by Bill Layman / Layman Ventures Ltd. for Cottage Magazine published in Canada

I wish I could say I got the idea for re-finishing my hardwood floor from looking at a cast iron frying pan. But I didn’t. I think if I had Lynda may have had good grounds for having me committed. But once I had the floor finished it hit me … it really is like a well-seasoned cast iron frying pan now.

It all started last winter when our fridge gave up the ghost. We bought a new one that was about 5 inches taller. So I had to move a cabinet and what the heck, with the cabinet moved anyway, I might as well paint the wall right? Well, that wall led me on a painting spree through the living room, up the stair well, through a sitting room, and into the bed room. Many gallons of paint, a bedroom floor made of cork, a new electric stove, and several thousand dollars later I thought I was done. But then Lynda said, “Gee this birch floor looks ratty.”

Have you ever re-finished a wood floor while you’re living in the house? It sucks. Big sanders, sawdust everywhere for weeks, urethane floor finishes that leave you feeling as if you just spent a year doing street drugs. Been there, done that, and I just wasn’t up to it. But to keep Lynda happy I did a cursory Google Search –“Floor Finishing + Avoiding Insanity + Non Toxic.” And there it was. The “Real Milk Paint Company” web site with an article on how to finish a floor with pure tung nut oil. Not knowing what a tung nut was, and decidedly curious, I just had to phone them. Well after half an hour on the phone with Dwayne Siever I was convinced. Used for furniture finishing – in fact that is Dwayne’s main business – tung nut oil is perfect for finishing a wood floor. And best, there isn’t that toxic odor that leaves you unsure of how to answer your telephone for the next week. Dwayne asked me how I was going to strip the floor and mentioned a company he knew who sold a non-toxic “Totally Organic Soy Bean Paint Stripper.” Yep, you read it right … soy beans. “Yeah like that’s going to work!” I thought. I felt like I had entered a parallel vegan world of Organic Construction. But just for a giggle, and to stall off the whole project, I gave Franmar Chemicals a call.

Well I got talking to a secretary who raved about it as we waited for Jason Davenport to get off the other line. She and her husband had just done their floor and get this, she told me that she was taking her finger nail polish off with some of the gel as we chatted. Well that did it. Have you ever seen the stuff women usually use to get finger nail polish off? By the time Jason got on the phone I ordered the stripper straightaway.

I phoned a few traditional floor re-finishers to see what they thought of my plan. Well ok, I really phoned them to get some quotes for this story.

ME: “So I want to refinish my birch floor and I wondered what you thought about using soy bean gel to strip it and tung nut oil to finish it?”
FLOOR REFINISHING GUY # 1: “What? Peanut Butter? Tongue what?”
FLOOR REFINISHING GUY# 2: “You want that there Organic Food Co-op Store I think?”

Everyone I phoned said I was out of my mind – I get that a lot – and that I would be better to, “Use the big floor sander, but be damn careful with her. She’s a real bear if she gets loose on you. I’d paint her with the “Extra Heavy Duty Ten Star Polyurethane” finish if I was you. But for god sake turn off all the electricity in the house. The urethane is tough as hell but one spark when you’re puttin’ her on and the vapor will blow! If you can leave all the doors and windows open for a week it’ll sure help.”

But it worked. No sawdust. No lingering odor. And a gorgeous floor with the richest deepest colors you’ve ever seen. And that’s what led me to the cast iron frying pan metaphor. I was trying to explain what I was doing to a hardware store clerk one day. He just didn’t get it and was trying to tell me the “urethane toxic floor finish” was the only way to go. A Cree pal that used to work with me was standing nearby and I remembered all the cast iron frying pans we used to use in our bush camps. They were impregnated with oil the same way my floor was, and there was no way you could destroy them once they were seasoned. I said as much to the clerk and my pal nodded. “Way better than those stupid Teflon pans!” he added. “About one job and they’re no good for nothing.”

And that’s the difference between my old urethane coated floor and my new tung nut oil impregnated floor. It’s the difference between a seasoned cast iron frying pan that your child will gift to their child and a Teflon Pan that lasts for 173 eggs or a year, whichever comes first.

How To

  • For your first go with the soy gel work on a floor patch about 6 feet by 6 feet. Once you get hang of it use sections as large or small as you like.
  • Put the Soy Gel on just before you go to bed and let it work all night. My floor had 5 coats of well worn urethane and an overnight “pour” lifted it all off. As long as the soy gel is wet it’s working. Once you’re on to it you can leave it as long as you need – but no longer than 48 hours.
  • Pour the soy gel in a “squiggly” line onto the floor and spread it into an “about” 1/8 inch layer with a long handled floor squeegee (like a big version of what the squeegee kids use when they try to clean your windshield). I didn’t try it, but I was told you could use and old floor bristle brush push broom.
  • In the morning pull the goopy mess of soy gel and old floor finish toward you in the long direction of your floor boards. Scoop it up with two pieces of cardboard and dump it into a cardboard box. Given that the old urethane is now mixed in with this mess I would suggest phoning local authorities to establish the best means of disposal.
  • Take a large Rubbermaid container and put a few gallons of warm water in it. Using a long-handled scrub brush scrub the floor vigorously with water. This breaks down the soy gel and gives you a chance to scrub off any of the stubborn urethane. Pull the thick-water-mess toward you with the squeegee and using rags soak it up and put it into your Rubbermaid.
  • If your floor has lots of gray weathered sections (actually this is ground in dirt) take some TSP (tri sodium phosphate) in warm water and use a hand-held scrub brush and scrub the “living daylights” out of your floor. Use the squeegee to “herd” the dirty water toward you and wipe it up with rags.
  • After the floor has dried take some clean water, and using a sponge floor mop, do a final cleaning of the floor.
  • If your floor has some high spots where board joins board use a Palm Sander to level them off. My floor had lots of these high edges and a $20.00 throw-away floor sander got my entire 300 square foot floor done in under 2 hours.
  • If you have big cracks between your floor boards fill them with saw dust. The tung oil will glue it into place. (I went out to the shop and sanded a few boards I will be using for another project with my belt sander and used the resulting saw dust. Pretty smart, huh?)
  • There is no need to use rubber gloves with the soy gel but you better use it with the TSP if you want to keep the skin on your hands. I was a little nervous of the soy gel but when I quizzed Jason at Franmar about the toxicity he said, “Well I wouldn’t recommend eating it but if you did it’d taste like hell and you’d likely poop for a week since it’s soy, but it sure wouldn’t do any serious harm to you.”
  • As to how to paint the floor with tung nut oil a great “step-by-step-how-to” can be found on the Real Milk Paint Company web page. If you buy your tung nut oil from Dwayne I am sure he’ll give you any help you need when you phone. Look for the floor finishing instructions on the “How To” page.

So How Does The Soy Gel Work?
Well you might ask!

It turns out that the soy gel has molecules that are so tiny they literally migrate right through your floor finish down to the wood underneath. The gel formulation keeps the product from migrating into your wood floor or furring the wood. Once it gets down to the floor it swells up and “buckles” the old finish off. So you might be wondering as I did, “If the soy gel goes through anything what the heck do they store it in?” Turns out that before Franmar figured out how to fluorinate the inside of the plastic containers the stuff oozed right through the bottle due to the powerful migrating properties of soy!

Traditional strippers are a real witch’s brew of toxic chemicals that take finishes off by dissolving the urethane or paint. Noted for being real hard on your skin and eyes, your lungs, and anything that they touch they’re no fun to work with.

We now stock Soy Gel! Purchase Soy Gel Remover Here.