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When deciding which type of finish you would like for your wood floor, it is important to consider the environment in which they are to be installed (i.e. high or low traffic, adjacent to entry points from the outside), and your lifestyle and maintenance preferences. It should be emphasised that all wood floors will require routine maintenance, such as sweeping or dust mopping to keep them looking beautiful and new, but your choice of wood flooring finish now will have a big impact on how you care for your floor in the long-term, as well as how your floor will look in the years to come.

Traditionally, wood floors were often waxed. This involved the application of layers of wax, and involved lots of buffing between layers. This was, and is still, regarded as a very labour intensive method of floor finishing, not only in it’s initial application, but also in it’s subsequent maintenance. By and large, the old-fashioned wax-floor has now become a thing of the past, and wowadays most wood floors are finished with either Hardwax Oil (either pre-finished or finished on site), UV Hardened Acrylic Lacquers (pre-finished only), or Acrylic Floor Seals (finished on site).

Other considerations might be in respect of mechanical finishing and distressing effects to the wood which serve to give the floor an aged look; for example, distressed, hand-scraped, sawn to name but a few.

acrylic finishes

Acrylic lacquers fall essentially into one of 2 types: pre-finished which are generally UV hardened lacquers, and site-applied where around 3 coats of acrylic floor seal to sanded or unfinished boards.

UV hardened acrylic lacquers are factory applied to hardwood floors, and are designed to protect the wood surface by forming an impenetrable layer that keeps dirt, spillages and moisture away from the wood. Between five and nine coats of acrylic lacquer are applied to the wear layer of the wood, each one hardened by UV radiation before the next one is applied. This process makes the surface hard and provides some resistance to scratching whilst at the same time retaining the individual character of the wood itself. "UV hardened" refers to the method of rapidly curing the surface finish by exposure to ultraviolet radiation. This facilitates very rapid drying.

In the case of site-applied acrylic seals, such as BonaMega, the floor is given 3 coats (or more) of seal, each coat taking around 1 hour until touch dry, and 24 hours for full hardening. These seals have the advantage of being available in a number of degrees of "shininess", ranging from Ultra-matt finishes, though Matt, Satin and through to Gloss. Also, it means that before sealing, you have the opportunity to apply stains or dyes to the wood to achieve any colour or tone that you like.

Other than the optional application of maintenance refreshers, acrylic lacquered floors do not need yearly maintenance. The UV hardened pre-finished acrylic floors in particular though can sometimes, over a period of 5 to 10 years, undergo a visible cycle of deterioration. This deterioration is generally contingent on a) the quality of the brand purchased, b) the environment and foot-traffic of the area where they are fitted and c) whether steps have been taken to protect the surface; for instance by having door mats fitted at entrances to prevent dirt being walked though, and protective felt pads fitted to the feet of furniture, particularly chairs, to prevent scratching when they are moved.

In these cases, when damaged with a sharp object, or subjected to the long term abrasive effect of dirt or furniture being dragged across it, the lacquer can cease to fully protect the wood any more and dirt, and particularly moisture, will make the wooden floor look ‘grey’ regardless of maintenance efforts. In fact, when a lacquered floor has reached this point, cleaning damaged areas with a moist cloth will often only make things worse. At this stage, the only option left is to have the floor professionally re-sanded, and a fresh lacquer (or an oil) re-applied.

A variation on the standard satin effect acrylic pre-finished lacquer has been the development of acrylic matt-lacquers, which give the non-reflective appearance of an oiled floor. These are often used in combination with brushed finishes. For this reason, like oiled floors, they are much more forgiving of the effects of general wear and tear on the floors surface, and can help to disguise small scratches and abrasions.

oiled finishes

Oil finishes on wood floors have been used for many years, and globally, oil is now the most widely used floor finish. They are not to be confused with petroleum based oils. and are made from naturally derived oils. Most of these are vegetable based and are 100% natural, and contain no VOCs (volatile organic compounds)

Hardwax Oils combine this natural oil, which penetrates the pores of the wood to give internal protection against dirt ingress and spillages, combined with a hard-wax that forms a surface protection against moisture and water in a similar way to a waxed jacket. Oils tend to sink quite deep into the grain of the timber, and will enhance, although slightly darken the grain. They don't provide the subtle sheen, and the apparent "depth" that acrylic seals can provide, but generally lend a much more "authentic" appearance to the floor.

It should be noted that an oiled or Hardwax oiled wooden floor requires slightly more maintenance than a lacquered floor. Contingent upon various environmental factors, such as the amount of foot traffic and the drying effects of central heating for example, natural oils and waxes will both wear, evaporate and leach out of the floor over time and will need to be replenished on a regular basis. This can be easily done with the correct maintenance oil and requires little or no skill. It’s very easy to apply and a very forgiving product if a mistake is made.

The pay-off for this maintenance regime for the end-user though is that in the long run the floor should prove more resilient than a lacquered floor, and it’s appearance will improve with age.

reflection and refraction

Part of the appeal of acrylic lacquers is that Wood coated with a transparent lacquered finish has a beautiful and distinctive appearance that is familiar to everyone. You will notice in particular, that lacquered woods with prominent and unusual grain patterns and knots will have a striking directional reflectance which can often appear to change as the viewing angle changes.

This appearance is caused by subsurface refraction through the lacquer of the irregularities in the wood fibers, whose angle with the lacquered surface might vary substantially across the board. This causes an apparent spatial variation in the grain of the wood; in some instances an almost "3D" effect,  not just in colour, but also in light reflection from the subsurface. In straight-grained wood, the same kind of refraction / reflection occurs, but with much subtler spatial variation.

The color and texture seen on the cut face of wood represents the intersection of the cutting plane with the three dimensional structure of growth rings and rays within the timber; the angle at which the wood fibres and grain meet the slicing surface creates a texture, with the three-dimensional fibre direction varying across the surface.

When wood is planed and sanded to produce a flat surface, the result is a layer of partially damaged wood cells on the surface of the wood, with the fibre structure remaining intact below the surface. When light hits the sanded surface it is reflected diffusely, and is the reason that the color of unfinished wood is light and unsaturated.

However, when a lacquer, varnish or other clear finish is applied to the wood, this first surface is effectively eliminated because the refraction of the finish is close to that of the wood. For this reason, the distinctive reflection behaviors of wood, which arise from the more organized structure of the subsurface, are much more prominent in finished wood: which is really one of the reasons, aside from protecting the wood from moisture, for applying clear finishes.