dust free floor sanding

Why dust free floor sanding is so important – health & safety

We are asked many questions relating to floor sanding but recently Terry Guilford was consulted about the dangers of sanding a particular type of timber floor and why dust free floor sanding is so important. The client had expressed concern that the wood used in the floor was known to cause health issues when sanded. Whenever there is a discussion about any form of dust in a health context the natural assumption is that we are talking about respiration issues and possible long- term lung damage. However, whilst most people are aware of these problems they are usually less aware of some of the other possible health issues caused by dust particles from wood floor sanding.

So, let’s consider the 5 problems associated with wood dust, why dust free floor sanding is so important and the measures that can be taken to mitigate the danger.

Lung damage.

Like our old “friend” asbestos, fine wood dust can hang in the air and be breathed in. Whilst not as life threatening as asbestos this dust can cause very small wounds to the lungs which are not immediately noticeable but are irreversible and eventually diminish the lung capacity.


This is quite common and normally manifests itself by causing itching, sneezing, short term breathing problems, skin flushing, runny nose etc.  Merbau, Ipe and Iroko are timbers regularly used in flooring that can commonly cause many of the above symptoms, although just about every timber is listed as an irritant at some level.


Some woods become more sensitive to us with repeated exposure. In other words, we react a little worse to them with each subsequent contact. Iroko is a timber which is listed as a sensitizer whilst the Merbau and Ipe are not.


Some timbers are considered to be directly toxic, fortunately for us, none of those listed in the wood toxicity and allergen chart are in common use for flooring!

Cancer Causing

In this instance, we are referring to nasal cancer that can occur as a direct result of exposure to the dust from specific timbers. These cancers can affect any of the passages around the upper respiratory tract including the throat. Unfortunately, there are several timbers that can be used in flooring that pose a risk, including walnut and oak. Although it is rare, there is one very well-known case involving a prominent member of the floor sanding community.

Having listed the dangers of wood dust let’s talk about what we can do to minimise the risk and why dust free floor sanding is so important.

The importance of dust free floor sanding – minimising dust

The most obvious control measure is to create as little airborne dust as possible. Since one of the best methods of achieving this (water),  is ruled out by nature of the surface we are working on, it is essential that anyone regularly floor sanding uses only professional floor sanding equipment which has far better dust control than the cheap hire sanders.

Dust Control Systems

Dust Extractor

Smaller machines such as edgers and random orbital sanders can be improved by hooking them up to extractors. It is also possible to get DCS (dust control systems) for belt sanders but in my experience, they add little or nothing to the performance of professional machines.

Air Movers and Ventilation

Strategically placed air movers used in a room with open windows can suck the old, stale air from the room allowing fresh air to replace it. This is particularly useful in larger areas with a door to the outside and is often overlooked.

Personal protection equipment

Personal protection equipment such as masks or better still respirators should be worn all the time if using cheaper hire machines and would be recommended by some health experts as essential the whole time. With regard to irritation, it is obviously impossible to cover every piece skin but a respirator will help and if sanding a timber that you are particularly sensitive to, a Tyvek suit and gloves can be used.

Modern floor sanding equipment (when well maintained) is incredibly efficient at dust control. However, the greatest exposure to dust, irrespective of the quality of the machines, is during the emptying of dust bags. If you find it impossible to work using any form of protection, I would strongly suggest that you use it at this point if no other.

A list of timbers and the risks associated with them can be found online at The Wood Database to whom I owe thanks for most of the information shown above.

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how to get scandinavian white wood floors

Floor Sanding – Scandinavian White Wood Floor.

A Little White Lye

Ok so it’s a terrible pun but cut me some slack, it’s 7am and I am already on my second train of the day heading towards “sunny” Manchester from Cambridge. In all probability unless you know something about wood flooring you won’t even get the reference so I’ll explain.

Did you ever see a picture of a pristine Scandinavian house, large open plan configuration, simple furniture; you know the type I’m talking about! Anyway the floor it all sits on is very often extremely pale, sometimes pine, sometimes oak but nearly always bleached out looking. To achieve that look fully, you must use lye (so now you think it’s a great pun… ok you still don’t, fair enough) and as the Scandinavian white wood floor look is currently very “in vogue” it’s worth knowing a little about it.

how to get scandinavian white wood floors


Lye is a caustic type substance used to remove the orange hue from timber, particularly flooring. Without the use of lye the strong orange tints in the timber tend to come through whatever white tint you put on the wood at a later stage, particularly on some pines that have resinous streaks in them. There are two types, softwood lye and hardwood lye depending on the wood species they are going to be used on. The lye is normally applied after sanding the floor fully (quite often the floor is left a little rougher than usual so more of the white oil or stain is left in the wood at the later stage), it is left to work and is then mopped up or extracted after whatever time is prescribed by the manufacturer. You will notice that the liquid has turned “yellowy” indicating that the product has done its job in bleaching out the strong colours. Once the product has been removed you must neutralise the wood with clean water, extract and then let the floor dry out thoroughly in order to negate the risk of contaminating later products.

