Coatings for Timber Floors

It is generally the owner’s choice as to what coating or coating type is applied to the floor and our team are often called upon for advice. So what steps are involved in selecting a coating system that needs to be considered by both the recipient of the floor and the contractor for a particular project?

  • Firstly, a selection of suitable floor coating type alternatives should be developed that are most appropriate to the project.
  • Considering the broad coating groups, the visual effects they provide should be considered and ones selected that fit preferences.
  • The benefits and limitations of this 'control group' should then be assessed for the type that will best meet the requirements of the project.
From this, particular manufacturer products within that group can be assessed and an informed choice made. However the basis for selection does not end there! Of equal or greater importance is what the recipient of the floor is prepared to do to keep the floor looking good! No matter what angle you take, 'MAINTENANCE' is the key aspect that ensures the ongoing appearance of a floor. It must be stressed that all coated timber floors will require some level of activity to keep them clean and to prolong their original aesthetic qualities for as long as possible

This includes:
  • regular sweeping,
  • dust catching mats at external doorways,
  • prompt cleaning of spills,
  • occasional mopping with a recommended cleaning product,
  • felt pads on chair legs and other moving furniture,
  • sealing paved/concrete area's abutting entrances,
  • regular monitoring of wear to plan for any remedial coating requirements,
  • not wearing street shoes on the floor where possible and avoiding leather soled shoes and stilettos as damage is accelerated by the combination of dust, grit, and aggressive foot traffic.

These tasks are not debatable. They can be regarded a minimum requirement of owning a timber floor. However, the frequency that these tasks are carried out, as well as additional maintenance activities, is what sets different floor coating technologies apart. Put simply a lot depends on what the recipient of the floor is prepared to do 'for their floor'. Aspects such as traffic type and level of traffic, flooring environment (e.g. residential or commercial etc) is what will greatly influence the coating decision

If as an owner or specifier you are unable to determine a suitable coating using these considerations, then an industry professional should be consulted to assist. Though remember, although a contractor or similar professional can assist with technical information, the owner, or person specifying on behalf of the owner, should be the one choosing the finish, as they are the ones also determining the acceptable degree of ongoing maintenance.

Assuming as an owner that you have made your choice and ultimately the prolonging of the 'original' appearance of your floor is the ideal, maintenance is accepted as reality. Start with this understanding and it is more likely that you will be satisfied with your floor coating choice.

Coatings are made to protect and beautify timber flooring, but from day one the various degrees of foot traffic will begin the deterioration process that can only be managed and replenished by the "owner" or caretaker of the floor. If that happens to be you, then it is important that you make your coating choice carefully, as it is your floor and your choice that will be on display, now, in twelve months, in five years, a decade; so choose wisely.

Coating Types

Timber Floor Finishes
Timber floor finishes can be grouped into four main categories. Penetrating oils and waxes, curing oils and alkyds, oil modified urethanes, and polyurethane’s, the latter three categories being available in solvent-based and water-based. Performance parameters such as durability or resistance to wear can vary significantly within a category as well as between categories. All categories can be recoated with refurbishment coats.

Penetrating Oils and Waxes
These are blends of natural oils and waxes which penetrate the timber surface to provide a rich colour, enhancing the timber grain and natural characteristics. It is the natural subdued look of the coated timber that is often the basis of selection and these finishes are generally recognised as the traditional or natural finishes. Curing in cold weather is slow and this may require consideration. Regular application of metallised acrylic polishes are used as part of the maintenance requirements to prolong an attractive appearance that darkens with age. Hard waxes differ in that they not only penetrate but also leave a hard film of wax on the surface, thereby reducing maintenance requirements. Currently these types of finish do not form a large part of the floor finish market.

Oil-Based Finishes - Curing Oils and Alkyds
Curing oils such as 'Tung' or 'linseed' are usually selected because of their lower cost and ability to produce a rich timber colour. Gloss levels vary from high gloss to satin and they are not prone to edge bonding. Similar to penetrating oils these finishes are slow curing in cold weather, will darken with age and metallised acrylic polishes are a necessary part of ongoing maintenance activities. Alkyds are produced from reacting curing oils with a synthetic resin and this results in improved durability and reduced maintenance activities. Curing oils and alkyds are also not as frequently used as those outlined below.

Oil Modified Urethanes (UMO’s)
These spirit based solvent-based coatings combine an oil with a smaller amount of a urethane. The higher the urethane proportion, the less the oil properties such as flexibility but the higher the durability. Gloss levels vary from high gloss to satin and in recent times higher cost water-based UMO’s providing lower emissions have appeared on the market. All UMO’s darken with age and their slow curing in cold weather needs to be considered. These mid range cost coatings are often selected as they are of intermediate durability, are not prone to edge bonding and are isocyanate free. As such they hold a moderate share of the market.

Polyurethane – Solvent-based
This coating type in the 1 pack moisture cure and 2 pack varieties provide the highest durability and film build of all coating types as well as the highest gloss levels. Gloss levels range from ultra high gloss to matt and some darken less with age. However, there is a strong solvent smell on application and due to the isocyanates present additional precautions are necessary until the coating has cured. These intermediate cost coatings are often selected as they provide the best durability resulting in low maintenance, can provide a very high gloss and generally provide trouble free application. Care is however necessary regarding their edge bonding potential which can cause irregular gapping or split boards in floors.

Polyurethane – Water-based
This has the widest selection of sub-categories resulting in a spread of properties with durability from poor to arguably as good as solvent-based polyurethane. Greater care is therefore necessary in selection noting that those without acrylic provide higher durability. They are available in one and two pack options, provide a finish from matt through to gloss and generally darken little with age. These coatings are often selected due to the absence of any strong solvent smells on application and because they are not prone to edge bonding. Product cost is however high and they can provide a lighter timber appearance depending on the sealer and coating used. Rapid shrinkage can also result in light coloured lines at board joints. These finishes have developed significantly over recent years and as such their market share is moderate and increasing.

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