Today’s hardwood flooring finish choices should include low- and zero-VOC products
“Why are you testing dye or beeswax or tree sap?” For a moment, Tom Helwig, field supervisor at Schumacher & Co. Custom Hardwood Floors, thinks we’ve gone over the edge.
“Because,” we tell him, “a growing number of customers don’t want chemical emissions in their homes. We offer low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) finishes. But we want them to have zero-VOC options, too.”
Maybe Helwig‘s skepticism has been triggered by the first can of tinted natural oil we have opened. It smells like dead fish. Once applied to the first test section, the scent changes to a refreshing orange peel. The solvent in the product is citrus oil, a natural VOC. But we put it aside.
“People aren’t going to wait to smell oranges,” Roy Young, quality control manager for the Milford, OH, company, says. “All they’ll be thinking about is the fish.”
Water-based dye instead of oil-based stain
We move on to the next color. Young applies a water-based dye that can be diluted to achieve a host of hues. There is no odor. There is unique color. Young tests this color at a different dilution on another board. This product rocks!
The next day, we need to put a finish on the dyed and natural test areas. We decide on two hardwax oil finishes
from different manufacturers. Oil finishes offer a natural look and other benefits. The first we are testing today is primarily beeswax. It smells great and looks great. But because it is not liquid and has to be applied with a scraper or squeezed through a cloth onto the floor, then buffed with the mechanical buffer, there are two steps instead of one.
Okay, we know the competitors also recommend hand application followed by buffing for their liquid products. But
Schumacher & Co., which has offered oil finishes for decades, likes to squeeze the product onto the floor from a squirt bottle, and buff it in almost simultaneously.
This is how Young applied the finish tested in Part I, posted March 2, and that has set our standard. That oil finish, from a
German manufacturer, has a long track record and is considered low-VOC. The VOC content is 50 grams per liter – far below the most stringent US standard of 275 grams per liter in the state of California. As noted in that blog, however, the solvent in the product released a mild but noticeable chemical odor and the label on that product indicates that the product is not completely safe until it has dried. Translation: chemically sensitive people should not be present.
Next up during our current test is another German product now being distributed in the US. But this one contains no solvent, and no VOCs – a claim that can be confusing.
There are a number of natural VOCs, like citrus oil, and there are a number of problems in using the term low-VOC as a health guideline. This is because the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) only regulates VOCs that contribute to the formation of smog. For them, it’s an environmental issue, not a health issue. So there are exempt chemicals that do not fall under the EPA’s VOC definition.
The hardwax oil we use next does not contain any VOCs — natural, synthetic, exempt or otherwise, the distributor assures us. It does contain linseed oil, carnauba wax, tung oil and colophonium glycerine ester from the sap of pine trees.
It conforms to the Schumacher application method. Though it cannot be applied over a stain that seals the wood because oil finishes have to penetrate the wood, it goes on fine over the dye.
There is no chemical odor. Just something mild before it dries.
“It smells like Play Doh,” Young guesses as we did not yet have a list of ingredients.
My guess is something like an artist’s studio where tube paints are in use – linseed oil.
“It looks great,” Helwig even agrees with us and starts adjusting lights in the warehouse so we can compare sheens.
We look at it for a long time. The dyed portion of the test area really draws the eye. The beeswax finish looks great, too. Too bad we can’t find a way to make it a one-step process. Helwig and Young will inspect the test area again the next day, after everything has had 24 hours to dry.
But we already know there is nothing fishy about it.©
– Nancy Kibbee is editor at www.naturalinteriors.com