Oak. Ash. Cherry. Maple. Hickory. Walnut. For centuries, these and other hardwoods have been preferred for flooring, cabinets, and millwork. But are they appropriate for the bathroom? Absolutely. Builders, architects, and designers are taking advantage of durable new finishes to bring hardwood beauty to bathroom applications they never would have considered before.

Technology offers watertight solutions

No place in the home is more humid or damp than the bathroom, and building professionals have long been reluctant to place hardwood flooring in that kind of environment. But recent gains in wood treatment and homebuilding technology make it easy to install and maintain hardwoods in the bathroom, all but eliminating problems with cracking, peeling, warping, buckling, and watermarks. These advances include:
  • Catalyzed sealers. Manufacturers are pre-finishing cabinetry and millwork with durable, baked-on finishes that chemically bond with the wood to prevent moisture penetration.
  • Quick-curing on-site finishes. This new generation of moisture finishes can withstand moisture, while maintaining the flexibility to accommodate wood’s natural expansion and contraction.
  • Improved environmental controls in the home. Controls and ventilation systems have dramatically reduced fluctuations in relative humidity in the bathroom.

    The correct finish for any application depends on the homeowner’s budget, as well as the traffic and spillage the wood is expected to encounter. Less-impervious finishes can be applied to decorative millwork, but floors, countertops, and tub surrounds merit high-quality finishes and close attention to detail during application.

    Put the top down

    Today’s finishes offer water resistance that old-fashioned shellacs and varnishes never could. Blends of synthetic resins, plasticizers, and other film-forming ingredients bond to form a watertight seal, yet do not peel when the wood expands and contracts. These finishes are known as convertible.

    Convertible finishes cure to a very hard film that is relatively impervious to moisture, making them a good choice in areas where water splashing and spills occur. Moisture-cure urethanes, such as polyurethanes, are the hardest finishes. They are non-yellowing, but decorating options are limited to a glossy finish. Acid-curing Swedish finishes are fast-drying and non-yellowing, and are even more elastic than urethanes. Swedish finishes produce an excellent end-product, but they are probably the most difficult to apply, requiring a finely sanded application surface. Lacquers are hard and water-resistant, although their brittleness may make them vulnerable to cracking and peeling. If a lacquer is chosen for decorative reasons, be sure a high-quality product that will cure to a flexible film is used.

    Deciding which way to go

    It is important to consider the advantages of both pre-finished and site-finished products when deciding which to use for a bathroom floor.

    Pre-finished hardwoods are recommended for many bathroom applications, because their shop-quality finishes are attractive and highly moisture-resistant. While these products may have a higher initial cost, they are less demanding in terms of installer proficiency and job-site preparation. Pre-finished hardwood flooring can be purchased either “off-the-shelf,” or custom-milled and finished to a project’s specifications.

    The site-finishing method is still preferred by many builders because of the lower material cost and the higher degree of project control. Recent advances in water-resistant finishes have made site-finishing an increasingly popular alternative for flooring, as well as major bathroom applications such as built-ins and tub surrounds.

    Advances in finishing allow for hardwood flooring to be used in bathroom settings more than ever, offering the homeowner design options never possible before. But it is important to understand the categories and components of the finishing choices available, and choose the right finish for the job.