Finish your wood with flair and care part 1.

Finishing wood in an appropriate way is exceedingly important if you want to get the best out of your wood. In this two-part series, we survey different types of wood finishes and look at what is right for you.

Before and after... teak chair finished with Woca oil

I have touched on this topic before, but really it deserves a book’s worth of attention. Little information is available to Indonesian consumers about wood finishes, and what is out there is by no means comprehensive, clear, or particularly accessible. For those of you with experience in this area, you may have noticed there are limited choices available on the local market. Your average local builder will tend to offer the standard polyurethane-based finished that they know, interchangeably called “plitur” or “Mowilex” (a brand-name). Sometimes a varnish traditionally made from resins called “sirlac” (Shellac) but nowadays made from pulmerised petro-based oils is used for finishing teak. Another product we can pick up in large Indonesian supermarkets is ‘fake’ teak oil, made from to petroleum distillates such as kerosene. The good stuff is usually made with a linseed oil base.

The sheer number of timber finishes available on today’s market can sometimes be a tad overwhelming! In Indonesia we are a way behind some of the European, Australian and American advances in timber finishes, however in recent years more options have become available. I will look at these products in the upcoming issues, but first, let’s look at some basics.

There are four different ways to treat or finish wood: oil, wax, varnish or pigment (paint or stain). The first three don’t add any colour to the wood, whereas pigment does. Let’s look at some pros and cons of the various types.

1. OIL

Permeates timber cells and simultaneously seals and protects. Oils are not affected by moisture content fluctuation of wood (they are elastic). Many wood oils are plant-based and hence environmentally sounder. Types include: Unblended Wood Oils (tung, linseed, soy, candlenut, castor), Polymerised Wood Oils (specially processed oils that have been heated to help them dry faster which create a harder surface film and a more durable glossy luster) and Pigment Oil-Based Stains (contain oil which enables the stain to penetrate the wood)

2. Wax

Fills all of the cavities in the wood to achieve an even finish that is polished. Wax doesn not achieve a film on the surface, as oils do. It creates a flat surface which allows you to polish the wood. Many oil finishes benefit from a light liquid wax coating , especially floors.

3. Varnish

Creates a transparent film coating over the entire wood surface. There are penetrating varnishes and non-penetrating varnishes. There are approximately 60-70 different types of varnish out there. In Indonesia there are probably around 10 different kinds, but many different brand names. Types include: Polyurethane Coatings (generally petro chemical-based which are thinned with petroleum distillates to enable easy application. They create a glossy finish and are easy to apply, however have potential health risks as, depending on the brand, they contain a high level of solvents/ chemicals. They can crack and darken over time, and provide a surface coating only, similar to a plastic film). Resin based varnishes made from tree sap.

4. Pigment

There are two kinds of pigment: paint, which puts a non-transparent film over the wood surface, and stain, which colours the wood but leaves the grain exposed. Pigmented Paint will protect wood indefinitely; however it will cover the wood so characteristics are not displayed. Also, some paints in Indonesia contain lead. Environmentally speaking, paints are one of the worst pollutants in the world. The best solution is using timbers appropriately, i.e exterior grade timbers outside, and softer interior grade timbers inside and accept that timbers grey with age as do we.

The type of coating that you use should be determined by timber type, use, desired gloss level or appearance, and your own personal preferences. Of these, there are more ‘natural’ choices and more ‘sythetic’ solutions.  Decide on final look first, and then move on to available options.

Stay tuned for the next issue, where I will review wood finishing products available on the Indonesian market. Till next time!

Finish your wood with flair and care – part 2

The patina and character of naturally eroded reclaimed ulin boards weather by the sun and rain over many years

Let me just go on the record by saying that it is tricky trying to work out what to finish timber with, and this is particularly so for the novice and environmentally conscious. The more I look into it and think I understand, the wider the field expands! Wood finishing is a highly complicated and somewhat scientific field. What works for one species is not necessarily the best product for another. Sometimes the best decision is NOT to finish the wood, like this naturally eroded Ulin board on the left which has a beautiful patina on the surface from years of being walked on. It has been finished by body oils seeping out through the soles of people’s feet and into the wood.

