Daily Telegraph

Floored by the natural approach

Daily Telegraph

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Our Waxed Floors article was published on 18/12/2004.

The ground beneath her feet was, well, doggy, recalls Rachel Johnson. But help was at hand. If you thought that waxing and oiling were required only for the healthy, smooth, baby-softness of your legs, you are going to have to think again.

Yes, I have shock news for all the millions of us who have fallen for wooden floors (quite literally: according to those amusing household-anecdote statistics, there has been a fourfold increase to 12,000 in the number of "wooden-floor-related accidents" since 1998). But not only have we been falling over ourselves to install them, we have been slipping up on caring for them, too.

Wood needs looking after. Not, perhaps, as regularly as our legs or bikini lines (OK, I'll leave the wooden floor and personal grooming analogy until the end, now), but definitely more often than we should. And if we have been sanding and sealing and so forth, we've probably been doing the wrong thing.

Take the wooden floor in the kitchen or bathroom. At this point, I should point out that builders and designers discourage wooden floors in bathrooms, for the obvious reason that a bathroom floor counts as prime "wet area", particularly if your children, as mine do, throw sopping flannels at each other during bathtime.

It may be trendy to have carpet in the bathroom now, though I doubt that the tastemakers would come to that conclusion if they saw the mushroom-coloured carpet spotted with toothpaste in ours but De gustibus, etc.

Anyway, let's focus on wooden floors in kitchens. I don't know about yours, but mine – solid French oak – was installed after underpinning four years ago, and was getting a bit rough-looking.

The cracks between the boards had filled with a sort of black, devil's grout. The areas that get most traffic – by the dog-bowls and exits, and by the sink – were grim: worn and scuffed so hard that the wood underneath the varnish had turned a dead grey.

I was about to call my builder to come and give the kitchen floor a varnish when a leaflet flapped through my letterbox. "If you are considering re-finishing your existing floor," it said, as if it knew that was exactly what I was thinking, that second,"try Waxed Floors.

We give wood the most natural treatment, to maintain all of the beauty the material was given by nature." It went on, explaining that oils and wax-based finishes let you "feel the natural texture of the wood", allowing the wood to breathe like a living thing, while lacquers and varnishes sit artificially on top of the wood, starving it of oxygen.

First, I rang my builder, and asked him what he thought. He's a bit of a Ronseal man. "Wax won't be any good for you," he said. "You've got a dog." But I was sold on the idea. I mean, in Notting Hill, if you're offered the choice of an artificial treatment that will suffocate your boards, and a natural one that promises to allow your floor to breathe freely, there's really no contest (though I should add that the estimate for the latter was around the £1,000 mark, as the sanding machine alone costs £200 to hire, and then there are three days' work to pay). Where I live, we are all getting our organic carpets cleaned in an eco-friendly way. We're that sort of neighbourhood.

So I rang Christof Schirlbauer, the Austrian whose company, Waxed Floors, is promising an oily revolution in our treatment of the now ubiquitous wooden floor.

"The most popular and commonly used floor finishes are parquet seals and lacquers, where the coats bond to the surface fibres of the wood," he explained. They are a quick, cheap option which leaves a nice smooth finish.

But, the polyurethane seals are as toxic as they sound. And a bigger "but": the seals will crack when the wood naturally expands and contracts. If this happens, water and dirt can penetrate and the floor deteriorates. That's when the floor starts looking patchy and grey, like mine.

Because most flooring companies prefer using seals and lacquers, sales people try to give natural oil finishes a bad reputation. The most common phrase is that they tend to wear out quickly and are high in maintenance," Christof went on persuasively. (I was all ears. It's like when you need new taps. All you think about are faucets and mixer basins, and take Kohler catalogues to bed. I was like that about my floor.)

"The truth is that natural oil- and wax-based finishes are superior to seals. The products we use are low in maintenance and can stand not only heavy traffic but also high humidity."

Well, that sounded just the ticket. So I gave Christof the keys to my house, and left for half-term, giving him full rein when it came to "penetrating my wood until the fibres were saturated".

He assured me he would sand the floor down with a belt-sanding machine equipped with dust bags, so the process would be almost dust-free; then he would do a fine sanding; and then he would apply two coats of clear oils (the coloured ones are approved for use in the food industry, so there) by hand, with special brushes for the corners.

Honestly, Christof, I remarked. This was much higher maintenance than anything I do to my legs, and he looked modestly proud. When I got back from half-term, I could hardly believe my eyes. At first, I thought that Christof had tricked me, and ripped up my rotting planks and installed a brand new floor.

A closer inspection of the gleaming, silken surface of the oak convinced me it was my floor, but not as I knew it. Its surface was eerie in its perfection. Instead of running into the cracks between boards, water bounces and balls on the impermeable surface, which I can oil when the fancy takes me.

Well – I'm a low-maintenance girl, when it comes to legs. But when it comes to my glossy golden new floor – nothing will be too much trouble.