Widespread peeling or flaking

Q: We need your help. We bought a new house in September 2016 and had the floors refinished before moving in. The floors were in different conditions around the house. The first floor was stained dark, the second floor was blonde (probably the original finish since it was previously carpeted) and the kitchen was pre-finished wood according to my contractor and the floor guy.

The guy we hired, who came very highly recommended by a contractor I trust, used Minwax oil based stain and satin finish poly.

It was the fall in New England so the temperature changed during the project. It probably averaged mid 50s, but it got into the low 40s at night and maybe 60s in hottest part of day. They sanded the floors throughout the house all the way down to the virgin wood, including the kitchen. After vacuuming and letting the stain dry they applied 4 coats of poly. They let each stain dry for one day before applying the next and I think they needed to let the third dry for an extra day because it wasn’t dry enough for the last coat. Aside from the obvious smell, the floors looked great initially.

However, about 1-2 months later I noticed something happening in one particular spot in the kitchen. Right on one of the seams there was a silvery clear bubble forming (about the size of a Swedish fish candy). It wasn’t bubbling up, but spreading around. At first I thought it was air coming up from between those floor boards. But then I noticed the color spreading along the seam. It happened in 2-3 spots so I called my contractor to bring his floor guy and come take a look.

My wife and I have different recollections of what he said, but it was either ‘I have no idea what this is, I’ve never seen it before’ or ‘this happens sometimes in the winter when the boards expand and contract.’ It was November-December at the time. My contractor told me that because the kitchen floors were prefinished, there was no real way to get the poly down into the seams between each board and this was the result of the contracting, which creates gaps and allows the poly to bridge across instead of crack. Seemed a little far fetched to me, but I trust the guy immensely and it was only happening in a few spots in the kitchen, which he told me were prefinished. The floor guy said he’d come back and touch up those areas.

A few months later the kitchen got a lot worse. The bubbles and seams were all over the kitchen and some spots were even peeling where the bubbles formed (probably from repeatedly being stepped on – I have four small children). So I called my contractor to come take a look.

What makes matters worse is that now the silver seams are appearing in other rooms as well (and those aren’t prefinished wood). In fact, every room in the house has some form of silvery white seams, the kitchen being by far the worst. The floor guy is coming over again today and I suspect he’s going to tell me that he needs to do the whole thing all over again. The more I read about peeling and flaking, the more it sounds like our problem. I’ve also been reading about something called ‘white line syndrome.’ But how do I know if it is caused by inadequate drying, poor abrasion due to inadequate buffing, or contracting of floor boards?

If he tells me he will do the whole house again, how do I know it won’t happen again? I realize you probably don’t have the answer to this question, but I’d like your opinion nonetheless as I’m not sure what else to do or where to turn. The house was such a mess the first time from all the fine buffing particles that it took a week to clean, and that is when it was empty. However, we’re going to live here for a long time and I don’t think we can look at these floors every day after all the money we spent refinishing then.

A: This is very unfortunate for everybody. First, if the kitchen was prefinished it would have had bevels or micro bevel edges and ends. Is that so? Was he able to sand the floor down enough to make those bevels go away? I ask because one way or another those bevels have to be dealt with. However this issue is now occurring everywhere even on flooring not having bevels. My first thought when reading your email was that 4 coats seems a lot of finish to apply at once. Second was the stain he used. I’ve used these stains too but they aren’t the best and I don’t use them now. They are high solvent stains and they tend not to dry very well. In application if this stain seeps into gaps between boards and not having much air does not dry and then polyurethane is applied and it also soaks into the gaps you can end up with an issue. He would be much better off to have used a product such as Dura Seal Quick Coat (a min wax company) which contains polyurethane resin and dries reliably in about 3 hours. White line syndrome can occur when a finish bridges a gap and then in winter the boards shrink a bit and the finish stretches and fractures. But it sounds like you also have an adhesion issue too. This could be from inadequate abrasion of the preceding coat of finish or from a contaminant.

