A white timber floor
Achieving a ‘white’ timber floor is not easy but with some consideration for species and finishes, it is possible. Ted Riddle explains.
I was recently approached by a colleague of mine from Building Designers Australia about specifying a ‘white timber floor’. My initial reaction was to imply their client might end up disappointed; however, after some thought, I suggesed they establish exactly what their client was expecting in order for us to work on some realistic solutions.
To put it bluntly, achieving a true white solid timber floor is almost impossible. There are species that are ‘white’ when first dressed – hardwoods like silver ash and ramin are good examples. Then there’s the many types of softwood such as white Baltic (Norway spruce), white spruce (North America) and various others around the world called white pine (notably New Zealand and USA). They all sound suitable but will darken with coating and exposure.
There are other well-known hardwood species that fall into what you might call light coloured species and are fairly readily available for flooring, such as American white oak, alpine ash (usually marketed as Victorian ash), messmate, blackbutt (NSW coastal blackbutt is probably the lightest and most consistent) but at best they can only be thought of as cream, straw coloured or light yellowy brown.
Sports floors such as squash courts, gymnasiums and basketball stadiums often call for ‘white’ floors and in the past when many of the exotic species such as silver ash and ramin were readily available, they were used extensively.
One of the most recognised ‘white’ sports floors in Australia, built for the Sydney Olympics, is the Dunc Gray Velodrome, which was constructed using Baltic pine, probably Norway spruce, which I noted above.
In the last 50 years, softwoods have become less popular as flooring. That’s largely attributable to the improvement in drying techniques that has made many Australian hardwoods more suitable for high quality finished products such as flooring. On top of that is the recognition of many of the hardwoods such as blackbutt and spotted gum being much more wear resistant and less likely to show impact marks.
Spotted gum, for instance, has a Janka rating (a kilonewton rating showing resistance to denting) of 10.1 while common softwoods such as radiata and hoop pine rate approximately 2.5-3.0 at best.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Sydney, softwood flooring was very popular, again probably because softwood was easy to dry, usually very stable and readily available in a number of species.
When working for the Sydney Timber Advisory Service in the 1990s we often encountered members of the public wanting to renovate or match Baltic, Kauri or Hoop pine flooring, some of which had been down for 80-100 years and still in very good condition. They brought in small samples and were shocked to hear they were softwood species, because they had been told that flooring should be hardwood.
The real impact danger for any type of flooring is high heels and kids’ footy boots. The small surface area on the heel tip concentrates the load, causing little dents. This can occur on hardwood floors too; not all hardwoods have high Janka ratings after all.
Many common hardwoods such as Tasmanian oak, Victorian ash2, American and European oaks, blackwood, ramin, Tasmanian myrtle and other beech species fall below 6.0 on the Janka scale, which is still quite low. To be considered medium, hardwoods must achieve around 7.5. Species such as merbau (kwila) and Canadian rock maple rate around this mark.
When the client understands that the hardness ratio – the Janka rating – only really looks at impact resistance and that normal wear is attributed to the surface coating and the maintenance regime, it allows them to consider species that they would have normally overlooked due to the ‘hardness’ factor.
With ‘white’ being the optimum colour choice for my colleagues’ client, what then are the choices?
The best that can be achieved in a natural timber floor is be a lightly coloured, commercially available species such as blackbutt, alpine ash (if available as a separate species) or Victorian ash (I think it’s usually lighter than the Tasmanian oak alternative), messmate or possibly ramin, from the hardwood species. The most readily available and cost effective softwood is Baltic pine.
The type of coating used will affect the colour, or more realistically, the darkening, of the finished floor. Oil-based finishes, usually containing linseed or tung oil will immediately darken the floor and with the continued application of polish or wax the timber will continue to darken with time.
Solvent based polyurethanes will also tend to darken with the initial coating and will continue with time and exposure to light. They are more difficult to repair but do have a very hard surface and would probably be recommended with softwood floors like Baltic.
There are also composite oil-based or solvent finishes which behave similarly to both mentioned above but give a softer look and feel to a floor; however again, they need regular maintenance to keep them looking good.
The best coating alternative to keep the floor as light as possible is to use a water based polyurethane acrylic.
There is a slight darkening of the finish when the coating is first applied (not unlike putting a bit of water on the surface of timber) but it reduces as the coating dries. It isn’t perfectly clear but not too bad. The water-based acrylics do not have as hard a surface finish as the solvent polyurethanes but they are easier to repair, particularly if you encounter a deep scratch. You can sand and recoat in small areas rather than refinish the whole floor. While the timber may still fade, the coatings themselves tend not to deepen the colour with age, too much.
In discussing the options with the owner of Sydney Flooring, Bill Durkowyak, he indicated that if a client was looking for a ‘white’ floor, he might suggest using any of the lighter coloured species previously noted before putting a lime wash down prior to the finish coating.
Lime washes work well with either of the polyurethane options. The solvent based polyurethanes provide a harder wearing surface to protect the lime wash while acrylic gives a clearer coating to maintain the white, lime wash appearance.
One of the drawbacks with lime washed floors is the appearance of wear paths a bit earlier than traditional coated floors. In order to reapply a new uniform recoat, the floor would need to be fully sanded back.
Another alternative would be to go down the floating floor option. There are many products available from coated solid timber species to laminates, with both lime and white wash options available. This of course also opens up another species into the mix, bamboo3, which can, in its naturally coated form, be offered as another of the straw/blonde floorings.
There are numerous options for my colleague’s client, but a true white isn’t one of them. The trouble with most light coloured flooring is the natural variation within each species and in many cases within adjoining boards and sometimes the individual boards. If I were going to make a choice, I would go for ramin, if available. If not, then I’d choose blackbutt or messmate and consider a white wash.
What every client or consumer has to understand is that what they see in a showroom or a friend’s home may not be exactly what they get when they specify a particular species; it should be close but ‘Murphy’s Law’ dictates that there will always be a point of difference.
That’s the true beauty of timber flooring.