Natural Oil Finishes: Use and Maintenance

The NWFA guidelines define natural oils as “oils that typically consist of tung, linseed, vegetable, or other oxidizing oils that penetrate to varying degrees into the wood surface, filling and surrounding the wood fibers.” We asked experts with Ciranova USA, Rubio Monocoat, and WOCA USA for their thoughts on the use of and maintenance involved with natural oil finishes.

What are the most-important factors for a customer to consider when choosing a type of finish in their home?

Pascal Delbaere, technical manager for CIRANOVA USA: The visual appearance, the haptics, and the feel are the first considerations when buying a wooden floor. Maintenance comes in second, especially for customers who already have (or had) a wooden floor.

Keith Hardisty, marketing manager for Rubio Monocoat: Look and feel are major factors. If your customer does not like the look and feel, they will not be happy no matter what product you use. Natural oils keep the natural look and feel of the wood and come in a variety of standard color options. Care and maintenance is another important factor. Do the care requirements of the finish fit the lifestyle of the customer? Increasingly important to homeowners is a healthy and natural product that will not off-gas harmful vapors in their home during application.

Jennifer Sanderson, inside sales for WOCA USA: Do we keep a clean home or are we messy? How many people and pets live inside, and how do they live on this floor? High traffic or low traffic? What is the expected durability for this kind of finish? How do I take care of this kind of finish to protect my investment and make it last as long as possible? Is this a forever home; if not, how long do they expect to live there?

Describe some of the benefits and challenges contractors may face when using natural oil finishes.

Delbaere: The appearance of natural oil is unparalleled and fits the trend “back to nature.” The uniqueness of the substrate obtains an extra dimension. However, the open structure requires regular maintenance to keep the floor in optimal condition. This can form a barrier for people who prefer a (film-forming) poly finish. For contractors, there are no insurmountable obstacles to work with natural oils and finish on-site. The drying and open times of market-compliant oils are such that they can be finished quickly and smoothly: single-layer systems for a fast job, multi-layer systems for high-quality finishes. There’s something for everyone.

Hardisty: Using products like we offer allows the contractor to finish the floor in one application. Keep in mind, proper floor prep is important when using a natural oil finish. Any imperfections left behind from the sanding process can be highlighted when applying pigmented oils. A huge benefit is the ease of maintenance applications and the ability to perform localized repairs without a full sand and refinish. Depending on the type of repair required, it can be as simple as introducing a little more oil to the area and removing the excess. Introducing natural oils as an option to the homeowner can occasionally be a bit of a challenge if you are new to it. The U.S. market is so trained that you use polyurethane for a floor finish that occasionally the customer will not want to hear about a natural oil. Learning how to introduce and explain the benefits of a natural oil floor finish allows the customer to make an educated decision on what fits their preferences and needs.

Sanderson: If it’s a one-component oil, there is no pot life, no waste, no isocyanate exposure. Low odor and some oils are certified to not compromise indoor air quality. It’s a forgiving application process, as they polish in and polish off the excess oil and are able to correct most errors without sanding and starting over and can do partial/spot repairs. One or two coats is all that is needed for most floors with no sanding in between coats. There is an opportunity for repeat business for periodic maintenance, and future refinishes are truly dustless. Regarding challenges, contractors who are interested in selling natural oil finishes have to break the polyurethane, film coat/build mindset. Natural oils are completely different. You can’t just roll on and leave; it must be polished in. There are no self-levelers; the contractor is the leveler. The floor sanding must be superb, as the oil will show sanding errors. The contractor needs to understand proper care and maintenance and be able to inform the customer about expectations and how to care for it.

In what ways is maintenance different with natural oil finishes?

Delbaere: Unlike film-forming systems, natural oils protect the wood from the inside. It is important that the wood is permanently nourished. A maintenance oil is the most suitable product for nourishment. It is our regretful experience that flooring contractors often “forget” to communicate this important element of proper maintenance to their clients. To tackle this, we inform contractors by regular emails and social media postings. We also help dealers understand the importance of proposing the correct maintenance products when they sell our oil finishes.

Hardisty: We differentiate cleaning and maintenance. Cleaning is regular cleaning and requires a little more proactive attention. If the homeowner does not neglect messes, there should not be an issue. Maintenance is quick and easy as it does not require any sanding and will restore the floor to a like-new state. Cleaning and maintenance products can be found in stocking dealers and online, ensuring proper products are easily available to both professionals and homeowners.

Sanderson: The maintenance is not that different from any other wood finish; it’s just specific about what cleaning product to use. Routine maintenance refinishing for a natural oil floor is easy because sanding is not necessary, and partial “refinishing” is fine. Just clean the area that needs attention with the recommended prep cleaner and polish in more oil. As long as they have access to the Internet, they can find the information needed to care for the floor, where to buy it in person or online, or at least a phone number to call to get information.

Use only what the manufacturer recommends to clean floors with a natural oil finish, as each type has a specific maintenance program. A dry microfiber mop will remove loose debris from the surface safely and effectively. Many natural oil manufacturers recommend a specific maintenance routine of using oils and soaps on a regular basis. Failure to follow specific maintenance procedures will result in a finish that will not perform as it’s intended. Refer to the NWFA Sand and Finish Guidelines for more information on caring for natural oil finishes.

How do you sell the value of a penetrating finish versus a film-forming finish, in terms of long-term performance?

Delbaere: Each type of finish has advantages and disadvantages. We have the experience that oiled floors, provided they are regularly maintained, are an excellent choice in the long-term. Varnished or lacquered floors have a better chemical and mechanical resistance, but renovations are major work and a lot more elaborate compared to oiled floors. Spot repairs are easy on wood floors with natural oil finishes. Last, but not least, the warm cozy appearance of an oiled floor is almost unmatchable with any other finish. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Hardisty: When maintained properly, a natural oil finish can last a lifetime without needing a sand and refinish. Maintenance applications should be performed as needed, typically every few years. Repairs can be done prior to the maintenance application and often will blend seamlessly after the maintenance is done.

Sanderson: A penetrating finish will last for generations as long as the proper cleaning and maintenance products are used on a recommended schedule based on the traffic/lifestyle of the household/business. Partial/spot refinishing of a penetrating finish can be done and is the norm without sanding. The end-user is able to avoid the complete upheaval of their schedule, space, time, indoor air quality, and temporary relocation that is involved with refinishing a film-forming finish.

Download and purchase copies of the NWFA Sand and Finish Guidelines at nwfa.org.

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