The era when refurbishing a hardwood floor was a true ordeal is now in the past, thanks in part to the appearance on the home market of truly high-performance water-based varnishes. When the time comes to sand and varnish your flooring, there’s no more need to abandon the house for several nights or to remove food lacking airtight packaging to prevent contamination and put up with an unpleasant odour for ages. But you still have to be well prepared and make the right choices.

Higher-resistance varnishes that are more environmentally friendly
Water-based varnishes emit a very low level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), unlike “crystal-type” oil-based urethane or alcohol-based varnishes. You should be aware that VOCs are often toxic and are emitted from the solvents used in paints and varnishes to keep them liquid until they are applied. They are released into the air through evaporation during drying.

Federal regulations now limit VOC concentrations in most varnishes to 350 grams per litre. Since September 2010, it has been prohibited to manufacture or import varnishes containing higher VOC concentrations, and selling them will be forbidden as of September 2012.

Water-based varnishes are both more ecological and highly resistant to wear and tear. Reliable testing has shown that some of them even top the product considered to be the most durable in this regard: “crystal-type” oil-based urethane in its high-gloss version. Water-based varnishes are also available in semi-gloss, satin and ultra-mat finishes.

For these reasons, a number of hardwood floor restoration contractors no longer put their confidence in anything other than water-based varnishes, which are healthier for appliers and clients alike.

Less dust
Restoring a hardwood floor amounts to more than just choosing a varnish. There will always be furniture to move and surfaces to dust once the sanding is finished.

But at least the cleaning chores may be much less onerous than before. Traditional sanders have become better at picking up wood and varnish dust. Some companies have sanders connected to a fairly sturdy vacuum system that does a good job of capturing dust at the source.
One minor drawback, though: using technologically cutting-edge equipment requires longer set-up time, and this will be reflected in the final bill.

An oil-rubbed finish: no sanding and no varnish
The traditional and increasingly popular oil-rubbed finishing of wood floors also has its advantages.

Except following a fire or flood, the boards in a pre-oiled floor will never have to be sanded on site. Slats of unfinished wood must be sanded during installation, but this will not be necessary afterwards, at least not as heavily as in the case of a varnished floor. A light sanding by hand, generating only a slight trace of dust, is generally sufficient for preparing a surface that requires a new application of oil.

While natural oils used to protect floors, such as linseed or tung oil, are mostly of vegetable origin, they may nonetheless be a source of VOCs. It is best to choose a product with a low concentration and to ventilate the area properly during application.