At Essex & Co. Custom Floors, we offer flooring with both urethane and natural oil finishes. Both technologies have their advantages.
Urethane finishes are highly durable and are currently the most popular choice in the U.S., but at Essex & Co. we believe that natural oil finishes would be more popular if they were better understood. In Europe, where natural oil floor finishes have a long tradition, they constitute roughly one third of the residential market and one half of the commercial market. We hope you'll take the time to read on and find out why so many Europeans prefer natural oils.
Consumers often ask which type of finish is more durable, urethane or oil, and unfortunately the answer is not simple. It's a question of short vs. long term, and what exactly you mean by durability. The two finishes reflect two completely different approaches – oils work by fortifying and sealing the wood fibers, while urethane works by walling them off. It might help to think of this comparison in terms of an analogy: oil is to urethane as skin is to a raincoat. An oil finish penetrates into the wood and hardens to become an integral part of the floor, just as skin is an integral part of the body. A urethane finish is a protective layer that covers the floor, like a raincoat.
Repairs and Maintenance
There is a perception among some that natural oils are less durable and more difficult to maintain than urethane finishes, but in truth they can be more durable over the long term. The maintenance of oiled floors may be more frequent, but it is also far less disruptive.
Oil finishes are relatively easy to refresh by cleaning or nourishing the wood with more oil. Washing the floor with the proper soaps and re-oiling every few years will remove most signs of wear and tear. Like skin, an oiled floor that is well cared for may last a liftime, never needing resanding.
A urethane finish is more like a raincoat – it provides excellent protection and scratch resistance, but its appearance and performance are never again as good as on the day it was installed. Renewing a worn urethane finish requires throwing away the raincoat and buying a new one – sanding and recoating the entire floor.
While urethane finishes tend to be more scratch and scuff-resistant than oil finishes, blemishes that do appear can't be spot-repaired. Repairing scratches requires refinishing the entire floor. By contrast, an oiled floor that gets damaged in a particular location can be treated locally and blended seamlessly with the rest of the floor. Also, a scratch in urethane will appear as a white line where the coating has fractured, while a scratch in an oiled floor will still have the natural background color.
A urethane-coated floor will, on average, need to be refinished every 7-12 years. A UV-cured oil finish that has been mopped periodically with the proper soap should require re-oiling every 3-5 years. So, while re-oiling will need to occur more frequently than refinishing urethane, the re-oiling requires no sanding, so it is much less intrusive and expensive. Over the long term, the total maintenance cost and burden of an oiled floor turns out to be less than that of a urethane-coated floor.
It is important to mention that the cost of the products used to clean and maintain an oiled floor is slightly higher than the products used to clean urethane finishes, and you have to make sure you use exactly the right product, which means possibly having to order from a specialty supplier (there are many online). Products used to clean urethane finishes are available in supermarkets and hardware stores everywhere. Oil soaps and finishes also tend to have mild odors, whereas cleaning products for urethane finishes are usually odorless.
Essex & Co. Oiled Floors vs The Competitions
Essex & Co.'s oiled floors do not require top-coating after installation, which is a requirement with many other oiled wood floors currently on the market. This is a huge added cost an inconvenience that is often not mentioned in our competitors' marketing. Also, unlike some of our competitors, we apply a final top-coat of clear oil above the oils used to generate our colors. This allows periodic maintenance and re-oiling without the need to find the right colored oil to match the original color that was applied at the factory.
Before making a decision based on a flooring product's warranty claims, it's important to understand the many 'Exclusions' listed in the fine print of all urethane-coated flooring warranties. The two most common problems that wood floors suffer from, scratching and water damage, are always excluded. The warranties only cover finish 'wear-through,' which means that the coating shouldn't wear off and expose the raw wood. Most people will need to refinish their floor to remove the scratches long before the finish wears through, making the warranties relatively meaningless. Knowing this, many companies are now offering extravagant 50-year and even 100-year finish warranties, even though their products are coated with urethane that is no more durable or scratch-resistant than other products with 15-year and 25-year warranties. All too often, the length of the warranty has more to do with the aggressiveness of the company's marketing and legal departments than it does with the quality of the coating.
Finish 'wear-through' warranties are not relevant to floors finished with natural oils because they penetrate into the wood rather than forming a layer on top that can be worn through. Don't take the lack of a finish warranty to mean that the floor won't hold up as well as one with a hefty warranty. The truth is, a properly maintained oiled floor can look great for an entire lifetime, and offer the added benefit of being spot-repairable. When you scratch a urethane-coated floor that carries a 50-year warranty, will you wait 50 years to repair it?