Choices in Finishing Wood Floors

Today’s message is about finishing hardwood products, shipping into Costa Rica along with an attitude to push the envelope in construction methods/standards.

This subject centers around Tung Oil and how it deals with the brutal Tropical Climate. I doubt very few if any who read this will have any idea of what I am talking about, yet. We have two things that can dramatically affect the appearance/beauty of a tropical home. First off we have incredible hardwoods both those that are exotic like Ironwood, Rosewood, Tamarindo, Almand etc as well as plantation grown woods like Teak and Acacia. All are great woods to dress up your home to make it more elegant as well as a pleasant environment however anything that has any exterior exposure is in for a real battle to combat the affects of the tropical sun with it’s monstrously high UV factor and rain effects. To minimize damage as well as excessive maintenance one most certainly does not need to swear off the use of wood but it sure does require careful consideration for how you shall treat and protect such. Although all of our hardwood in Costa Rica is dramatically cheaper than anything like it in Canada or USA it still is a significant cost in a new home and one that we want to protect while maintaining the natural beauty and character of wood.

In that respect for exterior purposes any varnish, marine or otherwise or typical polyurethanes all of which not only do a dismal job of this they enslave you to your woodwork from the day the can is opened. I have seen such products destroyed in less than a year leaving a bleached out peeling mess so if you take but one lesson from this report just know enough to stay away from any product of this nature. Anything that is cheap (less than $60) will be a total disaster. So lesson one is if you are planning on applying a cheap finish from the typical paint department or store then do not even consider wood in the first place. I have only seen two products stand up here and that is SUR’s Laro Tek natural oil made from a linseed oil base. After two coats of this you then apply their wax top coat. It is this wax that will wear away with the weather in six months to six years depending on the degree of exposure. However the issue is if you keep on top of this you just rewax it when the wood is loosing its water shield and water no longer beads on it. Even if you completely let it go and the oil starts to deteriorate you can just reapply the oil since the finish is in the wood not on top of it there is nothing to peel. The draw back to this product is for decks as it has little resistance to foot traffic since you are walking on a wax which does not make a harder surface than the wood itself. Hence maintenance and caution is utmost in keeping the wood looking good.

The other product I have seen stand up on windows and doors is a polyurethane base made by Sikkens however this product is like $90 gallon so that would explain its higher resistance to our weather than anything cheaper. In fact this is exactly what is on the wood windows you see I recommended in my chapter on materials. This you can get a number of years out of prior to it needing a refresher coat. Now here is the problem with polyurethanes in general they add a more plastic look to the wood in the process of trying to shield the base wood from the weather hence there is a trade off in appearance for any polyurethane in the first place. Now cheaper versions of this line of products just simply will not get you through the year so I implore you DO NOT go down that path as it will be an abusive relationship as you become a slave to the wood you put this stuff on.

The second problem with polyurethane is that it turns white when scratched or starts to wear through. The third and bigger problem is that you can not do a decent patch since it will not stick to itself unless well sanded so you just cannot make a patch of a damage or wear area or it will stick out like a sore thumb. These natural characteristics make this line of products less than ideal for any kind of wood floor or deck but it is often the only solution offered or known by the home owner.

In the process of digging and constantly trying to find better methods and materials I was researching for better solutions of how to deal with a sun deck we are about to build so I was out researching other options. In the process of doing research on the Sikkens products that the window producer uses, since that is the only thing I have seen stand up, I stumbled upon an uncommon product called Tung Oil. I had used this product many years ago in my cabinet shop to coat wood bread boards with since it is natural and non-toxic where as all the other finishes just are not. However I did not know that the same base product was produced to do large projects like flooring and entire houses. I stumbled upon this brand called Waterlox. It is however a bit experimental as the Chinese have only been using this product since the 1400′s to water proof their wooden ships. Well you can’t get much uglier service than a ship can you? This particular company however is just a new kid on this block as they have only been producing their formula for 103 years in Cincinnati. The base oil comes from the nuts of the Tung tree hence it is indeed quite a natural product along with various resins to top off the formula. Now I have long had a love for oil products as in general all of them produce a massively more deep, rich and natural look to any finished hardwood by enhancing the appearance while protecting it. However all the other oils that I am familiar with provide little protection especially for a floor. Contrary to that scenario Tung actually protects yet is flexible so it moves with the wood as it goes through its natural gyrations that come about as the weather changes. That is the key, it moves along with hence stays stuck to the wood as it needs to be. That is exactly why a marine varnish is such a disaster as it is hard as a rock hence it is only going to peel when the wood under it moves with the seasons.