If he has to do this all over the best advice I can give him is to use the above stain and because it also contains a poly resin I consider that a stain and seal coat all in one. After that I apply two coats of Poloplaz Primero which is a dream to apply and also dries very reliably. I feel bad for the floor guy. As I was told by a Dura Seal rep at a floor show once, “if you are in this business long enough _hit happens”.

Follow-up: Thanks for the quick reply. I don’t know about the bevels. I didn’t notice them before he sanded and I can’t see any now. He came back on Tuesday and said they weren’t beveled.

I also wanted to get your thoughts on what he said about the problems we are having throughout the floor. He basically said the kitchen is a lost cause and needs to be sanded down all over again. However, he didn’t really have a solid explanation for the cause.

When I first noticed it a few months ago he came over with my contractor to take a look. They both said it was caused by expansion and contraction of the floorboards. At that point it was only a few spots. He even said this happens sometimes and happened to the floors at his own house. But Tuesday, he had an additional explanation: changes to the chemical composition of the poly he used to reduce the voc/odor. Sounded like BS to me. The obvious question is: if you knew that then why’d you use it? As for the rest of the house, it doesn’t look nearly as bad as the kitchen. He said to fix that he just needs to buff the top coat and lay a new coat on top. He said it was just the top layer that is a problem and he can buff that away. Does that make sense to you? Seems to me that If the poly has an adhesion problem, removing the top layer won’t solve anything. I read about screening. Is that a method that can be used here? I’m worried about the mess now that we’ve moved in.

He also showed me pictures on his phone of other jobs he did that look as bad as mine. He said he redid them and they are fine now, but I am skeptical. Seems this has happened before, yet he hasn’t changed the products he uses. That is a red flag to me.

In any event, I mentioned the two products that you suggested and will insist he use them in the kitchen (if we agree to use him again).As for the rest of the house, I don’t know if even what he suggested is an option (assuming it would solve the problem) because we would essentially have to move everything out of the house, which isn’t realistic. I’m also concerned that whatever we do, it might come back. Then I’d really lose my mind. What do you think? Does this make sense to you? Should I ask for some or all of my money back?

I’ve included some pics of the kitchen so you can see what’s happening. The other rooms are a lot more subtle silver lines.

A: Were these floors ever waxed? I ask only because what I see in your pictures looks very much like what would happen with an old floor that had been waxed over the years. The wax gets between the boards and when the finish is applied the solvent (mineral spirits) seeps between the boards, softening the old wax and drawing it to the surface. The finish would be repelled where ever this occurred. Of course, this problem would be evident almost immediately and the board edges would have been sticky for quite some time.

There doesn’t appear to be significant gapping so as to stretch the finish and cause it to fracture like that. In fact this fracturing, if that is what I am seeing isn’t totally confined just to the board edge in all cases. Unless this is a very loose floor, moving up and down I don’t see this being the cause. I think he has too many coats applied too closely together and somewhere during this process he may have not buffed thoroughly enough, unless there is a contaminant of some type present. There are cleaners which I’ve used to remove such contaminants and I’ve used this several times to rescue floors. It is Tie Tac from Poloplaz. It’s just a matter of spraying the cleaner on the floor, a section at a time and buffing with a white pad, or other more abrasive pad if that is what you have. Then rap a towel around a push broom, wet the towel and ring it out with the solution and go over the floor. After it is dry, thorough screen the floor. Hand rub the edges with fine sandpaper.

Is he saying he added something to his finish to change the VOC? I’d call that BS.

Something has to be done as frustrating as it is. So, I’d let him go ahead and do what he says he is going to do. It will either work or it won’t. I’m not feeling real confident. If you get widespread peeling or flaking the problem likely goes beyond the last coat. I say this because it could always be possible in a room to screen a floor and inadvertently miss one or two tiny spots which cause an issue. But his is happening throughout the room.

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