The marketplace for wood floor finishes is hotting up, with the amount of wood flooring going down in this country everyday on a massive upward curve. The UK is seen as a target market for growth by all wood floor finish manufacturers and this can be a good thing for end users.
You will notice I said, “can be” and not “is”, why did I say that? The answer is simple when you buy anything you should adopt the “caveat emptor” principle or “buyer beware” for those whose parents’ incomes didn’t stretch to private schooling (mine didn’t either but I am handy with Google).
Now of course you can only apply the principle if you know the questions to ask and if you have no guidelines by which to judge the answers then the questions are still pointless. The point of this article is to tell you the questions to ask and give you enough information to judge the answers because sometimes the people selling things might not give you the whole story (I know it’s a shocker!), it’s what they don’t tell you, or more commonly what they don’t know themselves that is important.
Let me start with the number one nonsense claim that sales people for low end and desperate companies use, “our product is the toughest on the market” sometimes they use a technical term “our product outperforms every other in Taber tests” If anyone claims this there are only two possibilities, number one, they do not understand the floor protection industry or number two, they do understand it, know that Taber testing, in isolation, is not that important (I will explain why) but feel that it will baffle you with bull excrement and impress you. Either one of those scenarios means that you don’t want that person selling you anything, you cannot trust them.
The explanation on Taber testing maybe long winded, but it is important so please bear with me, I have been to several manufacturers across Europe and one of the things that unites them is the embarrassment of the technical staff (both chemists and testers) when you talk about Taber testing. So, what is Taber testing? To answer that I am going to use my old friend Google (a cop out, possibly but it rules out my bias so allow me this). “The intent of abrasion testing is to produce data that will reproducibly rank materials in their resistance to scratching abrasion under a specified set of conditions. Standard abrasion testing methods should not be used to predict the exact resistance of a given material in a specific environment”.
Read it thoroughly and check out the last sentence because that is the bit a dodgy salesman won’t tell you! So Taber testing is a useful basic tool for chemists to judge whether their new formulation performs well against their old formulation in abrasion tests, it does not predict accurately how well it will perform in the real world because resistance to abrasion is not the only thing we ask floor finishes to do. So, think about it, what are the important parameters for a wood floor finish, lets start listing them (in no particular order).
1) Appearance - has to look good.
2) Consistency of quality – speaks for itself.
3) Flexibility – see below.
4) Ease of application – it must be easy to use and perform well in a vast array of circumstances.
5) Connection to previous surface – the tougher the product the harder this gets.
6) Slip resistance – must abide by British and EU standards
7) Chemical resistance – has to be able to deal with common household products (no not bleach)
8) Abrasion resistance – resistance to scratching (remember the higher this is the more difficult it is to make it stick to substrate).
All this from a product that will be less than 100 microns thick (human hair thickness) once it is dried and cured and these are the basic requirements, you may think of more. The second point about Taber Testing is that there is no international standard, unless all the products in the world are independently tested on the same machine the results in terms of pure statistics are irrelevant anyway, which is why good chemists and good manufacturers don’t bang on about it.
My final comment on abrasion resistance is important, all the chemists I have spoken to rank flexibility as more important for wood floor finishes and if you think about it, this makes sense. First off, wood expands and contracts in relation to the humidity in the air and second it deforms under the pressure of (for example) a stiletto heel (thankfully I am only 80 kilos so not a problem in my case), if the finish is too hard (a requirement for outright scratch resistance ) it is less likely to perform well under these conditions. A reasonable analogy would be this, a sheet of glass is quite scratch resistant, you need diamond or good quality abrasive to scratch it but put it on the floor and drop something on it and it will break (I know another shocker). A piece of cardboard, however, will be useless in scratch resistance tests but drop a steel ball on it and it will deform but not break. Chemist (being very clever people) know that wood floor finishes need to be harder than cardboard and more flexible than glass (private education you see).
Before I move on to the positive things you can judge a floor finish by, let me put a few more nails in the coffin of those who make the claim “ours is the toughest finish in the world”. Firstly most modern topical* wooden floor finishes are polymers or co polymers, of the 14 or 15 basic ingredients in a water based finish (anyone still using solvents needs to be shown the door immediately) the main thing you want left on your floor once the product is dried and cured is the polyurethane, most of the other ingredients simply evaporate away. Pure polyurethane is a tricky beast to disperse in water which is why acrylics are often added to make it more manageable. The reason this is important is that no finish manufacturer makes their own polyurethane, such is the cost of producing it that there are only a handful of resin manufacturers in the world. You can only buy it from one of these companies so in reality there is no super tough ingredient that is unique to anyone!! Second, some of the worst performing products I have ever used or seen in my twenty plus years wood floor career have been the super tough ones, put simply if you add more polyurethane you have to lessen another ingredient and that has an impact on the quality of the finish. It is the skill of the chemist in balancing the ratios that is key, the best manufactures have the best chemists and the biggest and wealthiest manufacturers have access to the newest resin technology and first pick when ingredients become scarce (another shocker, they keep coming don’t they).
You will be glad to know that the “heavy lifting” is now done and we can progress to what you should ask about when considering which brand of finish to choose as either a contractor or end user.
If we accept (and I do) that the major brands of the world all do their very best to produce good quality finishes that will provide the end user with a satisfactory customer experience (modern jargon, don’t you just love it?), then clearly it rules out this alone as a standard of measurement. For me, as a former contractor, two things are absolutely vital, number one, product range and number two, customer support (on another day I might change the order, but then I am fickle like that, ask my wife). I list these as important for good reason, if a contractor or manufacturer does not have an array of products to sell you, they will sell you what they do have irrespective of its suitability for the job and with increasing complexity of modern products combined with the unpredictability of the natural substrate (wood), technical support is crucial. By the way a contractor who uses solvent based finishes will not have as many technical issues as solvents kill a lot of the problems, but the downside is they are slowly killing you and the planet as well. Customer support in the twenty first century as we all know, generally consists of someone at the end of a telephone in Bombay who doesn’t have a clue about your problems, that is not acceptable in our world, competent and experienced people at the end of the phone is the bare minimum and the very best companies have staff who will physically stand alongside good contractors when the need arises. In addition to this laboratory analysis should be available to ensure that tricky timbers are identified prior to product application and the correct product specified, this is a service my customers avail of from time to time.
Finally, I am going to finish by briefly talking about floor care. Whatever product you choose to use there should be a specified cleaning product for it and information available as to its use. If your contractor or the manufacturer whose products he uses does not have this information and range of products do not use them, it is a sign that they are not interested in the long term protection of your floor and therefore nothing else they say or do can be trusted.
The reason that I choose to sell the brand I do (and no other brand) is that after years of trying many others (and suffering the consequences of some), I believe that it is the best in the industry at all the above, I am passionate about what I sell. Others will disagree with me and that is fine, it is a free country and I am well able to state my case rationally and intelligently (despite what you may think from the above), when you choose a brand or a contractor make sure they can answer all the above, if they can and you trust them, use them and stick to them, whoever they may be.
*A topical finish is one that sits on top of the wood rather than in the wood. Lacquers are topical, oils are penetrating finishes and hard wax oils are a combination of both.
For more information on Taber testing please check out the following website www.taberindustries.com