One of the myriad choices we were confronted with upon buying our house was how to refinish the floors. They hadn't been done in a long, long time, and had become gray and worn in the high-traffic areas and a bit orangey-yellowed in the far corners. The home inspector recommended refinishing them to prolong the life of the floors, not simply for cosmetic reasons, which made sense. It also made sense to refinish them before moving in, since it's easier to do when the house is empty of furniture (and residents!).
The conventional path is to use polyurethane to finish floors, which basically creates a plastic coating on top of the wood. Due to the VOCs emitted (volatile organic compounds), this means you are breathing in toxins. Polyurethane coatings get scratched and dulled, and the only way to deal with that wearing is to sand the whole floor and re-coat it. After doing some reading and thinking about this, I began looking into alternative floor finishes. My goals were multiple--to avoid the toxicity, to avoid the environmental pollution resulting from disposing the waste, to be economical and spend as little money as possible, and to be able to maintain the floor finish over time. Turns out that polyurethane is a relatively new process, only in use for about the last half-century. Before that, people used oils, like linseed oil, to seal floors and protect them from water damage. The oil penetrates the wood and protects it.
But when I looked online to learn about oil finishes, it seemed daunting. Few people seemed to be in the business of doing oil finishes, first of all. But I realized if I could do it myself, I could cut costs, perhaps. Some protocols called for using a buffing machine, which I don't have and which I might be intimidated by, at least at first. Some methods took many days, because you need to wait awhile in between applications--I was impatient, and wanted to be living in our new house as soon as possible!
Finally, I spoke with my friends Sam and Leslie, who built a house that was designed in an environmentally conscious way. They used a product that they applied themselves, and that they were really happy with--an oil-based finish out of Germany, by a company called Osmo. I began reading about this product, and realized that it looked like it would meet all my criteria. It's very eco-friendly, and any scratches can be spot treated--which means that I should never have to sand the floor again. It's easy enough to apply, so I could refinish the floors myself.
Osmo Polyx Oil is applied by scrubbing the oil into raw wood or a newly sanded floor. It's a workout! You use a stiff-bristled brush and scrub the oil into the floor in a small area, until there is no excess left behind. Then you move to the next area and repeat. It took me about four hours to apply the first coat to an area of about 600 square feet. The odor was not too bad, but I wore a respirator to be safe. I slept in the house with the windows open that night, and then applied the second coat the next day. It was safe to walk around in socks after the second coat dried; we waited to put down any furniture for 10 days, and we waited three weeks before putting down a rug.
The floors have only gotten more and more beautiful over the last four weeks. At first, they were a little shiny, but as the Osmo oil kept working its way into the wood and curing in the air, the floors began just to look like natural wood. I love to see and feel the grain under my fingertips when I touch the floor, and it feels great under foot, too.
In the end, splitting the job by hiring a person to sand the floor and applying the Osmo myself cost about the same amount as hiring someone to sand and polyurethane the floor. But I hope that the cost over the next few decades will be much less, as we will be able to touch up any scratches, and should never have to sand or refinish the floor in its entirety again. And it definitely gives me a feeling of pride and accomplishment to have done the oiling myself. You can't put a price tag on that.
But I have to admit to being a bit overprotective of the floors. We now have a no-shoes policy for the house, and each bit of furniture has felt pads where it makes contact with the floor. I sweep frequently, hoping to get up all those tiny little sharp-edged rocks and prevent them from disfiguring the new, beautiful surface. I suppose I'll relax a bit, eventually. But being this up-tight makes me feel kind of bourgeois. Am I really that concerned with appearances? Didn't I give up my subscripton to Dwell, didn't I stop lusting after modern design when I decided to start farming, when I remembered the moon and the stars and fell back in love with the natural world?
Somehow it was easy, when I first moved to the nuns' farm, to just turn away from my city life and start anew. I just brought a couple small bags of farm clothes and a couple books, and that was about it. But in the last year, I've been pulled to re-integrate my sense of design with my life on the farm. Maybe I don't go out to contemporary art museums, sip cocktails at fancy bars, or wear funky shoes anymore--but part of me still loves the aesthetics of those experiences and things. Maybe nowadays I wear dirty jeans for several days running, and put my hair in pigtails. Maybe a big night out nowadays means going to sit on the town common with an ice cream cone, and listening to a local band. But I still love the simple lines of the couch that Anne and I found eight years ago, and I'm happy every day when I see it in the living room. I love the modern Italian dining table that we bought, and the translucent orange chairs we chose to accompany it. I look at these things and I look at the workboots by the door, next to the mallet and trowel and twine, and wonder how they all fit together...
I suppose we are all more complex than we seem. I love modern design, and farming, and bad sci-fi, and local organic food, and hand-woven rugs from far-away places. I make choices within that matrix of affinities and desires, and endeavor to remain true to my heart and my values. It's actually been a little humbling to re-integrate my "city self" and my "farm self" these last six months or so. I realize that I had been feeling more than a little moral rectitude in turning away from consumerism, that I was feeling a bit superior in choosing a simpler life. Setting up our own place has meant making a lot of choices about things--keeping, discarding, buying things. It was easier, in many ways, living at other people's farms, making do and being satisfied with other people's stuff.
Now, in our own home, I'm thinking about surfaces, about appearances, about ecological choices, about priorities, about needs versus wants. Every purchase requires so much consideration. Is it necessary? Can I get it locally made, US made? Can I find it used, on Craigslist? Should I buy the more expensive, better made version, rather than something that will have to be thrown away in a few years? Will this particular thing help us save energy in the long run, even though it will cost more now?
And I'm thinking about wanting to make a welcoming home, one where people can feel at ease--while I'm also wanting to preserve the beauty of the newly finished floors. But if the house is going to be a home, if it's going to be a homestead, I'm going to have to let go. To appreciate the beautiful things, and to let them be lived on, and with. To let the surfaces reflect my deeper values, in addition to my aesthetics. To let the surfaces reflect a life well lived.