Scandinavian White Wood Floor Finishes

What you do next depends on what type of finish you are looking for. A strictly Scandinavian approach is to white oil the floor followed by the application of a soap treatment. This suits dry, cold countries where a certain degree of wear and tear is not only tolerated but actually embraced, but it doesn’t really suit the UK climate or attitude. The maintenance of this finish is relatively easy in that you use the same soap to clean it, but it is also more frequent than most people want.

A more modern approach that achieves a similar look but is easier to keep is white tinted, catalysed oil. These catalysed products are far more durable and stain resistant than simple one component oils and yet still have key advantages over lacquers in terms of sustainability and practicality.

For those who really want a surface build lacquer type product, (count me out) it is usual to stain the floor white and then apply the finish over the top of the stain. This method does give slightly more control over the depth of white that can be achieved (not white enough then tint the lacquer slightly) but it also means that any damage to the floor is virtually impossible to disguise without a total re-sand. If going with this approach I would recommend using a two component finish with at least two coats over the white in order to give it maximum protection.

There are several methods of white staining the floor from the simplest, thinned down white emulsion to the very latest VOC free oil based primer/stains. The full list of options and combinations is way beyond the scope of this article but I am a firm believer in using systems developed by manufacturers, that way you are guaranteed a solution that works. Part of that system should be maintenance products, a white floor is tricky to keep and using the wrong products can make the challenge worse.

Of course all this is just my opinion but after all, would I lye to you?

If you want to tackle your own floor sanding project – why not contact us now. We hire the best machines and provide the best expert advice, thanks to decades of experience in the professional floor sanding industry. FInd your local recommended floor sanding contractor.

Image credit MyScandinavianHome.com. For more design inspiration and to see Scandinavian white wood floors check out the website.

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Asbestos – The Dangers for Wood Floor Sanders and DIYers


In February 2012 my mother died of cancer, sad but not unremarkable, she died of lung cancer, again nothing strange, it is, by far, the most prolific form of cancer. Specifically, she died of pleural mesothelioma……. blank faces all round I am guessing.  Ok let’s start to fill in some of those blanks, her death was caused by asbestos, a woman who never worked in industry, in fact, was a carer for her mother in her early life and a carer for her family in her later life, as was common in those times. I would like to say that this is a rare occurrence and statistically, it is, (the risk of contracting this disease is 1 in 60 for men but 1 in 773 for women), but the occurrence of secondary contamination is actually higher in women, I’ll come back to that. While most forms of cancer are decreasing, the incidence of mesothelioma is on the increase, (4 fold since the 1980s), it is not due to peak until 2016 and the UK has the second highest incidence in the world.  All very interesting says’ you, what the hell has this got to do with the floor sanding industry?

Asbestos in Vinyl Floor Tiles

About 6 weeks ago a colleague rang me and asked if I had ever sanded off vinyl floor tiles, they were in his daughters’ bedroom and he wanted rid of them, spot the danger yet? No, neither did he, you see in properties built before 1980, vinyl tiles could contain asbestos, in fact, if those tiles are 9” x  9” there is a 95% chance that they DO contain asbestos. Incredibly, despite the fact that the Romans identified the link between this naturally occurring mineral and the early deaths by respiratory disease of the slaves who mined it, we decided to put it in just about everything once the industrial revolution really kicked in, (it’s usage peaked in 1963, blue and brown asbestos were banned in 1985 and white asbestos in 1999).

Where Asbestos might be in your Home

In the flooring and floor sanding industry, this means vinyl sheeting, vinyl tiles the adhesives and mastics to fix them, the backing papers and the damp proof membranes underneath them may contain asbestos. If you leave these products alone they are considered benign but cutting, sawing or sanding them not only endangers health but may be illegal, (see http://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/essentials/index.htm) and this is where I come back to my earlier point about secondary contamination. If you have no regard for your own health that is your choice but consider secondary contamination. One of the theories put forward for my mum’s death was that she breathed in a fibre (it only takes one) from her fathers’ overalls when she was a child (he was a plumber) and 50 + years later it killed her, remember it’s usually diagnosed late by which time it’s inoperable and currently there is NO CURE.

I was asked to write this article for our floor sanding website on several occasions but felt I wasn’t qualified. I’m not an expert on the subject, I run a floor sanding business. However, I decided to go ahead, it is a subject very close to my heart, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate. The information on the dangers of asbestos, however, is out there and very accessible (even down to the names of the companies prosecuted for breach of the legislation).  If you work in any industry where you MAY come into contact with asbestos you are legally obliged to undergo awareness training, a list of companies carrying out this training is available www.ukata.org.uk/members/awareness. If you are starting a DIY project you should also make yourself aware of the potential threat of asbestos.

My colleague, once alerted to the danger his tiles potentially posed, was quickly able to access the specific information he needed and he took the required action. As well as hopefully opening your eyes to the issues of asbestos I am writing this article as I want you to “think on” as our northern colleagues would say. The dangers of asbestos were known for centuries but we didn’t just use it where it was essential, (there weren’t insulating alternatives for many years) we CHOSE to put it in where there WERE options.

The parallels with wood floor finishing products and solvent use are clear, the law is clear, the health information is clear. Choosing the right wood floor finish is vital and if you don’t know what I am talking about do some research or email me.

Image credit: Bradley Environmental UK

If you are in the USA and have been affected by mesothelioma please see this link


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