Why Waterborne Polyurethanes Are the Finest Coatings for Wood Floors
In 1987, I attended one of the first National Wood Flooring Association conventions ever held, in Kansas City, MO. The highlight of the meeting was the introduction of a finish that has sent shock waves through the wood flooring industry ever since – waterborne polyurethane. The finish had been around for some time but its use, at least in this country, had been restricted mainly to maple flooring in recreational situations; racquetball courts, handball courts and bowling alleys to name a few. Its introduction signaled that it was now ready for use on commercial and residential wood floors. As soon as I returned to Atlanta, I took some waterborne finish into my warehouse space for testing and evaluation. I quickly found out that as good as the product was, it wasn’t quite ready for prime time and had some serious problems. I wrote about these problems for Fine Homebuilding and promptly got my ass chewed out by at least one manufacturer. (Not to worry. He was all about sales, had a lousy personality and for all I know may be selling widgets in China right now.)
Whether my article was the catalyst, I don’t know, but the major players in the waterborne industry started methodically addressing their products’ shortcomings and today I, and many others, consider waterborne polyurethanes to be the finest coatings ever formulated for use on wood floors. To say that they are good does not begin to describe the potential of these products. They are redefining the entire trade. Let me elaborate.
Three of the biggest problems that were hanging over the trade were noxious fumes and vapors, sand storm-like clouds of dust and the amount of time needed for finishes to dry and cure. As a result of the creative and forward thinking minds in the waterborne industry we have seen some dramatic changes:
- Every single waterborne finish that I know of is VOC compliant meaning it doesn’t have the choking, sickening and flammable vapors of traditional solvent base finishes. Over the last 20 years I could count the number of people who even noticed the vapors from waterborne finishes on one hand. Smell and vapors are not a problem.
- Ironically, it was the manufacturers of waterborne finishes (Bona Kemi in particular) that first addressed dust containment and collection. Their concern was to minimize dust getting in the finish and the easiest way to do that is capture the dust in vacuum systems. The manufacturers of the sanding equipment that generated the dust had been standing around with their hands in their pockets for decades. To me, this speaks volumes about the companies that have a vision for where the wood flooring trade is going.
- The waterborne products I work with are dry to walk on within two hours of their application. Within 24 hours, they are 90% cured and totally cured within about five days. There aren’t any other finishes on the market close to these numbers. Most traditional finishes take close to a month to cure.
Why some wood flooring contractors dislike water based polyurethanes.
As impressive as these numbers and data are, there are a lot of wood flooring contractors who not only don’t use waterborne products, they can’t say anything good about them. I have heard these complaints and I think I can shed some light on what drives their criticism. Waterborne finishes are not easy to apply and if they are not used correctly they have one hell of a bite. You will adapt to it; it is not going to adapt to you and therein lays a big problem for a lot wood flooring contractors. They have their methods and are not inclined to change.
The Price of waterborne polyurethanes.
Best Polyurethane for Floors? I think you know the answer to that now. You also need to factor in the price. The lowest priced waterborne finishes I work with are in the $55 – $60 per gallon range. The top of the line products are $100 per gallon. Most traditional solvent products are down in the mid $20 per gallon range. So, let’s do the obvious – combine a negative attitude about a much higher priced finish and you can easily see why a lot of contractors might not want to use, or say a lot of nice things about a finish they don’t trust. I understand their complaints but I don’t think they are an accurate reflection of the potential of waterborne finishes when they are used correctly. Do you want the best polyurethane for floors or not.
What my clients say.
I get most of my work via word of mouth referrals so my litmus test for what finish I use is based on client feedback. If I use any product that isn’t durable or easily maintained, I am going to pay a very heavy price. It doesn’t matter how nice I am, how clean our work is or how prompt and reliable we are. If the finish doesn’t hold up and perform to the clients expectations, I am doomed. It has got to withstand the normal wear and tear of the demands of an active and lively household or I will have major problems. That has never been a problem with waterborne finishes. It meets and exceeds my client’s expectations and it generates work for me. There has been more than one phone call from a potential client that starts off – “do you use those new waterborne finishes?” I have no qualms about saying that waterborne finishes are the best coatings ever formulated for use on wood floors. Period.
For additional information and reading, I suggest visiting the websites of the two manufacturers that were in Kansas in 1987 when waterborne products were first introduced and are still very much alive and kicking. They are the benchmark by which all other manufacturers measure their waterborne products.