The right start for the right finish
Timber flooring should be a hardware retailer’s best friend, comprising of a great range of product subcategories and sales prospects! Are you making the most of your opportunities? John Power reports.
When customers ask for advice about ‘the right finish’ for their timber flooring rejuvenation project, they may be unaware of the associated complexities of the job. So, instead of simply pointing to the ‘Coatings Department’ and walking away, hardware retailers should start at the beginning, including coating options with surface preparation, and help build the project from there. In this way, retailers will be able to maximise their involvement in the task, capture enhanced sales across diverse product ranges, and help customers achieve better outcomes.
Each of the following product categories and subcategories may have relevance to a domestic floor finishing job:
(1) Coatings and finishes sales.
(2) Sanding: including equipment purchase (and potentially hire).
(3) Timber: notably sales of new materials for spot repairs or extensions.
(4) Applicators and tools: ranging from brushes, trays and pads to nail sets.
(5) Auxiliary products: wood fillers and sealants, furniture felt pads, etc.
(6) Cleaning goods: to achieve and retain high-quality outcomes.
In other words, ‘the right finish’ is just the tip of the sale’s iceberg, and the process begins with consideration of the different types of coatings and finishes on offer to best suit the homeowner’s circumstances. While aesthetics often dictate initial customer preferences, it is important to address practicalities like the kind of timber being treated (hardwood or softwood, new or aged), locally relevant conditions (like high humidity or heavy foot traffic), as well as factors that might affect long-term colour (such as strong exposure to sunlight from large windows) or curing times (midwinter cold, for instance).
In general terms, interior flooring will involve selections from the following three generic classes of coatings: (a) waxes and oils, (2) water-based polyurethanes, and (3) solvent-based polyurethanes. Within these classes are sub-classes including oil modified urethanes, as well as choices of one pack or two pack urethanes. In simple terms, one pack products are useable straight from the can and are perfectly acceptable for the majority of domestic uses; whereas two pack products require the mixing of two ingredients, including a hardener, prior to application. Two pack products are often used in heavy-duty commercial settings, marine timbers etc. for all types of timber, but they are particularly valuable for providing a sturdy and resilient coating on softwood floors.
In general, polyurethanes provide better colourfastness than waxes and oils when exposed to sunlight, though minor ‘yellowing’ may still occur on heavily sunbaked floors. Yellowing may not be an issue with aged timbers that already display rich hues.
Coatings and finishes
Points to consider when recommending timber floor coating products are:
1. Waxes and oils
a) affordable compared to most other product classes.
b) need more frequent recoating.
c) tend to darken over time.
d) not as durable as polyurethanes.
e) great rustic or ‘aged’ aesthetic appeal.
2. Water-based polyurethanes
a) extremely popular all-rounder.
b) more expensive than oils.
c) highly durable.
d) lower discolouration over time.
e) low odour or VOC emissions at application.
3. Solvent-based polyurethanes
a) super hardwearing.
b) wonderful even finish, particularly in high gloss.
c) similar cost to water-based polyurethanes.
d) great for refreshing all types of high-quality timber.
e) strong odour and heavy VOC emissions at application.
Ask the customer about the condition of their flooring. If the timber is a little uneven and features erratic gaps, be mindful that extremely hard coatings, like solvent-based polyurethanes, can cause ‘edge bonding’, which means the coating acts like an adhesive in the gaps. In such circumstances, splits can occur at the edges or in weak sections of the actual board as the timber expands and contracts with the seasons.
If the customer is laying new flooring, particularly in budget applications that are susceptible to movement, it might pay to minimise edge bonding by using an oil or oil urethane product.
If the customer is upgrading or installing softwood flooring, like Baltic pine for instance, then be aware that non-resilient finishes like waxes or oils may not protect the timber from stiletto heal marks, pet claw scratches, or similar sharp abrasions.
As for choosing matt or gloss finishes, it is worth noting that glossy finishes might suffer from ‘scuff trails’ in high-traffic areas, particularly just inside external doorways where shoes might carry grit and stones. Satin or matt finishes offer more long-term evenness under normal wear and tear, but may not deliver the ‘wow’ factor a customer is seeking in a prominent or well lit area.
As with all coating jobs, the quality of the outcome is dependent on the quality of the preparation. Advise customers to carefully sand surfaces with progressively fine grades of sandpaper from about 60 to 150.
Customers may have to hire heavy duty sanding equipment for the main body of the flooring, but they might also need smaller handheld edge sanding units for the edging. If tasks involve engineered timbers with veneers, check that veneer depths are adequate to handle heavy or coarse sanding, particularly if the customer is seeking to remove a previous finish, such as a highly penetrative oil.
