Is a Natural Oil Finish Right for Your Hardwood Floors?January 27, 2015
Back in July, we took a look at the many options available for non-urethane hardwood finishes. Among these, we briefly discussed penetrating oil sealers, which have been quickly gaining in popularity as natural and vintage looks have become increasingly desirable. In fact, natural oil finishes have been common throughout Europe for quite some time and are used on about a third of hardwood floors there. Consequently, many of the most trusted brands we use here in the U.S. were developed by manufacturers across the pond. In this post, we will take a closer look at what makes natural oil finishes so appealing, their advantages and disadvantages, as well as some popular brands.
Penetrating oil sealers come in two basic varieties, natural oil, and hard wax oil finish, all of which will add value to your home. The specific kinds of oils used and their proportions are what differentiate one brand from another. Most use linseed or tung oil, or a combination of the two, as a base, but soy, sunflower, china wood, safflower, hemp, and other oils are also used. Moreover, some formulas include resins or waxes (from carnauba, candelilla, or bees) to enhance durability. “Danish oil” is a mixture of tung oil and varnish, which, though considered a penetrating oil sealer, has many different properties from natural and hard wax oil finishes.
A natural glow
One of the outstanding qualities of natural oil and, though to a slightly lesser degree, hard wax oil finishes is their ability to enhance the natural beauty of your wood floors. Rather than resting on top of the wood and forming a protective barrier, as urethanes do, oil finishes soak into the wood and bond with it at a molecular level, making the wood itself stronger, but leaving its texture and color unobstructed. Over time, they produce a patina that ages with the wood, so it never acquires the dull, outworn look that can occur with surface finishes.
Hardwood enthusiasts accustomed to urethane finishes often express concern that a natural oil finish may leave wood vulnerable to greater wear and tear. While it is true that with a penetrating finish wear does occur directly to the wood, modern oil finishes are much more resistant to wear than those originally used to condition hardwood. What wear does occur tends not to upset the beauty of the floor as it would with surface finishes. Scratches, even those made by your dog’s nails, tend to blend in with the texture of the wood because there is no surface layer to contrast with. Moreover, any serious damage to the finish can almost invariably be spot repaired relatively easily, providing a huge advantage over surface finishes.
Oil finishes can also be refreshed from time to time as needed without any great hassle, unlike urethane finishes which must be removed completely and reapplied as though the wood had been laid down new. With a properly maintained oil finish, you should never need to sand down your floors. If reparability is the new sustainability, as many in the industry are saying, then natural oil finishes are the way to go.
Visit any “green building” site, and you will almost certainly come across an article or two about the merits of natural oil finishes. Most oil finishes release fewer volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) than other finishes. Plus, as J. Neufeld of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide points out, “You could get away with never having to refinish your floor again. How’s that for sustainability?”
“If you’re airborne sensitive to VOCs, a natural finish is the only solution”, comments Organic 4 Green Living, “That’s why we’d always recommend the use of natural and organic products to refinish your floor”.
Most of the disadvantages of natural oil finishes have already been mentioned:
- Any damage to the floor occurs directly to the wood, rather than to a replaceable (albeit troublesome to refinish) surface.
- Penetrating finishes do require reapplication every few years and tend to produce some strong odors which may encourage you to vacate your home for a day or two (longer if you are sensitive to smells) while they dry.
- Natural oil finishes do not offer much resistance to solvent damage from substances like cleansers, alcohol, and urine. If cleaned up in a reasonable amount of time, this damage should be reparable without too much difficulty, but if you foster dogs or host a lot of keggers, you may want to consider something more durable, like a moisture-cured urethane. Or concrete.
- Some varieties require several coats for the initial application, which could require you to be out of the house for several days since each coat can take 24-48 to dry depending on the climate. There are, however, a few one-coat oil finishes on the market and it is possible to get factory-finished natural oil flooring, though this is often only available through specialty distributors.
- Even for those varieties that require only one coat, some have to be applied by hand with a rag or something similarly labor-intensive. If you’re doing it yourself, consider the time and work required. You may want to take a little vacation and have it done professionally instead.
Though few people would choose a natural oil finished based on this factor, many do appreciate that most oil-sealed floors can be damp mopped, a nice feature in food service environments or homes where sticky messes are frequent. In general, you will need to use a special cleaner to mop your oil-finished floor (check with the finish manufacturer), but you can do so with confidence knowing that, not only will mopping not harm the finish, the special solution is actually designed to reinforce it.
For the most part, finishing your floor with an oil finish will not cost any more or less than a urethane finish. You will need to “refinish” more frequently, but refinishing an oil finished floor is significantly less expensive than refinishing a floor with a polyurethane surface.
As we mentioned, it may also be more difficult and more expensive to purchase prefinished flooring with a natural oil finish, and most of this will be engineered. Prefinished solid wood with a natural oil finish is available but can be very difficult to find. It should be noted, however, that the added durability provided by factory-applied urethane finishes does not apply to pre-applied natural oil finishes. The only advantages of pre-applied oil finish are that your installation will be completed more quickly and the odor common to natural oils will have already dissipated.
Unlike urethane finishes, natural oil and hard wax oil finishes often come in a variety of tints, eliminating the need for a stain. The finish will tend to be a matte to satin. A gloss finish can be achieved by applying a coating of wax to an oil-finished floor, but we do not recommend this course. Wax requires a great deal of upkeep once applied and negates many of the benefits of a natural finish. If a glassy look is what you want, better to go with a urethane.
Some popular brands
These are the manufacturers most often mentioned in conversations about oil finishes:
- Rubio Monocoat: Plant-based; VOC-free; Offers a single-coat option.
- AFM Safecoat: Produces AFM Naturals Oil Wax Finish for floors and food-grade AFM Naturals Clear Penetrating Oil for other wood surfaces.
- Magic Oil: Hard wax oil; a solvent-free hybrid of natural oils and waxes; here’s one of our favorites.
Not sure what finish to choose? Come on into MacDonald Hardwoods and talk to one of our experts about what finish might be right for you.