The distinctive beauty of oil-based hardwood finishes is coming back into the market in a big way. FCI spoke with several flooring finish manufacturers and hardwood flooring contractors to get a grasp on the types of oil finishes on the market and some best practices surrounding them.

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“Oils are becoming very popular amongst homeowners and not just because of the looks you can achieve with different colors,” said Josh Neuberger, Pallman marketing manager. “They’re also becoming very popular due to the environmental factor, the ease of installation, the ease of repair and so much more.”

Products on the market

“What happens with Rubio Monocoat is you put it on the wood and it goes through a molecular reaction with the wood—it uses the chemistry of the cellulose to modify and cure itself,” explained Patrick Mervyn, Rubio Monocoat USA director of sales and marketing. “You wipe it on, let it react for about two to three minutes and wipe the excess off within about 10 minutes from starting. In that molecular bonding process, you completely eliminate lap and dry lines while also getting greater liquid resistance and better wear resistance.”

Neuberger noted, “Hardened oil finishes are usually very green with very low VOCs. They work a little differently in the sense that they penetrate into the wood as opposed to sitting on top. These oil finishes not only penetrate into the wood but strengthen the wood fibers.”

According to Jennifer Sanderson, Woca inside sales, her company worked “with a carefully selected partner” on a new technology exclusive to Woca No. 1 Wood Floor Oil. “The technology integrated in the oil is called Hyper Cross Linking, resulting in the strongest oil binder. No. 1 Wood Floor Oil provides better performance due to less shrinkage, better hardening and enhanced water repellence. It contains a very little amount of solvent and is a low-odor, crystal-clear oil.”

Osmo North America’s product manager, Peter Colburn, said Osmo is introducing two new sheens and multiple colors.

Advantages of oil finishes

“Oil finishes are easily repairable, meaning scratches and typical wear can be treated by the homeowner,” noted Sanderson. “The floor will probably never have to be sanded again and you simply buff in more oil when it does come time to refinish. Another advantage with Woca oils is they are plant-based, so they are low-odor and VOC-free.”

According to Colburn, oils offer many advantages. “Oil finishes are very durable, easy to use and easily repaired and/or blended, if required. This type of finish also allows the wood to breathe, which greatly enhances the wood’s stability. In our line, there are many very low- to-zero-VOC choices, which enhance the wood’s appearance, providing a ‘natural’ wood look. Osmo’s line is also primarily made from sustainable, plant-sourced raw materials.”

Neuberger highlighted again the low-VOC content of many oil finishes. “Our product is less than 10 VOCs. Any oil-based polyurethane or oil-modified urethane won’t come close to those numbers. Also, a lot of oil finishes have very quick cure times. They can also be easily repaired because of the application process and the ingredients in those types of finishes, which can be blended back into themselves.”

Mervyn stated the look of natural oil is hard to beat. “You can’t really get the look of an oil out of a urethane, which look more plastic. In terms of design there hasn’t been a urethane made yet that can really 100% look like an oil.”

The finishing process

“For each and every finish, the end result is determined by the preparation. In other words, sanding is of the utmost importance,” explained Avedis Duvenjian, founder of hardwood flooring contractor Archetypal Imaginary Corp. in New York. “One needs to sand up to grit size 120 before applying one of our ecological Floorservice Hardwax-oils.”

According to Duvenjian, installers can choose either the ultra-high solid 100% VOC-free Hardwax-oil Pro version which only requires one coat, or the two coat system called Hardwax-oil Classic. While the Pro type is for professional floor installers, the Classic type is for both the floor installer and do-it-yourselfers. Both types are available in 32 standard colors.

Another important aspect of the finishing process is to take into account the given level of moisture in the area, according to Wayne Lee, Middle Tennessee Lumber business development and technical advisor.

“We worry about moisture on a daily basis,” Lee stated. “Right now the relative humidity in my house is 46% and when I lived in Denver it was 16%. I know that by springtime it’s going to be probably 55-60% whereas Denver’s springtime might be 22-24%. The point is, understanding the jobsite and the conditions the wood is actually going to live in—as well as understanding the changed conditions for that wood during its lifecycle—are probably the biggest factors during the install.”

Finish application and technique

“The easiest application for oil finishes is to apply and buff-in the oils directly with a single-disc buffer like our Woodboy 4000/32-3, in combination with a thick white pad,” explained Duvenjian. “This will ensure you don’t use too much oil. When applying the oil with a roller, spatula or brush, we do advise to always buff with a machine afterwards, ensuring the oil and pigments are deep inside the pores. Residual oil can be removed by using a special felt pad under the machine or by using cotton cloths to wipe it off.”

Duvenjian stated that even greater care must be taken with sanding when the job requires a lacquered surface to be replaced with an oil. “Lacquers close the pores, preventing the oil from getting inside. Make sure to fully sand back the flooring, most commonly following the grit sizes 40, 80 and 120 in steps. Start with a belt sander, an edge sander and finish the job with a single-disc machine.”

When it comes to application, Mervyn noted, “Apply a thin layer, wait two to three minutes, remove all excess oil within 15 minutes, then use a rag, buffer, paper towels, etc. Lastly, allow the finish to dry and cure.”

Whether starting a new installation or re-sanding an existing floor, Neuberger recommends the following: “Using a belt sander, make your final cut a 100-grit abrasive. Your final rotary cut should use a 100- to 120-grit screen or equivalent.

“Thoroughly clean before applying our finish. Magic Oil is a penetrating finish product—not a film-forming finish—so to produce an even and rich appearance with high wear resistance, the oil must be absorbed into the wood. Depending on the specie of wood being sanded, a final cut that is too fine can close off the wood fibers, not allowing adequate penetration and absorption of the finish. This can result in an uneven appearance and reduce performance.

“Magic Oil can be applied with a trowel or a buffer to spread the finish, although we primarily recommend application be done with a trowel so the product is adequately pushed into the wood fibers, leaving less excess on the surface that must be removed later.”

Maintaining the finish

“Our goal is to keep the application and maintenance of wood floors as simple as possible. Most end users don’t want to spend too much time on their floor,” noted Duvenjian. “Since our oils do not close the pores, they are extremely easy to clean and maintain and can even be spot-repaired. Depending on the traffic of the floor, in a residential setting we would advise to apply maintenance oil once or twice a year. This might sound like a lot of work, but it is actually a very easy and swift job when using the proper tools.”

Lee said that when it comes to maintenance, go with the recommended cleaner for the floor and finish type. “Back in the day, it was one capful of vinegar to one gallon of water, but with the types of products that are being manufactured today the vinegar will actually attack the finish and dull it instead of clean it.

“Today’s products require a more sensitive cleaning agent that won’t attack the finish but at the same time are aggressive enough to remove any grime. Different manufacturers are going to recommend different things, whether the cleaning agent is alcohol-based, peroxide-based or even just using a warm, damp cloth to clean up a simple spill without any chemicals at all.”

Lee added that homeowners may make an uneducated guess on the best maintenance procedure if they’re not given clear instructions by the contractor. “A lot of companies will have infomercials that advertise steam cleaners when most of the time they can do more harm than benefit if they’re not used correctly. Personally, I don’t recommend steam cleaning the floors because it introduces moisture into the finish that’s not supposed to be there.”