It might sound obvious, but check to see if the customer needs fresh timber supplies. For example, it might be appropriate to replace damaged or rotted boards.
Applicators and tools
Usually, coatings need to be applied with a special applicator and pole. Do not forget to offer the customer applicator heads (woolen or synthetic), trays, brushes for edges, and associated equipment to get the job done fast. An often-overlooked add-on sale is the humble nail set, which is used to push nail heads below the timber surface. This process removes the risk of stripping sandpaper on exposed metal nail heads, and leads to a smoother coating result once the cavities have been filled and sanded before coating.
There are great markets for gap fillers in most floor coating projects. It might be a simple case of filling in timber knotholes or imperfections. A good trick is to mix a small amount of PVC glue with sawdust from the actual floor timber, and use the gob to fill sizeable gaps between boards or holes. Sand when dry, and then coat as normal. NB: felt pads for the feet of furniture might also be of interest to the customer as a means of reducing long-term maintenance.
Whether removing unwanted blemishes or stains at the outset of the project, or sucking up dust during the sanding stages, a clean environment is essential throughout any coating project. Masks, vacuum cleaners, as well as non-toxic cleaning fluids are all important elements of a successful job.
Achieving a premium timber flooring finish often requires a ‘team effort’ by the customer and retailer. Ask customers about the fine details of their projects. Be candid about the importance of preparation, and guide the project to a successful conclusion by offering stage-by-stage advice and suitable hardware. The result of superior communication will be a better finish for the customer and healthier sales for the retailer.
Mass timber creates new sales opportunities in mid-rise and more
In the constant search for lower costs and greater efficiency, mass timber building systems are finding increasing popularity in a wide range of projects – especially in mid-rise construction as part of urban infill. The fact that they have significant environmental advantages is a bonus for the planet, while the need for specialist fixing systems is a win for hardware merchants.
More and more Australian builders are looking to mass timbers as a faster, cleaner, greener and safer way to build everything from single dwellings to multi-storey commercial offices and residential towers, with a sweet spot emerging in mid-rise multi-residential projects.
There are three main types of mass timber available in the Australian market:
1. Laminated Veneer Lumber, or LVL, is generally used for structural applications such as portal frames, joists, columns and bearers. LVL is made by peeling softwood logs into veneers a few millimetres thick. These are then clipped into large sheets, jointed together, glued and pressed. Using this process, it is possible to make continuous beams well over 20 metres long.
2. Glued laminated timber, or glulam, has both structural and architectural applications, including beams, joists, columns, studs and lintels. Glulam is made by finger jointing small pieces of timber, then laminating them with glue. Beams can be extremely long, and as wide as two metres by two metres or even larger, depending on the size of the manufacturer’s equipment. Most Australian glulam is manufactured from softwoods such as pine, however there are also manufacturers making hardwood glulam.
3. Cross Laminated Timber or CLT is made by gluing finger-jointed planks together into boards that are then laid at right angles to each other in multiple layers and glued. CLT has been described as ‘jumbo ply’. Most CLT is made from softwood, although there is an increasing use of hardwoods, especially in the USA. The resulting panels can be more than 40mm thick, up to 16 metres long and close to three metres in height. This makes them suitable for walls and floors of multi-storey apartment buildings. CLT can also be used for lift cores, stairwells and other structural applications.
Mass, or engineered timber products can be cost-effective because they aggregate smaller pieces of timber that are not suitable for use alone, thus enabling more efficient recovery of wood from processed logs. Mass timber products are best thought of as construction systems with requirements for specialised fixing products and, for most projects, a significant amount of prefabrication or offsite production. The hardware required both on-site and off-site generally comprises of brackets, plates and screws.
XLam Australia Technical Manager, Nick Hewson, said the CLT projects the company is involved with are using “scaled up versions” of what is used for standard domestic frame construction.
These include larger screws and angle brackets, most of which are currently sourced from European manufacturers. One of those companies is Rotho Blaas SRL. The company provides products specifically for the timber construction sector including fixing systems, tools and machines, waterproofing and soundproofing systems.
Another key supplier for the sector is Simpson Strong-Tie, which supplies structural connector products to the Australian market including straps, ties, brackets, joist hangers and flange hangers. A third important supplier is German screw manufacturer SPAX.
Mr Hewson said XLam projects have been using screws ranging from 50mm long to up to 600mm long. Frequently screw sizes are between 250mm to 300mm long with an 8mm diameter.
“They are big, heavy duty screws, with a large capacity that can take a lot of force,” he said.
Today, alert hardware merchants are looking to jump on the mass timber bandwagon, and if overseas experience is any guide, it is only going to get bigger.