polyurethane finish compare

The Internet and Cork Flooring - Help or Hindrance?

Written by Stephanie McCarthy

Sales Manager of Cancork Floor Inc.

An internet search for cork flooring can be overwhelming - even for those of us “in the know”. As a cork flooring specialist and someone who actively investigates “the other guys” finishes/technical specifications, here is what I have learned in my years in the industry.

Finishes - The many hidden truths clients are never told

cork_floor Urethane: A solvent based product that has fallen out of favour due to CARB (California Air Resources Board) requirements. Urethane is normally quite brittle and is not recommended for use with cork. A urethane finished cork floor usually requires refreshing every 2 years in a residence and every 6 months in a commercial/retail application. Manufacturing a cork floor using a urethane finish is still allowed in the USA. Its use with cork flooring usually indicates a lower quality product, use of low quality MFD (medium Density Board) and poor long-term performance. Normally seen in “big box” stores as their version of cost-conscious cork flooring. Buyer beware! Many US producers of cork flooring are trying to sell-off their lower end products before the CARB mandates take effect and they are no longer able to sell MFD! The “Big Boys” of cork also have this form of finish so don’t be fooled into believing the best always comes from the biggest!

Water borne/based Urethane: An attempt by the industry to become “eco-friendly” by using water as the main suspension material. A big improvement over urethane. These finishes are becoming tougher and more durable. These finishes work very well over wood (hard and soft) but it is still too brittle for cork. Again, its use can indicate lower quality products. They require refreshing every 3-5 years. The VOC content of these finishes are quite high and will soon be “illegal” in the USA.

UV Cured Urethane/Water Borne Urethane: UV curing reduces the overals VOC content of the finish and thus the floor in general. These finishes sound amazing, and sometimes they are. Buyer beware: the way the product is applied at the factory is often the way the owner has to refinish the floor in their own home! That’s right, refreshing this finish is not normally a DIY project. The cost of refreshing the finish (can be upwards of $1500 each time) can outweigh the original “low cost” of this floor. Again, the big name producers are using this as their “entry level” finish for “cost-conscious” consumers. These finishes can be found in the big box stores as well as at high end licensed dealers. Don’t be fooled by the slick talking sales person. I’ve spoken to enough “cork” sales people to realize they have little to know product knowledge of their own flooring! Isn’t that right Mr. ____, who sells “Armstrong Flooring”, up there in ___?

Polyurethane: Another solvent-based product that is falling out of favour because of air quality issues. Usually considered a more expensive version of Urethane and thus not very popular in US production lines. Solvent based polyurethanes are rarely seen as the “original” finish on a cork floor. I have yet to see/hear of any cork floor that came “factory finished” in this product. I’m sure they are out there, I just haven’t come across any.

Water based/borne Polyurethane: Arguably one of the best finishes for cork flooring. Water based polyurethanes are known for their flexibility and thus are well suited for cork. A cork floor finished with water based polyurethane requires refreshing every 2-7 years; commercial installs require every 2 years and residential installations require refreshing every 5-7 years. This involves a paint roller, high end water based polyurethane made for cork flooring and time. It is a DIY project that is well inside the average homeowner’s capabilities. The Europeans, especially Loba-Wakol, have been leading the world in this flexible, long wearing, commercial grade finish. North Americans believe the water based polys to be “too expensive” and “not good enough” for high end floors. This misconception is based, most likely, on the sector’s failed attempts to come up with a product that is cheap to produce. A cork floor that is finished in water based polyurethane is well worth the extra leg work. Many cork producers put a high price tag on this premium finish but there are several cost effective sellers out there. Search for “Loba” finished cork flooring. There are two or three of these floors out there!

UV Cured Urethane with Micro-bead/Nano Technology: Some of the most expensive finishes the “business” has come up with! These are often called “high wear” or “wear through” technology! Sounds very impressive! Extremely hard finishes that reduce the characteristics of cork. Many clients have stated, “It feels like walking on plastic”. This is essentially what is happening. The micro-thin ceramic finish is sandwiched between several layers of UV cured urethane. This produces a strong, brittle finish that is extremely difficult to refresh. The manufacturers (the “Big 2” are famous for this finish) try to dress up the finish with a “Wear Through” guarantee. What they fail to mention is the floor is still subject to scrapes, scratches and filming do to micro scratches from sand/dust/abrasive debris. One of the main manufacturers will “allow” this floor to be sealed with a “professional-applied” UV cured urethane only in “special circumstances” such as hospitals, schools, high traffic areas. Even the “glue down installed tile” is not allowed into “high moisture areas” and such use will “void the warranty”. This floor requires “regular maintenance” using the company’s specially formulated wax (W - requires their floors be waxed every 6 months). They state that the wax should be stripped (using their specially formulated wax stripper) every 3-5 years and the whole maintenance program starts all over again. The warranty is void if the owner of the floor fails to take these reasonable precautions. I guess that means the “cork in a kitchen” dream is all but done for with this finish!

UV cured Urethane finished with Aluminium Oxide: Another impressive milestone in floor finishing. Again, another “high wear” or “wear through” technology that is touted as the best of the best. Another hard, brittle finish that can never be refinished or refreshed. Aluminium Oxide is the finish most commonly associated with Bamboo flooring. It is also the finish that is most known for “scratches that can never be removed”. Owner’s of Bamboo floors that are finished in this coating have been complaining for years about the “long white scars” this finish produces. These scratches can never be buffed out. More than 95% of refinishing specialists will not attempt to restore an Aluminium Oxide floor. It takes days to do the job, it ruins their tools and in the end their work is rarely paid - because there is little visible benefit to their work (ie. The floor looks the same as it did prior to the job). Again, the Big Names in cork flooring are promoting this floor as the best there is. Again, the warranty clearly states a floor finished in Aluminium Oxide can not be installed in bathrooms, kitchens or entrance ways. This floor requires “regular maintenance” using the company’s specially formulated wax (W - requires their floors be waxed every 6 months). They state that the wax should be stripped (using their specially formulated wax stripper) every 3-5 years and the whole maintenance program starts all over again. The warranty is void if the owner of the floor fails to take these reasonable precautions. Too many buyers have discovered this “oopsa” after they installed this “high end” floor into their kitchens!!! Sadly, I was the one to tell them about their floor; their dealer didn’t know about these caveats!

Wax Finishes: Sounds awesome but it is a “high maintenance finish” that may not mix well with many busy households (unless of course you have a maid). The wax finish is making a dream come-back. It is VOC compliant (because it doesn’t have any) and is considered a “natural” chemical. A cork floor finished in wax must be site finished by a professional. Often times this finish is available as a “raw cork” floor that is site finished (sometimes even site stained to meet the client’s demands) with several layers of hard wax applied to the finish. A new layer of wax must be applied every 6 months. To do this, some of the old wax must be stripped (chemical stripper) prior to this semi-annual treatment. Every 3-5 years the floor should be professionally refinished: the wax should be stripped completely (right down to the cork layer) and the 3-5 base layers reapplied. The cycle of waxing continues. This rigorous maintenance schedule was one of the main reasons wax finishes fell out of favour all those years ago!

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Tel: 1-604-207-0661
Tel: 1-604-207-9541
Toll Free:
Fax: 1-866-373-6520

Showroom and Warehouse Address:
Cancork Floor INC
#185-1991 Savage Rd.
Richmond BC, V6V 0A4

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