Effective and User-Friendly "Green" Finish Coatings

      For quality and environmental benefits, tung oil is hard to beat. But this thread includes other suggestions, along with some valuable discussion. April 21, 2008

I am trying to find out more about using a 100% natural finish on an entire set of cabinets. Any product out there that is easy to use, durable, fast drying, low maintenance, and of course environmentally friendly? This sounds like a pretty big wish list, but it's worth a shot!

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
...and then you woke up and it was just a dream.

From the original questioner:
Okay, how about environmentally friendly and easy to use?

From contributor J:
The closest I know of to meeting some of your criteria would be Target finishes. They have a range of WB products depending on exactly what you need, and the one's I've tried have been very user friendly.

From contributor Y:
Be it kitchen or bathroom or other, the most natural, environmentally friendly, low maintenance, fairly fast drying products to use are tung oil finishes polymerized only, such as Southernland Wells or Twisp's. A good tung oil with minimal siccatives will dry in 8 hours or less per coat and with several coats will give excellent protection against water and food and most household chemicals and such. It will close off the wood and pores to form a very good polymerized coating and it goes a long way when used properly. And unlike linseed oil, it darkens little with age.

From contributor P:
I think I'd figure out just what I expect from my cabinets first. If you want a finish that's impervious to everything, if you want to change the color of the wood, what sort of issues the finish will be exposed to, etc. Personally, my first thought is oil, probably one of the Waterlox oils being my choice. But what I'd do in my own kitchen is use a hard, dense wood and maybe shellac and wax, although you couldn't get any more natural than to just leave the wood bare. How about a teak kitchen? Or afromasia? Or bloodwood? Or hard maple even? There's really not that many specific spots on cabinets that are susceptible to staining or wear. Around handles, sinks for sure, and generally there's one spot where most of the work gets done. So if you plan for that, and maybe alter the materials or the operating methods, and you use a suitably dense wood, staining is minimized.

From contributor R:
French polish and wax. Use shellac flakes and a good quality alcohol. Is that natural enough? If not, hire a Japanese craftsman to hand scrape the cabinets and that finish will be perfect without any coating.

From contributor D:
Waterlox is neither environmentally friendly or an oil like tung oil. Waterlox is a phenolic resin varnish that is old and outdated technology. Just one more example of spectacular marketing in the finish industry. Tung oil in a citrus oil solvent is a finish that meets the FDA GSR (generally recognized as safe) category. Burnished with steel wool 3 coats, it is easy to repair with no failures. We burnish oil in the shop while other guys are cutting in the same space.

From contributor J:
I guess the important question that remains unanswered is, are these cabinets going into a kitchen or bath, or some other area? This will be the biggest factor in choosing a finish, and will determine if an oil finish is really viable.

From contributor Y:
No more than a new take on an old coating - milk paint type products, caseins - have been around forever. They have many more drawbacks than they're worth in the long run, one of them being ease of repair. You may as well use tempras (egg yolks) as the ancients did for painting, or other albuminous matter to coat with, although I will admit it's a good way to be green sound. Still, take oil over anything else out there. For floors, second choice - shellac. For cabinets, kitchen or otherwise - nothing's going to beat tung for everything you desire.

From contributor Z:
Shellac is derived from the excretions of the lac bug. It is about as natural as it gets. It and a coat of a good carnauba/candillia/beeswax emulsion is about as user friendly and repairable as it gets. So, unless your project will potentially be subjected to vast amounts of water and/or splashed wine, then sometimes ease of reparability overrides durability.

From contributor D:
My experience with shellac tells me that it is very susceptible to water spots. Tung oil, if properly applied, can have standing water in droplets on it until drying with no ill effects. I have coated at least 100K sq/ft of handscraped and distressed flooring with it. Some of these are five years old with high traffic and have been re-oiled only once. Re-oiling is very easy. Most high end kitchen cabs and floors that I am familiar with can be re-oiled in a matter of a few hours. This is a long conversation, but you should look at it as a burnish-in finish. Wipe on and wipe off like the manufacturers say is not the way to get this durable finish. The old-timers call it a friction finish. Imagine applying hand cream without working your hands together. How much of the therapeutic effect would you receive? I hope you get what I am saying.