When a typical polyurethane or varnish finish goes bad you have but one choice sand it off and start all over again since new coats do not stick to old finishes. In the process of sanding the old finish you also remove wood along with it so your floor will typically only survive two sandings during its life before you are faced with replacement. Here is the huge key to this story…. Contrary to that Tung oil sticks to itself and in fact it is required that it not be sanded at all. Music to my ears. You simply clean and reapply a new finish once the old is getting tired which can only be predicted based on the amount of traffic so that could be five years or fifteen years all depends on the traffic. At any rate it is a simple and easy process. Also since it does not require sanding you can patch up an accident without it showing or dictating a full sand job. To say the least this is priceless in both creating the new floor and maintaining it through many generations of traffic from your family and heirs.

So the bad news in this scenario is that this product is expensive without a doubt but considering what it is doing in protecting your investment in a beautiful floor it becomes I guess a bit of a mute point. If you want a true natural look not a plastic finish, you want an easy clean finish and you never ever want to have to rip your house apart and throw out part of your floor with the next sanding then I would suggest this is the price of the insurance for a floor that will last into perpetuity. Our cost landed in Costa Rica along with 37% in taxes is $115 a gallon or $7.65 per square meter. This is easily double the price of any urethane but the appearance alone of the two products immediately dictates to most people just what they should use. Most who invest in real hardwood floors do so because they DO NOT WANT A PLASTIC LOOK. If they wanted that look they could by plastic crap phony laminate floors instead. You already know my view on that stuff.

Now with this being said the only reason I was able to get this price down to this level for a product manufactured in Ohio was by bringing it into Costa Rica by ship in a cube container along with other specialty products that we import. Any kind of land freight would add another $20 to $50 a gallon plus any air freight options aside from being atrociously expensive are not even an option as such products are not permitted on planes in the first place.

This is what I referred to as pushing the envelope. It is all about going out of our way to do the research and finding unique and superior products that are proven to improve both the quality of your home as well as the ease of maintenance of such. Just as critical is to also know how to expedite such at as low of a cost as is possible. Hopefully some day I will be able to demonstrate to you the big difference between such finishes in person.

About Trevor

I have lived in Costa Rica for 14 years and have been active in real estate development over that period and construction in general. I am a qualified Journeyman carpenter and cabinetmaker from Canada. My current focus project is building custom green homes and housing packages all built out of Magnesium Oxide SIPs.

Comments

Choices in Finishing Wood Floors — 27 Comments

  1. I am using unfinished cork glue down tiles 12 x 24 inches for a 440 sq ft upstairs addition to my simple country cabin in Perez Zeledon. The subfloor is very heavy fibrolit (brand new, clean, free from damage and about an inch thick).
    Do you think that Tung Oil would work as the finish for the cork floor? Everything I have read recommends urethane, polyurethane. If Tung Oil would work instead of urethane and would actually seal the tiles together, great. Could it be stained first as I want a reddish tone? Your opinion would be appreciated

    • Anita,
      Yes you can put a stain under the Tung Oil to adjust the color to a degree of the natural cork color.
      Cork is basically wood of special character so no reason Tung Oil would not work with the benefit of being able to recoat without removing the old.
      Well sure everything you would read would recommend polyurethane since that is mostly what is available as few know of any other option however that should never be considered a reason for the best answer.
      “If all you have is a hammer funny how everything is a nail.”

      Trevor Chilton

  2. Stumbled upon your site when looking for info about hardwood flooring. I am primarily involved in wooden boats over the years and have been a varnish slave for many of them- as you stated so very well.
    But i have used tung oil or a tung oil/linseed oil mix on furniture for many years, and i agree with you wholeheartedly about it’s wonderful qualities. I have found a light scuffing with some fine Bronze wool after 3 coats lets you achieve a build up that withstands heavy traffic on decks.

    I am hoping to build a 60X60 stilt house sometime in the near future in CR and i would be interested in staying in touch with you for some pointers. You are my kind of guy!
    Any local knowledge you can impart concerning availabilities and prices on hardwood flooring would be appreciated. I imagine that will be my single most expensive materials cost. i have been looking at cocobolo (Rosewood), Almendro (Cristobal or Macacauba), and Tamarindo. I am quite sure that Teak would be out of my price range, and maybe all these, too.

    Please drop me a line if you have the time.

    Ole
    olafander@yahoo.com

    • Ole,
      With any of these woods it is finding the supply of the exotics which describe all of these except Teak it is not an exotic due to the many plantations that exist here. You can normally find these when someone salvages a downed tree which actually happens quite frequently. No there is not tons of it but is findable you just have to be careful who and how they came by the wood as most of these trees are protected to prevent raping of virgin forests. Even with that said $25 to $30 m2 is quite doable.

