The Race to the Finish: How to Choose the Right Applicator for the Job

There is a wide variety of finish options being introduced and used in the wood flooring industry today. Some traditional, some vintage finishes making a resurgence, and some coming straight from the tailgate. The application method for each of these finishes varies as well. No one applicator fits all coatings or all situations. Always be sure to consult the finish manufacturer’s specific instructions for recommended application methods and which type of applicator to use.

Applicator Types
There are several general types of applicators used during the wood flooring coating process.

  • Wood block applicators are manufactured in widths from 10”-24”. These applicators are designed to hold lambswool, synthetic lambswool, or synthetic fiber pads. Metal fasteners lock the applicator in place.
  • Cut-in pads are for cutting in edges and are manufactured in 6”-12” widths. These applicators are traditionally flat and rectangular with a tapered handle. They also have removable synthetic fiber pads.
  • T-bar applicators are manufactured in widths from 12”-36”. These applicators are thin cylinders with removable sleeve covers. They have swivel handles and are available in lightweight and heavyweight options.
  • Rollers are manufactured in widths from 9”-18”. These applicators have removable sleeve covers.
  • Brushes can be made from natural bristle, nylon bristle, foam, or other synthetic products.
    Steel trowels can be used to apply natural oils and some other types of finishes.
  • Other application tools may also include rags and non-abrasive buffing pads.

Applicator covers are usually consumables that, when properly used, can be the key to laying down a perfect coat of finish. There are several options available when choosing a cover to use with an applicator. Always follow the finish manufacturer’s recommendations when choosing a cover.

  • Lambswool or genuine lambskin is a natural or synthetic material that is wrapped around the wood block or the t-bar applicator. They tend to shed and must be cleaned before use to avoid finish contamination. These applicators are typically used for application of finishes such as oil modified urethane, moisture cure urethane, conversion varnish, conjugated oil varnishes, liquid waxes, and shellacs.
  • Synthetic fiber material is typically used on t-bars, cut-in pads, and sometimes wrapped around wood blocks. These synthetic fiber applicators may be made up of different materials to accommodate different types of finishes. Some are made with certain materials that are designed for certain solvents, while others may break down when exposed to these solvents in the middle of the job. Be sure to check with the manufacturer of the applicator to match the proper sleeve with the type of finish being used. They must also be cleaned before use to minimize shedding.
  • Roller sleeves (covers) are the disposable part of the roller that fits on the roller cage. Roller sleeves may be made up of many different materials, but will normally be dictated by the finish being applied. The nap size of the roller directly affects the spread rate of the finish being applied. Refer to the finish manufacturer to determine whether the finish is rollable and which nap roller is recommended to achieve proper coverage rates. Roller sleeves must be cleaned before use to minimize shedding.
  • Rags are normally only used to apply stains. Clean, cotton, lint-free rags should be used. Be cautious using old clothing that may have previously been laundered with fabric softeners, which may contaminate the flooring surface.
  • Non-abrasive buffing pads are commonly used to apply natural oils, stains, and to maintain waxes. These pads may include polishing pads, clean carpet remnants, or similar buffing pads used on a buffer/rotary sanding machine.
  • Steel trowels are a common application tool with many natural, penetrating oils. The trowel must be made of stainless steel material to avoid chemical corrosion.

Applicator maintenance
When cleaning and reusing applicator covers, be sure to use the manufacturer recommended cleaning procedures and products. For oil modified finishes, virgin mineral spirits can be used for appropriate applicator clean up. Waterborne finishes can be cleaned with clean water. Lacquer thinner should be used for conversion varnishes. Xylol should be used for cleaning moisture-cured finishes. Storage containers are available for many types of applicators as well.

When reusing an old applicator, be careful of contamination. Do not use an applicator for one type of finish that was previously used on another type of finish. This includes different types of finishes within the same finish family or even from the same manufacturer. Be cautious reusing applicators for the same finish type with a different sheen level. A contaminated applicator can cause streaky finish or undesirable results. The cost of applicator sleeves and refills is minimal in comparison to recoating or resanding an entire job.

Applying Finish is an Art
It is not always up to us which type of finish our customers want on their floors. Whether they are demanding the hand-rubbed look, a high-gloss finish, the cerused color effect, a hardwax oil, a lower VOC version of what you’re used to, a moisture-cure urethane, or a fancy blend they saw on HGTV, they’re looking to you as the professional to provide results. As a craftsman on the finishing side of our trade, it has become necessary to become familiar with many different types of finish, and the different application methods each type requires. No two finish systems are the same, and each demands its own respect in how it should be applied. The learning curve with some of these finish processes and unique application methods can be daunting and require practice.

The best place to practice is not always on your customer’s wood floor, however. NWFA offers nearly 50 schools throughout the country that allow you to experiment with all sorts of finishes and application methods. You can also take advantage of our Member Sponsored schools where we bring one of our Regional Instructors to you, customize the training around your needs, and invite only who you want there. Many manufacturers also offer schools to learn and practice with their specific products. Get more information at

Brett Miller is VP of Education & Certification at the National Wood Flooring Association in St. Louis. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.