From contributor M:
I recently used Target USL wb lacquer on a set of kitchen cabinets and I am very happy with the results. The smell is minimal and the finish is just as good if not better than lacquer. I applied a wb shellac first and then followed with 2-3 coats of usl. It takes longer, about 45-60 minutes to dry. This was my first try at it, but I like what I am seeing.

From contributor Y:
The reason many people are under the impression of shellac being a coating not suitable for areas of high water is because they have had bad experiences using shellac that is already packaged, off the shelf. When using high grade fresh lac and solving it yourself, you then have a fresh shellac that has only trace esterification of the coating going on. The longer the lac stands, or gets older, the more esterification/plasticization takes place and the less resistance the shellac has to water. It's a shame that lac gets the blame for not being as good as it really is when subjected to water because people use store or manufactured canned shellac that has sat there for months esterifying in the can before it is purchased for actual application. Though it does not have anywhere near the water resistance of tung oil - remember - it was used on floors extensively for many decades and no one had a problem with it because it was easy to repair, gave a hard clear finish, and even if it did water blush, all that was necessary to clear it up was alcohol.

Give this some thought... The lac trees where the bug secretes the lac on the branches is mainly in India, hot wet India with torrential rains from monsoons, high humidity, and heat. If lac is able to stand up in the exterior conditions in India, someone is hard pressed to say lac has inferior water resistance. Though I still agree that tung is the best and safest natural product for floor finishing or even furniture, for its durability and water resistance, etc. Lac/shellac will always be my second choice for long term coatings on furniture with acrylics running an extremely close second.

From contributor K:
I haven't tried it and it's expensive, but try Livos Oil.

From contributor D:
Livos, Trip Trap and the like are all ways for companies to charge high dollar amounts for products that you can formulate yourself in your own shop. A little homework will save you lots of money.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your input. I would be putting these cabinets in all areas of the house - baths, kitchens, laundry rooms, offices, you name it. I own a cabinet shop down on the coast in Mississippi and I'm currently using a pre-cat lacquer from Gemini. My buddy's been trying to get me to switch to ML Campbell for a while now. But anyway, I am thinking about offering a "green" cabinet alternative because the clients I have been working with lately are interested in this.

I am considering switching to a water base substitute for lacquer for my entire operation, but I am unhappy with how those hard finishes wear (dents, chips, cracks at joints, etc.). I want something I can touch up with ease, yet keep up with production needs.

From contributor Y:
Still think your best bets are not waterbase but tung or shellac, but I'll leave it up to those who are sold on the waterbase products to continue this conversation.

From contributor B:
I think ML Campbell would be a better choice in a production environment over Gemini because the ML does not require a sanding sealer. You save a step. Just make sure the wood is clean before you shoot your first coat. It will not raise the grain as much as Gemini, requiring only a light sanding with 320 before you shoot your finish coat. It is very popular with high end production shops here in Texas.

From contributor C:
Maybe explain to your green clients how environmentally friendly a high solid conversion varnish really is, since it will last for many years without issue. Other products won't and will need to be stripped with chemicals, washed with more chemicals, and refinished using more nasty coal-produced electric. Tell them to do it right the first time and send Gore's company some money and buy some carbon credits so they can sleep like babies.

From contributor J:
Target has some really good products and one of them is a lacquer that is touted as having very good reparability. If you need something a bit tougher, they have a CV and a poly that may fit the bill. They also have WB shellac, but personally I would stay away from shellac for a kitchen; I want something a bit more durable. The only downside I've encountered so far with their finishes is a longer dry time.

From contributor Y:
Contributor C, great post. Should I use the same approach with Imron acrylic, urethane with a TDI responsible for over 20,000 deaths in India back in the 60's or 70's, or maybe use that sales ploy for a high lead containing enamel? After all, both will outlast conversion varnishes, that's been proven.

It seems everyone here is looking for long term performance from whatever product they have chosen as their pet coating system, but no matter what system you settle on, sooner or later it's going to have to be repaired, renewed, or removed and another coating re-applied. Why not stick with the natural finishes as much as possible and if necessary, for color's sake and glazing, toning, etc., use evaporative finishes such as acrylics. Natural oils, waxes, plant and animal resins and polymers - none of these require petroleum solvents for reduction or removal. Yes, acrylic can be formulated to be a coating without the use of petrol chemicals! I've run the whole gamut of all the hyped products that have come on the market since the mid 60's - I've used them, put up with them, discarded them, and for the last 15 years have been using nothing but acrylates and natural products as much as possible.

