Modern chemistry has done us all a favor by bringing back these traditional, hand-rubbed oil finishes in a format that requires far less maintenance. Hard-wax oils are a hybrid of oil and wax, with a chemical catalyst that triggers a hardening action. The result is a durable, low-maintenance protective finish with all the aesthetic qualities of linseed or tung oil.
Rather than building a film of resins or plastics on top of the wood surface like a polyurethane, hard-wax oils work by saturating and bonding to wood cells, then hardening. Excess oil is wiped off, resulting in a lustrous, velvet-like texture that sits level with the floor surface rather than on top.
In addition to the aesthetic benefits, hard-wax oils offer three major benefits:
Permanent. Traditional polyurethanes will fade and turn yellow over time. Hard-wax oil, by contrast, will only deepen and intensify with age. As long as it is periodically refreshed with maintenance coats, there is a real possibility you will never have to pay for a full refinish.
All that being said, are there any downsides? Just a couple:
Sheen level. This isn't really a downside, but just something to be aware of. Because it is a penetrating finish, hard-wax oil has a very matte luster. Most homeowners who choose hard-wax oil do so for this reason, but if you are looking for a glossy, mirror-like finish, you're better off with a polyurethane.
Oil-modified urethanes (OMUs) have been the industry standard for at least fifty years, and not without reason. They're inexpensive, easy to use, relatively long-lasting, and attractive. While our recommended option is waterborne polyurethane, we're happy to offer oil-modified urethane as a lower-cost option. Our preferred brands are Poloplaz Primero or Bona Woodline.
We believe there's still a place for OMU finish, but it does come with a few caveats:
Hard-wax oils are a next-generation take on an old-fashioned recipe. In decades past, natural, penetrating finishes such as linseed oil and tung oil were used to give color, luster, and sheen to hardwood floors.
But because they held up poorly to foot traffic, they required a protective coating of wax that needed frequent maintenance and polishing. With the advent of polyurethanes, these finishes were no longer viable.
We mentioned a non-plastic appearance as one of our criteria. It's an unfortunate truth that many of the most durable waterborne finishes out there can look pretty plasticky, and even get hazy with age.
Our experience with Pallmann is that it's a crystal-clear finish with a gorgeous sheen, something like you would see in a clear-coat on top of high quality automotive paint job.
Antique oak boards finished with "Magic Oil," a leading hard-wax oil product
OMU finish naturally turns wood a rich amber color--something waterborne finishes have to replicate synthetically.
Finishing is the final step of a flooring project, and perhaps the most critical. Finish both protects your freshly sanded floors and enhances the aesthetic qualities of the wood.
What makes a good quality finish? We've put in considerable time and experimentation to identify products that would meet three criteria:
Current industry consensus says the best all-around finish that accomplish these objectives is a high-end waterborne polyurethane. We've tested multiple lines (including perennial standouts such as Bona Traffic) and the one we've been the happiest with to date is made by Pallmann, a German company on the cutting edge of finish chemistry. Our standard offering from Pallmann is called Pall-X 96, a single-component finish that rates as highly as many two-component, commercial finishes from other companies for wear and abrasion resistance.
Best of all, it has an extremely low VOC rating and zero solvents. For the few hours that it spends drying, you will notice a mild odor, no stronger than a freshly painted room. With normal ventilation, even that will disappear in about 12 hours.
Pallmann also makes an even more durable, catalyzed finish called Pall-X 98that is recommended for commercial applications. If you anticipate high-traffic situations in your home, you may want to consider this upgrade. The extra cost may be well worth the value you will get from it.