Laquer – Lacquer Finish Floor Fires

I hope the title of this article alarms you because every time I get news of another lacquer floor fire it brings me back about 21 years ago when a floor caught on fire right under my nose. I’ll return to this later.

This first year of the millennium has been a busy year for most of us floor sanders but it seems we are still using a finish developed about 80 years ago, when high production was regularly sacrificed for safety and health. Most lacquer finishes and their poorer cousins the lacquer sealers are made from nitrocellulose (which is basically cotton and wood fibers dissolved in acids) alkyd resins and plasticizes. But it’s the addition of lacquer thinner that makes this stuff so fast drying and explosive.

High solids content lacquers like Pro Fabulon (at 26%) contain enough non evaporated material that it was used at first as a tough bowling alley finish. It’s fast drying properties made quick work of the coating so the lanes could be used the next day. Lacquer sealers were used as a replacement for shellac as a quick dry finish to provide a base for floor varnishes. Lacquer sealers were mopped on with a lambs wool applicator and allowed to dry overnight. The next day you could easily buff the lacquer smooth and provide the scratches needed for the next coat of polyurethane varnish. This allowed for the floor finishing operation to be completed in just two days. But why stop here why not figure a way to put on even less finish and get a job done in one day? Now days the very cheapest of the wood floor refinishes merely apply 2 very thin skim coats of laquer sealer using a drywall trowel and wait 15 minutes for it to dry. Then they happily coat the floor with polyurethane and declare the shiny job done and put their hand out for the check. Now, this one day finish hasn’t left time for the lacquer solvents to release and the slippery polyurethane can’t get a grip on the unsecured sealer.

Unfortunately these sealers are much softer than the top coat and make the harder polyurethane suffer from impact cracking. Imagine a sheet of ice covering an unfrozen mud flat, it looks safe enough until you put your foot down on it. As the polyurethane layer cracks the sealer underneath provides almost no moisture protection and after a few water spills and washings the floor starts turning gray in ever growing patches. Does this sound familiar? And then most people blame the polyurethane when the fault lies not in the product but the process (remember Doc’s motto at the top of the Home page?)

But I digress. It was brought to my attention to me by my favorite carpenter that Toronto has been experiencing some rather nasty and tragic floor lacquer fires. On July 12 this year a 62 year old floor finisher named Albert Ernst was burned to death as he was applying a lacquer sealer to a basement parquet floor. His helper and the owner, by only 5 seconds, missed a fiery death as the helper came upstairs to fetch the Ephraim Gale to bring him to see the first coat being applied. Mr. Gale yelled for Albert but the floor was burning like crazy and the smoke drove he and the helper out of the house. Even though windows in the basement were open Albert didn’t realize that the solvents in lacquer are heavier than air and especially on a hot and humid day they will sink and be ignited by a pilot light, or even a spark from a fan motor used to blow the deadly fumes outside. Science lacquer sealers have a much as 80% solvent in them, a gallon of lacquer on the floor is like pouring 3 quarts of gasoline on your basement. There are arson laws against that but no restrictions on using lacquer sealers in a closed environment like your home.

I felt compelled to write this article when a few days later 68 year old Emilio Spina died with burns to 85% of his body in another lacquer basement fire. His assistant also suffered burns on his left arm and neck. It almost happened to me when 21 years ago while working for a cheap Toronto floor company. We were required to apply the lacquer sealer without the benefit of a respirator mask so I always had to supply my own. Being the newest on the crew and possessing the only mask I often had to do the nasty job of applying the lacquer with a drywall trowel on my knees. This time however I had unknowingly cut the doorbell wire with the disk on my floor edger that was incorrectly tucked under the quarter round. All I saw was a small spark of the 12 volt wire and mistook it for the many nail heads we commonly sand over. When I applied the lacquer to the front hall floor the steel tool went right to the edge where the exposed wire was and ignited the puddle of lacquer in front of me. I yelled FIRE ! and Tom the foreman came out to the top of the stairs and looked at the growing blue solvent flames at the foot of the stairs . I ducked into the room off the hall with no exit and wondered how long I should wait before I would have to smash the window to get out . But Tom, trapped upstairs got a bucket of water and heroically dashed it down the staircase onto the fire.

Well by luck or planning the full open bucket of floor lacquer was 15 feet down the narrow hall and the cool flame of the mostly alcohol fire didn’t set the floor or any curtains ablaze. So the flame didn’t get a chance to ignite the 4 gallons of flammable just a few paces away. The funny thing was that by the time Tom had thrown the water the fire was almost out anyway. And the damage to the floor was so minimal that we got out the sanders again and resanded the slight burned mark, shut off the electricity to the whole house and went on with cheaply finishing the floor. I suffered only some singed hair on my head and eyebrows and was more scared of the big boss’s wrath than my brush with death.

Well I learned something, but not much because when I started my own company later that year in order to compete price wise we had to do the quick cheap and dangerous lacqer sealer jobs just to stay in business. It wasn’t until about 3 years into my own operation that I was able to increase my prices enough to use polyurethane for all 3 coats, and decrease some of my risk. But as we got busier in the late 80’s we started using a high quaity lacquer finish called Pro Fabulon and it gave about the same duability as poly but we could do 2 or even 3 coats in a day. It has the same fire risk as any lacquer sealer so we are dilligent about pilot lights and ignition sources. But I feel that I have been living on borrowed time. After the news about the horendous deaths of my fellow floor mechanics I expreienced a profound sadness. Imagine as I was nearing retirement (as these probably men were) to die a needless death on the job. The only reason that you are reqired to use this highly flamable floor finish is because your client wants to save some money. As you are engulfed in flames and breathing in the noxious fire you know now that a cheap floor job is worth less than nothing campared to your life.

I’ll be finishing out 4 remaining contracts this summer and early fall with the Pro Fabulon and this winter will only use the less flamable oil based poly And hopefuly if I can raise my prices to cover the added material and labour costs I’ll swich to using the non flamable Dura Seal 1000 water based finish.