      Plantation woods like Acacia can go down to under $20. At either rate it is not a big part of a construction budget which as you may have seen on our site is normally around $60 ft2 or $645 m2.

      Meanwhile I will add you to our newsletter list so that you will hear about what we are working on and how the progress is going.

      Trevor Chilton

  3. Hello there Trevor.

    I need to replace about 300 sq feet of ourdoor decking at my house in Naranjo, near Grecia. I have been quoted that the wood cost alone for pressure treated pine will be $4,500, which is absolutely ridiculous. Can you help me with a recommendation for alternative wood that would work? Thanks.

  4. Trevor…I happened upon your site last night while looking for finishing products for wood installation. Having been a General Contractor for 30 years in the states , from 30 storys to green . I can’t tell you how many constuction sites I have past in CR over 15 years and drove by shaking my head thinking what are these people doing…this is crazy !
    I commend you on what I have read on your site and the valuable info that you have past on. This leads me to believe that you might be the only person in CR that knows what he is doing.
    I look forward to reading additional information and visiting one of your job sites. You are way ahead of the wave which CR.is experiencing. Great Job ! Best Lex

    • Lex,
      Well thanks a lot for your comments needless to say our observations have been most similar. Not sure what is worse ignoring codes or not having them in the first place. However I do say Tico constructors piss me off way less than those that come here and know better but choose to shaft clients just because they can get away with it.

      Sure any time you like you can come to one of our sites to see our version of Tico construction. No doubt as what should not surprise you we are extremely busy! My big challenge is figuring out how to fill the need here for high quality construction as there is more clients than time in the day to build to fulfill that need.

      Trevor

  5. Your report on Tung Oil is brilliant. I have used it when refinishing furniture…..very easy to use. I also used it on the woodwork on my boat. Just beautiful. Thin multiple coats worked best, each adding more depth and character. It can also be buffed with a cloth if you use the gloss Tung oil.

  6. Hello Trevor,

    I would love to have the hardwood floor of my newly acquired home bedrooms restained and refinished. The house is in Playa Grande. I do not know what kind of wood is there, but the finish looks like polyurethane but the tint is orangy-yellowish and that is too much for me… :) . Do you know anyone in this area who is good with refinishing floors ?

    Terry

    • Terry,
      No I do not know anyone in the area that does floors however it is not my home turf as it were as compared to the Central Valley.
      Now if you want to wait until I am in the area or working there steady come August when we build a home in Playa Grande I can
      have a look at it.

      However with that said I do not recommend polyurethane for floors.

      Regards,

      Trevor

  7. Hi Trevor thank you for your great blog.

    Is it ok to apply plain linseed oil on top of the Laro Tek you describe?

    Where and what kind of Linseed Oil do you recommend buying in CR?

    Thanks,
    Miguel

    • Thank you Miguel glad I have been of some help.

      Raw Linseed has a nasty habit of turning wood black over time so it looks more like you put tar on it. Not likely the look you are looking for.
      So stick with SUR’s product and especially the wax that goes on top of it is the big secret and what the climate attacks
      while leaving your oil base alone. Then you just reapply the wax as it get beat up anywhere from every 6 mths to 3 years depending on the level of exposure. Whatever you do DO NOT EVER buy polyurethane for exterior use here as all the typical ones get killed very fast leaving behind usually a horrible mess. Only possible exceptions are products well over $100 a gallon which most do it yourselvers balk at while making one huge error and enslaving themselves to an imminent disaster.

      Trevor Chilton

  8. Thanks for the info. I live and built a house close to the beach in Playa Avellana Gte 11 years ago. I put against the recommendations of people who had been here for years before a wood deck on the west side of the house which of course will get the worst of the afternoon Gte. sun. I used Ron Ron which was very costly. Put marine varnish on it. It has been a nightmare since after the first 9 months. I am getting ready to replace the decking as the joist are still okay with Cedro. Which brings me to the next point. The termites love the sap wood of the ron ron and have had a field day with it. Hence the cedro. Wood teated with the Tung Oil. Will the oil repel termites? I wish I would have known about this product before if it does what you say it will. $115 a gallon would have been a bargain. Believe me.

