This is a multipart question about natural product finishes: I’m interested in environmentally friendly , low to non-toxic products, beeswax or other oils or waxes that produce a low luster but smooth finish; one that is somewhat easy to maintain. I understand waxes need reapplication but how often? What brands to try and where to buy? (I can’t find links on the web about them). Can I do it myself after I hire a professional sander to sand the floors? If I hire someone, will they know how to apply waxes or is that harder to find that someone who will do it right? What about staining the wood first: my floors are 90+ years old, oak and in good condition, but after resanding them, will they need to be restained?
Oh, boy that phrase “environmentally friendly” (EF) can mean soooo many things, where to begin ?
First I should dispel the myth that wax is the only floor finish you need and that it is EF. The truth about wax is that it is merely a top dressing for a film finish that is already cured and dried on the floor. You might try to apply a paste wax on a wood floor, but you can never build a protective film on it. I know I tried on one board with 10 coats of wax. They all soaked in and never left any visible sheen on the floor. Water goes right through wax. Waxing has a solvent release as you use it, and it needs a fresh coat of wax every year. Very labour intensive.
So if you want a low toxic floor finish that is made from all natural ingredients. It has been used for hundreds of years and lasts indefinitely, and shows no sign of flaking or peeling. It dries very fast and is a cinch to touch up. Makes for a wonderful seal coat for waxing if you wish.
It’s shellac and can be bought in a highly refined form by the Zinsser Co. at http://www.zinsser.com/product_detail.asp?ProductID=72 The drawbacks are numerous though. It’s a fairly soft finish, scratches easily. It does not resistant alcohol spills because alcohol is actually its solvent. Smells to the high heavens when you apply this EF finish made from the natural excretions of the lac bug in India. But if you are aware of all this you can easily touch up and re-wax all in a few hours.
Next we have all the so called oil finishes. I really have to dismiss the pure oil (like tung oil and linseed oil) finishes from wood floor use, as they smell for months as they slowly cure, and don’t resist water worth a damn.
But the varnish/oils and the wiping varnishes are a different story. The best (but not cheap) and most EF varnish oil I know of is the Tried and True brand at http://www.triedandtruewoodfinish.com/
This is truly a EF product as it is made the way they used to first make curing oils in the 1800’s. In their varnish/oil there are NO solvents. But you will need about 6 coats on very smooth wood, applied over 2 weeks to build a suitable film for floor protection. Easy to fix but it’s expensive stuff.
A bit cheaper are the wiping varnishes, here’s a link http://www.waterlox.com/handbook_woodfloors.cfm But these dry faster (overnight) because they contain metallic driers and solvents that are quite toxic during the job (and 30 days after). They are really just diluted versions of a regular varnish, but you’d never know that from reading their ads. Waterlox also makes regular alkyd varnishes. All these have a nice warm amber color to the final film. And the wiping varnishes can built a more durable film than the varnish/oils.
Then we have regular old oil based polyurethane ( OMU). Which is the full form of a wiping varnish, and is easy to apply. Very durable. Somewhat toxic, but is safe with in 30 days after application. I wrote a great article in this site about this stuff, and in a satin finish looks like a fine smooth waxed floor. But about 100 times more durable. I recoat my floors every 10 years, so I suffer little toxic effects in the long run.
And then they are a whole slew of modern water based and Swedish finishes, and I could go on about these all night. But I won’t. Oh. and I wouldn’t suggest you darken (stain) the wood after sanding if you are using a oil/varnish you might just wipe out the stain color. Floors are more easily touched up when they are just coated with the finish itself. Staining floors is a really complex job, but I have written another fine article on this very subject.