Would I lye to you if I picture a stunning Nordic blonde?

Terry Guilford on the use of lye on timber floors

A LITTLE white lye: OK so it’s a terrible pun but cut me some slack, I am writing this at 7am and I am already on my second train of the day heading towards ‘sunny’ Manchester from Cambridge.
In all probability unless you know something about wood flooring you won’t even get the reference so I’ll explain.

Did you ever see a picture of a pristine Scandinavian house, large open plan configuration, simple furniture, stunning Nordic blonde? Sorry, I got stuck on the blonde, anyway the floor it all sits on (damn that blonde keeps coming back) is very often extremely pale, sometimes pine, sometimes oak but nearly always bleached out looking.

To achieve that look fully, you must use lye, honest! (So now you think it’s a great pun… ok you still don’t, fair enough) and as it is currently very ‘in vogue’ it’s worth knowing a little about it.
Lye is a caustic type substance used to remove the orange hue from timber, particularly flooring. Without the use of lye the strong orange tints in the timber tend to come through whatever white tint you put on the wood at a later stage, particularly on some pines that have resinous streaks in them.

There are two types of lye, one for softwood and the other for hardwood depending on the wood species they will be used on. Lye is normally applied after sanding the floor fully (often the floor is left a little rougher than usual so more of the white oil or stain is left in the wood at the later stage).

It is left to work and is then mopped up or extracted after whatever time is prescribed by the manufacturer. You will notice that the liquid has turned ‘yellowy’ indicating that the product has done its job in bleaching out the strong colours.

Once the product has been removed you must neutralise the wood with clean water, extract and then let the floor dry out thoroughly in order to negate the risk of contaminating later products.

What you do next depends on what the client has specified, but here are the options. A strictly Scandinavian approach is to white oil the floor followed by the application of a soap treatment.
This suits dry, cold countries where a certain degree of wear and tear is not only tolerated, but actually embraced, but it doesn’t really suit the UK climate or attitude.

The maintenance of this finish is relatively easy: You use the same soap to clean it, but more frequently than most people want. A more modern approach that achieves a similar look but easier to keep is white tinted, catalysed oil.

Catalysed products are far more durable and stain resistant than simple one component oils, yet still have key advantages over lacquers in terms of sustainability and practicality.

For those who want a surface build lacquer type product, (count me out) it is usual to stain the floor white and then apply the finish over the top of the stain.

This method gives slightly more control over the depth of white that can be achieved (if not white enough tint the lacquer slightly). But it means that any damage to the floor is virtually impossible to disguise without a total re-sand.

If employing this approach I recommend using a two component finish with at least two coats over the white to give it maximum protection. There are several methods of white staining the floor from the simplest, thinned down white emulsion to the very latest VOC free oil based primer/stains.

The full list of options and combinations is way beyond the scope of this article but I firmly believe in using systems developed by manufacturers. That way you are guaranteed to offer your client a solution that works.

Part of that system should be maintenance products, a white floor is tricky to keep and using the wrong products can make the challenge worse.

Of course all this is just my opinion but after all, would I lye to you? Now back to that blonde…

Terry Guilford is technical director of The Ultimate Floor Sanding Co, a corporate member of the National Carpet Cleaners Association (NCCA). l www.ncca.co.uk
T: 00353 (0)94 9048284
T: 0161 818 2582 (for training courses)
E: info@ultimate-floorcare.com