In between my last post and this one, I’ve managed to graduate from college with two Bachelor degrees. I’m not sure that I’ve allowed myself to recover yet, but I keep staring at these naked floors knowing that every second I wait to finish them is just more stress building up inside me; especially as the wayward water droplets continue to accumulate.
In case you didn’t know, water and wood aren’t the best of friends.
Which is why in this section of the project I’m going to talk about my number one ride-or-die for any project I do: research.
Not just research at the beginning… research throughout the whole process.
This is also a cautionary tale.
In Part I I mentioned that the kitchen floors had previously been finished with Shellac. Shellac was used heavily as a finish for floors and millwork, especially when bungalows in Chicago were being built, and it was a common finish across the US throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (and around the world for thousands of years), up until synthetic finishes like polyurethane (developed in the 1930’s) took over in popularity during the middle of the 20th century.
What is the main difference, you may be wondering? Shellac is a naturally derived material. Polyurethane is basically liquid plastic.
Ok, back to research.
I’ve come across this phrase more times than I can count in many areas of my work/life: Research isn’t necessarily about finding the right answer; it’s about finding the right questions to ask.
Enter my cautionary tale.
I did a lot of research when I refinished the oak floors in my bungalow. I watched videos, I compared products, I read reviews, I rented a sander and got to work.
And then I watched in slow-motion as the whole project ground to a halt.
Shellac gums up sandpaper like nobody’s business. I struggled through that floor refinishing project and honestly ended up wasting time and money.
If I had started my research with trying to understand which questions to ask (perhaps by searching ‘The history of wood floors‘) then I would have had a better understanding of how to find the information that I actually needed: ‘How to refinish wood floors finished with shellac‘.
In hindsight, it’s really hard to know if you’re genuinely researching something or you’re just being sold something (ahem, Minwax), especially on the internet (ahem, Google sponsored posts for three pages). But understanding search engines and how they track you and populate search results for you is a blog post for another day.
If I could do this project all over again, I would. Which is why, armed with the trauma of my last floor refinishing failure, and all of this new knowledge, I’m not making the same mistakes with my kitchen floors.
In my last post I mentioned that I would be diluting the old shellac with denatured alcohol and scraping it off. I did this for about two seconds before I realized that all I had to do was spray it down with DA and wipe it off with a rag. It’s about as labor-intensive to remove as, well, giving your floors a really good scrub by hand.
The really interesting thing about shellac is that it has the ability to reactivate itself, or re-amalgamate… something polyurethane finish can’t do.
This reactivation works really well if you are trying to restore millwork or a piece of furniture that’s been finished in shellac: you don’t have to strip it, you could just apply a fresh layer of shellac and it should melt into, and even out, the previous layers. This works great if the previous layers have been applied evenly or there aren’t layers of paint slopped onto your millwork (what a luxury).
In the case of my kitchen floors (Maple, by the way), they were finished with an amber-tinted shellac (spoiler, the whole house was) and I really wanted a clear finish instead. So, off it came.
As I was researching tips for applying shellac as a floor finish, I came across a number of what I’ll call research tangents.
The first being the consideration that shellac is water soluble (yet another spoiler: literally every option for finish that’s not polyurethane is subpar to polyurethane or “slippery,” “susceptible to chemicals,” “insert horrible thing that will happen to your wood floors here”).
The second was oil. Lemon oil, specifically. Oil is another floor finish that was used for decades before plastic became the go-to. Here’s a pretty good breakdown of what finishes are available for wood floors and the differences between them, plus maintenance considerations.
Lemon oil is different from Tung or Linseed because it repels water. But I’ve also read that it can be extremely slippery. And the lemon oil products that I could find weren’t recommended for floors. At this point in my research I knew that shellac was a historically accurate and highly forgiving option for my floors. Which brings us to a couple of additional points about shellac that I discovered during my research (links at the end of this post):
- It has a shelf life. That 3 year old can of shellac on the shelf in your garage… probably not good anymore.
- It’s water soluble ( and it also doesn’t really like heat), which means it probably needs to be sealed with wax if it’s being used as a floor finish in an area like a kitchen.
- You can buy pre-mixed or you can mix your own (this opens up an array of ways to customize the tint).
- It doesn’t soak into the wood, which means it’s a great way to highlight and enrich the natural tones of your wood without obscuring the grain or natural patterns.
- It won’t discolor or darken with age (this is a myth). Your wood, however, does darken as it ages.
- It’s an environmentally friendly option, dries quickly, and can be easily maintained.
- Trapped moisture or humidity can cause an “alligator skin” effect , which some people find desirable or generally associate with vintage or historic millwork.
Something else to know, natural wood that has been shellacked and then painted over isn’t ruined because the shellac actually protects the wood from penetration. This means it’s super easy to strip the paint off of the wood and restore it (hint, hint, if you’re one of “those people” who need to paint their trim or follow trends, consider embracing shellac so that the next owner can undo what you’ve done).
Back to my kitchen floors.
Because it’s water soluble, I began to look into what kinds wax were recommended for sealing shellac. This was a bit difficult because there’s a few different products: paste wax and liquid wax. And even if liquid wax seems easier to work with, not all liquid wax products are created equal (or meant for hardwoods).
I opted for paste wax and began comparing products based on reviews…
I’d like to take a moment to thank the chalk paint community and Annie Sloan fan club for their dedication to finding the clearest of wax’s to coat their furniture, while also spilling the tea on Minwax’s orange tinted paste wax on Amazon. Also, shout out to the OG’s pulling out their receipts on cans of SC Johnson paste wax, proving with photographic evidence that the formula has changed for the worst and that new buyers should beware.
After about a day of searching I finally found a product that not only got good reviews from the chalk paint community, but also from people who had…
Wait for it…
Used it on their hardwood floors!
Now, the next step in this process is to actually finish the floors (that’s Part III). This is going to require some safety measures and a little more preparation and elbow grease: moving furniture out, finishing spot-scraping, prepping the edges of the room, and sanding some damaged areas.
It should also be mentioned that research is excellent! However, all of the knowledge you obtain through research is still purely theoretical until you put it into practice.
There’s no amount of someone else’s knowledge that can prepare you for how a material reacts with the elements in your own home environment. Which means you have to try, failing or succeeding aside, and adjust your strategy, and think on your feet, and try some more, until you get the results you want.
Stay tuned for Part III, where I attempt to turn the pilot light to my oven off and finally finish this project. Links below…