Continued where we left off in the mystery of the poly-coated floor that kept failing

It was more than 30 miles away from the scene of the crime (job site) where the mystery of the messed-up finish was finally solved. What could have caused this puzzling dilemma? The sealer and first coats … perfect. Only the final coat—the one that really mattered, the one that opens the checkbook—was a miserable failure. But how, why, who, your what hurts?!

Thank you, floor pros, for jumping online and throwing your expertise at this in the comments. You all really zeroed in on the problem: contamination. Before I reveal the culprit and solution to this very strange story, let’s get all “toasty” with another warmup exercise. For those of you who messed up my Toast/Roast exercise in the last post, I will give you one more chance. You know the rules: As fast as you can, repeat after me. Then, answer my question without thinking and as fast as you can! You do the italic part, here we go: Tin, Tin! Ten, Ten! Ten, Ten! Ten, Ten! Tin Tin Tin, Tin! Tin! Tin! Ten, Ten! Tin, Tin, TIN! TIN! Quickly tell me: What are aluminum cans made of?!

I hope you guessed “Tin,” not “Ten.” But of course the real answer is "aluminum." Aluminum cans are made of aluminum. And bread, not toast, goes into a toaster. And contamination in a hardwood floor finish can be disguised in many ways.

This floor needed to be refinished regardless of what caused the failure. It wasn’t worth another costly recoat if there was still a contaminant we could not identify. But, then all the evidence would be gone forever! What if it happens again?! We had at least four qualified flooring contractors banging their heads together with no definitive answers or solutions. There was no guarantee this would not happen again.

Just as we were admitting defeat, this almost-cold case heated up. The owner of the company was frustrated and wanted to meet me at the shop with his crew and buy everything they needed to sand and finish the floor all over again. Was the contamination from the heating system? A defective machine?! Did someone mop the floor and they literally weren’t coming “clean”?! No answers. The owner bought his supplies and coached his guys, informing them he would be working with them this time. We talked a bit longer while his guys loaded the van. They pulled the van up to our sidewalk and opened the doors, and as I started to help them load the supplies … THE SMELL!

A waft of chemicals hit me so hard the radio skipped a beat! Like, an oily, greasy something. Like when I was a kid and I fixed small engines and bicycles in my basement with no windows for fresh air! That kind of smell. Boom, there it was! 

I looked in the van at the buffer (most guys only have one) and asked, “Is that the buffer you’re gonna use on the resand?” I was told yes, that’s the only one they had. All was falling into place now; the tumblers were clicking. I lifted the buffer. I noticed the pad looked new. “How old is this pad?” They told me it was new. “How new? New and you used it on the floor the whole time?” I was told that it was only used to cut back the top coats. “Not with a screen on the raw wood?” Nope, I was told they only used screens (180, maybe 220) with an older pad on the bare wood. They changed to this one just because the bare wood pad was “played.” Still not exactly what I was looking for, but that SMELL!

They all watched me as I crawled through the van like a beagle looking for bed bugs (see my first mystery again … shameless self-promotion). I yanked the pad from under the buffer. It was 1x16” Norton white pad. I pulled it to my face. I swiped my hand across the pad and then the corrugated steel floor of the cargo van ... AHA!!!!

They were staring now. “Who spilled or busted something in this van? RECENTLY?” The owner looked at his guys and they looked at each other, wincing: “Oh $4!t!”

“Oh $4!T, WHAT?!” the owner barked. The lead guy chimed in…

“Oh, $4!T! We put the buffer in the van before for the final coat and the handle was open, so we could lay it down, and the handle went through a can of WD-40!” “Awwwww, NO!” just about all of us barked on that one.

I felt the pad and it was slick and oily, as was the van floor. I asked them to smell it, but years of poly fumes left them a little clueless. The owner checked out the buffer pad and said, “It’s still in here. We must be spreading it everywhere. This pad is soaked. Didn’t you notice this? You couldn’t see it, or smell it, or feel it?!” His guys shook their heads. How many times has ANYONE seen this, really?

I suggested they try cutting down the previous coats with a couple screenings. Maybe, a 100 then a 120? Then, they could decontaminate the floor with a deep-cleaning solvent, rinse with a floor cleaner, and for a little insurance follow up with a bonding agent before final coating. This way they would probably be able to avoid a full resand. However, my go-to option was to totally resand, including the cleaning process just to make sure this did not happen again. It wouldn’t take much more time or supplies to gain some peace of mind.

The team did resand the entire floor, and they did use the cleaners with all new sanding, application, and coating supplies. They did not use the bonding agent. The floor is performing normally to this day. Years have passed, and from time to time at open houses and holiday get-togethers we talk about old floor problems and the guys jump right in: “Whoa! Tell them about what happened with the ‘you-know-what’ job!” They don’t like to let the cat out of the bag right off. They like to float out the details slowly, letting the mystery unfold for all to postulate. Like CSI Floor Guys. See who climbs on board. And, there the story starts all over again…

Stay tuned for my next post, where we’ll delve into Wood Floor Mystery #3: The Half-Cupped Floor!


Stephen Diggins works for Wood Pro Inc. in their Salem, N.H., branch as manager and training director. He has many years of installation, sanding, finishing, gymnasium design and technical consulting experience, which he uses to assist his flooring customers on a regular basis. With almost 30 years in the flooring industry, he has been a freelance columnist for magazine, newsprint and online medias and has conducted product seminars ranging from wood flooring to luxury vinyl tile.