The Evolution Of Floor Finishes

This article was originally published in Clean Link.

Much of the terminology and the traditional procedures in floor care come from the early history of floor finishes. So it is important to understand their history and the evolution of modern technology used today. This technology is a combination of floor finish evolution and floor machine advances that have increased the speed for buffing resulting in a higher shine in less time. The advances in floor care technology we enjoy today are due to progressive manufacturers competing to provide a product and process superior to their peers. The building service industry and end users are the beneficiaries of these advances.

Many people still talk about “waxing” the floor, even though it has been 50 years since natural waxes were widely used as a floor finish. The first floor finishes were carnauba waxes, made from the leaves of a tropical plant. Carnauba is a natural wax emulsion blend combined with a resin. Carnauba waxes were buffable and gave a great shine. They dried to a slight haze and left deep, rich swirls on the floor when buffed. They were extremely abrasive resistant but, because carnauba wax was very expensive and difficult to obtain, manufacturers began using other natural materials that were less costly, like beeswax, shellac and paraffin. Although some natural wax finishes are still used today, synthetic materials have largely replaced them in floor maintenance.

Synthetic wax/polymer finishes followed carnauba wax. In the late 1940s, a synthetic floor finish using a water-based and a plastic called polystyrene was developed. The first polystyrene finishes were colorless and had a very high gloss. But, they were also very brittle and tended to turn yellow after a period of time. When the wax-like plastic polyethylene was mixed with the polystyrene, however, a very durable, buffable, non-brittle floor finish was created.

Today, synthetic materials are much more commonly used in floor finishes than natural waxes. Synthetic water-based finishes are collectively called polymer finishes. The improved result was a dry, bright finish. The "buffability" of the finish depended on the type of synthetic wax and polymers that were put into them. Synthetic wax/polymer finishes in liquid form are a milky white color.

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