When waterborne started to take off back in the 80's, everyone and their brother jumped on the bandwagon, and since then it's better and better, and yet will never be as good as a solvent evaporative finish. Same with CV's - when they developed a way to catalyze alkyd/amino resins by ambient temperature acid catalyst with other resins, again everyone bought into the technology and now there are a hundred of them. Coatings manufacturers have built their companies on marketing unnecessary coatings for the wood finish industry and now they have no choice but to keep coming up with the next new best coating and marketing the hell out of it to keep themselves viable.

If the coating manufacturers were really concerned with green finishes, they would be finding better and faster and greener methods to use natural coatings that have been around from a century ago and have been being used for centuries for protective and decorative purposes. Are natural products more time consuming in a production environment? Why don't you find out! See if they can do what you need done - keep track of the time it takes you to finish a kitchen in oil and what it takes you to do in waterbase or CV, then think about the ease of future repair, color change, recoating/application. Maybe - just maybe - you will say "wow - I should have done this all along!" Forget the hype, marketing, sales pitches, and all the rest - just go back to basics, as I have, and tell me in a year if you're not happy for making the choice.

From contributor C:
Because I have a real shop and all we do is finish, time is money and callbacks and repairs are an even bigger loser. I use the most durable finish that the customer is willing to pay for to have the job done. When people ask about a green finish, I ask them to sign a waiver releasing me of all failures of the finish. Guess what... no one ever signs it.

From contributor Y:
That sounds like what I had for the coatings you're using when I went back to natural coatings. Guess what? No one ever signed mine either. I showed them a board that had various chemical and water damage, etc. and repaired them all in under 1/2 hour while they stood there watching - can you do the same if I come there and scratch your polished polyester/polyurethane coating across the grain? Or pour some acid base stripper on it or cross sand it with 120 grit paper?

From contributor D:
I used to be a staunch CV guy. Tung oil burnished in holds up well, repairs very easily, can have dye burned back in 5-10 years down the road, and can be repaired easily and locally. CV can't touch the long term success I have had with tung oil on wood floors which take way more beating than any cabinet or furnishing. If you do not like tung oil, then you do not understand how to use it. I bet I live longer than anyone that has to spray anything. Good luck with your high tech well marketed stuff!

From contributor O:
Experiment with good old Elmer's white glue. It is casein based and has been used in many sealing applications including sealing concrete. I have had good luck using it on reproductions of African art.

From contributor Y:
Sorry, but unless Elmer's has just now changed their glue formula, it remains a PVA - poly vinyl acetate adhesive, aka VAM (vinyl acetate monomer). Caseins are phosphoproteins of milk produced by the action of acid - acetic - or by the natural action of the lactic acid producing souring of the milk. The rennet thus produced is what is used in the making of plastic type coatings, or milk paints or other casein products. As long as you keep alkalis and borax cleaning compounds away from the PVA, it will remain pretty stable, but when it comes to removing the coating, it could be a sticky situation - unless you know for sure that the substrate underneath will not be affected by the PVA remover. I would not use it on a floor, being too soft for heavy traffic, or as a clear coat for cabinets, as it does not stand up to water well at all. But on artwork like what you're displaying, looks great.

From contributor O:
While I agree that not every finish is perfect for every application, the posted picture is of a 2' x 4' door that is just 1 of 8 on an $80,000 media cabinet that I built in 1996. All doors have touch latches, so the finish is constantly handled and it still looks perfect. I have used this process on 7 or 8 other functional projects of similar scope and value that are also doing quite well. I wouldn't risk thousands of hours of carving on something that, at least in these applications, didn't work. I was just offering another option to answer a difficult request.

From contributor N:
None of Gemini's pre-cats require a sealer. Nothing we manufacture requires a sealer. For the questioner's benefit, "green" manufacturing does not necessarily mean waterbase coatings. LEED specifications are a mirror of South Coast Air Quality Management District requirements (Southern California). Products that meet the low VOC requirement are approved for use and meet LEED specs. We currently have a 100 gram per liter solvent based stain line and 275 gram per liter solvent based coatings. These should meet your customer's green building requirement.

Oh, and just in case, we have some killer waterbornes also. :)

From the original questioner:
Thank you for all your responses and advice. Your passion for the subject is very inspiring. It has definitely made me aware of my lack of knowledge. I will start trying some of the options to decide what I like best.

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