much of the odor can be eliminated if the oil is applied in thinner applications and wiped off properly. Temperature and humidity play an equally important role in dry time and reduction of odor.
Maintenancing oil finishes vs. polyurethanes
In the old days, long before polyurethanes, acrylics, aluminum oxides, etc. everyone used oils and waxes on their hardwood, cork or linoleum floors. This worked well if maintained properly. Polyurethanes claim to be almost maintenance free but they require routine cleaning and touch ups. The problem with polyurethanes is that in the right light you can see the scratches easily and touch ups are difficult for novices to blend them in well. Any repairs tend to build up on the surface and look unsightly. Most people just learn to live with the scratches.
Oiled floors are maintained regularly by simply damp moping with similar cleaners such as WoodWise or specialty cleaners like Bioshield’s Floor Soap and the all-purpose Blissfully Clean Cleaner for scuff marks, crayons, permanent markers, etc. The scratches, even from dogs, don’t show as easily because they don’t contrast with the surface color or sheen. Most people repair scratches themselves without a professional because the process is fast, effective and inexpensive.
Making an intelligent choice
Making an intelligent choice about which finish to choose and how to maintain it may require sampling some different products to see which one looks best and performs according to your families needs.