January 15, 2009
Floors to “DYE” For
When people walk into the home, one of the first things they comment on is the floors. When deciding which material to use, and which would be the most sustainable, I considered cork and bamboo but then I learned that all this material is imported from overseas. Given that the largest container ships get all of 37 feet on a gallon of fuel, I had to ask, “How green is THAT?”
I happened upon another sustainable alternative that would also help the local economy, thanks to Harry Watt of the NC State University Wood Products Extension office. Harry clued me in on the fact that there are several underutilized species of native NC hardwoods, one of which is Wormy Maple. Not only is this wood plentiful, it has a rich character that is typically found only in more expensive hardwoods like Walnut.
Burchette & Burchette Hardwood Floors of Elkin, NC was able to provide us with the Wormy Maple flooring. They were also incredibly patient with me as I made the important decision of what color they should be. Knowing that I would want to stick with low VOC finishing products, and also that this would be a showcase home, they suggested a dye instead of a stain. The dye has lower VOCs and provides more consistent coloration – an important factor when working with Maple because stains can often appear splotchy on this type of wood.
It seemed like a plan, right? In theory it was. But working with wood floors, dyes, and stains, can be incredibly tricky—particularly when you are working with a wood like Wormy Maple which has an enormous amount of variation in color and grain. I learned that looking at stain samples on the floor did little good because a flat layer of stain (or dye) looks nothing like the finished floor with a few coats of polyurethane.
Burchette & Burchette ran me a large dye sample in front of the fireplace. It looked way too dark. They sanded and tried again. It still looked too dark – and frighteningly purple. Finally they put on a coat of polyurethane to show me how much the topcoat would change the actual color. I lost count of all the attempts, but they finally got a color that I liked. I signed off on the dye and didn’t return until the floors had their first coat of dye and one topcoat on it.
A few days later, I opened the door to the house, full of expectation, and my heart…..sunk. The floors were much darker than I wanted. Frankly, we were all a little puzzled. There was no denying that the floors came out darker than the original sample but Burchette & Burchette had mixed all the dye at once. It was the very same stain that had been used on the sample area in front of the fireplace. To this day, all we can figure out is that this was attributable to the wide variation in the color of the boards. It just so happened that the raw boards in front of the fireplace were particularly white and gave a poor representation of what the finished floor color would look like overall.
I had two choices. Look Burchette & Burchette in the eye and say, “Look, this isn’t what I wanted,” and tell them to bring out the sanders, or let them continue with a few more coats of poly in one room to see what happened. To Burchette & Burchette’s credit, they were willing to do whatever it took to make me happy, and even though I know they didn’t relish the thought of starting from scratch, they could see that the floors were a good bit darker than the sample and assured me they would make it right. (THIS is what separates a good contractor from a bad one. Some jobs go south; they just do. It’s the contractor that doesn’t bail on you or try to shirk responsibility that gets an A+ in my book. I was more impressed with how Burchette & Burchette handled this glitch than if everything had gone perfectly). We had nothing to lose, and we were already way behind schedule, so with very little hope that it would make a difference, I told Burchette & Burchette to finish topcoating one room.
It took a total of 4 coats of poly to tame the grain of wormy Maple, sanding each time in between. The floor was definitely lighter, though not as light as I had originally planned. The grain, however, now showed in all its glory, and I had warmed the richness of the color. Burchette & Burchette was off the hook. I really didn’t want to tell them to start over.
Moral of the story: Dyes are tricky, and Wormy Maple has a lot of variation in the wood. A homeowner would be well advised to request color and topcoat sample over a large section--not a few boards, unless you like surprises.