Waxing Philosophic

Welcome to the glamorous world of musings on wood. After some long deliberating and MSDS memorization, I have come to an executive decision that our home will employ use of the following wood finish:

Natural Floor Finish

I present to you Vermont Natural Coatings’ PolyWhey Natural Floor Finish. Finishing wood is a matter of aesthetics (very practically speaking, we can live without it), and we acknowledge this. However, to protect your flooring from wine spilling (guilty), coffee spilling (guilty), chocolate stains (guilty?), and other unforeseen circumstances (super guilty), finishing becomes necessary. (Imagine if we had pets?)

Now, on to the explanation.

The Problem with Floor Finishes

The National Institute of Building Science explains that hard floor finishing can result in off gassing for weeks. This means, you’re stuck breathing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from your floor as long as your floor finish is drying, which presents an indoor air quality (IAQ) issue for the resident. The US Green Building Council Green Home Guide does a good job summarizing the environmental concerns associated with finishes from a manufacturing and disposal perspective: making them is energy-intensive and relies on petroleum-based raw materials; disposing of them (like any clear finish) requires you treat them as hazardous waste.

When you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place (like wood), what is one to choose?

Performance, Price, Preference

It should be noted that there is plenty of discussion on the performance of oil- versus water-based polyurethane finishes. In general, it seems that the arguments against water-based finishes are associated with the frequency of application. You might have to reapply a finish more frequently (according to some sources) than an oil-based finish. However, water-based finishes also purportedly don’t smell as bad and can have a much lower VOC content than oil-based (compare 180 g/L VOC to the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 1114 Architectural Coatings rule limiting VOCs to 250 g/L for waterproofing sealers). As of April 23, 2013, the price differential can be $74 per gallon for a product like Vermont Natural Coatings versus $49.97 per gallon for a traditional oil-modified, water-based polyurethane coating (this particular one contains 270 g/L VOC).

Vermont Natural Coatings wins for us because we can sleep at night knowing…

1. Its VOC content is low.

2. The binder is whey protein, a renewable resource. Specifically, a cheese byproduct (and I love cheese).

While the impact of these two combined factors may not seem glaringly superior to a traditional oil-based coating, it should be noted that the wood varnish industry was estimated at $3.3 billion in 2012 — it is officially a millions of gallons-per-year industry. Cumulatively speaking, there is certainly an impact. The EPA provides some rules of thumb in evaluating sealing and coating chemicals for your home’s floors:

1. Avoid formaldehyde-based chemicals to minimize VOC emissions; and

2. Avoid polyurethane to prevent exposure to diisocyanates which can aggravate asthma (the latter’s a tough nut to crack — short of natural oils and waxes, many floor finishes today are polyurethane-based).

Note that in general, a surface finish is just that: a coat of protective layering on your floor that does not penetrate the wood. When you apply a polyurethane-based finish, you are essentially witnessing a polymerization reaction between the resin in the finish and oxygen in the air. In other words, you are applying a thin film of plastic that protects your floors. Other finishes, like natural oil finishes, actually penetrate and treat the wood, enhancing its color but not necessarily affording protection “from the elements.” (You can add wax on natural oil-finished floors for protection. Very natural, very old school, but — I imagine — very high-maintenance.)

If you are wondering whether it was still worth ridding ourselves of and recycling our behemoth carpet, the answer (in my book), is still a resounding yes. Why?

  • We are not contributing to the carbon footprint of purchasing newly manufactured carpet (or new wood flooring — we are utilizing the floors that came with our house!);
  • We are not contributing to the transport of new flooring (in any form) to the home or home area (though you could counter this by saying our carbon footprint is made up in the purchase of finish products we buy instead — go ahead, do it, COUNTER ME!);
  • We don’t have to deal with the indoor air quality issues associated with carpet; and
  • We end up reviving the basic infrastructure of our 100+ year old home.

Photos forthcoming. When we’re finished with our finish you will be the first to know.


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