    • Brian I am not familiar with Ron Ron as to its outdoors endurance but in general it sounds not good. However the big deal is what you put on it however Varnish is the worst possible option or at least what most people tend to use is always an unmitigated disaster. NOrmally it lasts 6 -9 months under the conditions you describe hence that leaves one hell of a lot of unprotected time over the past 11 years hence the predictable damage has occurred. Teak most likely would have been cheaper and definitely way more durable in outdoor conditions than almost all other woods and definitely the only one that is plantation grown. Right now assuming this is a wide open deck there is only two products I know that work Duralac’s best polyurethane that runs $100 a gal hence dam few consumers will bite on that instead they tend to choose the much less expensive option of buying $40 a gal junk that does exactly what you have experienced. This product is mostly sold commercially especially to the hotel industry and carries about a 7 year life.

      The other option was SUR’s Larotek however they took it out of production 4 months ago so it is still in inventory in some stores. Why they did this I have no idea as they had a great product however it did require constant maintenance in being waxed every 6 months to 3 years depending on the level of exposure. If you want a lower cost finish and accept the waxing however that is no harder than waxing the car go grab some before it is all sold. There is also a product that you can put into any finish that will ward off termites and is made by Xilo out in Ocho Mogo. I am just about to buy some to treat a wood floor I am just about ready to start on.

      Trevor

  9. Trevor, I just posted comment on deck. I also have T&G Teak floors inside that I want to refinish. Do you have a contact # for good floor finisher? Central Valley is okay.

    • I do have one I just have to look for his number as I can’t locate it at this moment. Is this at Avillanas as well?
      I have another client looking for the same thing so could be combined in one trip so would cut costs for both of you.

      Trevor

    • I have some on its way to me at the moment however you CANNOT put it on any deck that is in full weather exposure. If it is covered no problem.
      There is another option of polyurethane made that can be used made by Duralac but it costs $100 a gal and that is the only one I know of that will withstand our climate for around 7 years. It is used at a lot of hotels but few consumers are smart enough to know the cheap shit at the ferateria is a disaster. SUR used to make Larotec which was an oil and wax finish that can be found still at various stores as it only went out of production 4 months ago so there is still some inventory. A really stupid idea on the part of SUR. IT is way cheaper but you do have to reapply the wax every 6 -12 months depending on exposure however that is no harder than waxing the car.

      Trevor

    • I tried to reply directly as well but your email bounced back.
      I have some on its way to me at the moment however you CANNOT put it on =
      any deck that is in full weather exposure. If it is covered no problem.
      There is another option of polyurethane made that can be used made by =
      Duralac but it costs $100 a gal and that is the only one I know of that =
      will withstand our climate for around 7 years. It is used at a lot of =
      hotels but few consumers are smart enough to know the cheap shit at the =
      ferateria is a disaster. SUR used to make Larotec which was an oil and =
      wax finish that can be found still at various stores as it only went out =
      of production 4 months ago so there is still some inventory. A really =
      stupid idea on the part of SUR. IT is way cheaper but you do have to =
      reapply the wax every 6 -12 months depending on exposure however that is =
      no harder than waxing the car.

      Trevor Chilton

  10. Hi Trevor, very informative, thanks! I live in Caribbean Mexico. I have used raw linseed oil on some furniture, but it molds. I’m now working with boiled linseed oil mixed with turpentine, not sure if that will do better. I read somewhere that mixing in 1 part engine oil with 4 parts linseed will prevent molding, do you know if that works? And I would like to try Tung oil too, but can’t find it around here – time will probably solve that problem – but I also read that Tung oil cannot be used on rosewood (see http://www.waterlox.com/faqs/woodworking/waterlox-tung-oil-finishes-on-rosewood-or-cocobol).

    And finally, people here keep recommending Spa’n’Deck for outside work. do you have any experience with that?

  11. Hi Trevor,
    I use the Laro Tek Oil only for my terrace in Guanacaste. I did not know that there is a wax to apply on top. Is that product just called Lar tek wax?
    Thanks for your help,
    Kurt

    • Hi Trevor,
      thank you very much for the info.
      As it happened, I needed more Laro Tek today but Sur in Tamarindo is out of it now. Thanks to your email I got Lanca’s Duranza instead at Comaco.
      Thanks again,

  12. Hello Trevor,
    I have a floor of manglillo in the southern zone of Costa Rica that receives indirect sun on some parts, and occasional water when the rain blows in under the roof. The tung oil product you mention sounds ideal. How would I go about getting some?

    Also, someone recommended a oroduct call Laro Max. Can you tell me anything about this product and whether you would recommend it?
    Thanks!
    Elizabeth

  13. Tevor. Your blog has been so fantastic. Thank you!!! We have been looking for tung oil for our new teak floor for at least two months. May we buy from you or so you have a recommendation on where we can buy? Thanks! Angelina
    Summerrising68@gmail.com

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