But generally speaking, for outdoor applications in particular, finishing wood is a good idea. It helps provide protection against the sun’s harmful rays and the rain. Let’s start with a little guidance. Last time we looked at the different types of wood finishes available. Pretty much all types of wood finishes fit into 4 broad classes: oil, wax, varnish and pigments. This issue surveys some higher-quality products available in Indonesia that you won’t find in your local building supplies shop.

Beeswax Food Grade Wood Polish.jpg

Beeswax Food Grade Wood Polish

Manufacturer: Bio Colours
Made in: Indonesia (Yogyakarta)
Made from: Beeswax
More Info:
Description: Food-grade wax suitable for finishing wood products that will come into contact with food.

Bio Polish Linseed Oil–Beeswax Polish.jpg

Bio Polish Linseed Oil–Beeswax Polish

Manufacturer: Bio Colours
Made in: Indonesia (Yogyakarta)
Made from: Linseed oil & beeswax
More Info:
Description: A natural product free from solvents. Made from linseed oil and beeswax. Apply directly on wood surface.

Bona Oil 45 dry solids 45%.jpg

Bona Oil 45 (dry solids 45%)
Technical data

Manufacturer: Bona
Made in: Germany, Sweden, North America and China.
Made from: Esterified pine oil
Supplier: Little Tree Green Building Centre, Jl Sunset 1232, Bali
Description: For untreated wooden floors exposed to normal or heavy wear. Matt surface finish with lustre, longer drying time.
Made from: Pine oil base

Bona Oil 90 dry solids 90%.jpg

Bona Oil 90 (dry solids 90%)
Technical data

Manufacturer: Bona
Made in: Germany, Sweden, North America and China.
Made from: Pine oil base
Supplier: Little Tree Green Building Centre, Jl Sunset 1232, Bali
Description: For untreated wooden floors exposed to normal or heavy wear. Finish is a matt surface with a lustre.

Bona Deck Oil.jpg

Deck Oil
Technical data

Manufacturer: Bona
Made in: Germany, Sweden, North America and China.
Made from: Esterified pine and linseed oil
Supplier: Little Tree Green Building Centre, Jl Sunset 1232
Description: Bona Deck oil is a hardening & penetrating oil designed for protection of exterior wooden deckings. It is based on pine and linseed oil and contains additives that reduce the effects of UV-radiation on the wood.

Linseed Oil.jpg

Linseed Oil

Manufacturer: Repackaged by Little Tree
Made in: Imported product
Made from: Oil extracted from flaxseed
Description: Linseed oil is a natural finish oil which polymerizes into a solid form, dries quickly, and is used to produce linoleum flooring and paints, and for waterproofing wooden surfboards.

Tung Oil.jpg

Tung Oil

Manufacturer: Repackaged by Little Tree
Made in: Imported product
Made from: 100% pure cold pressed tung nut oil
Description: Tung oil is an extract from the seeds of the tung tree which when applied to paints and coatings polymerizes into a waterproof coating.


Exterior Decking Oil

Manufacturer: WOCA
Made in: Denmark
Made from: vegetable oil components
More info: Bima Radji, PT. Bhakti Artika Lestari
Description: For new and newly cleaned wooden decks. Protects against UV-rays and ensures a hard-wearing and water-resistant surface.



Outdoor Wood Oil

Manufacturer: WOCA
Made in: Made in: Denmark
Made from: vegetable oil components
More info: Bima Radji, PT. Bhakti Artika Lestari
Transparent primer for outdoor wood. Protects against UV-rays and ensures a hard-wearing and water-resistant surface.

Exterior Furniture Oil (Natural)

Manufacturer: WOCA
Made in: Denmark
Made from: vegetable oil components
More info: Bima Radji, PT. Bhakti Artika Lestari
For new and newly cleaned exterior furniture. Protects against UV-rays and ensures a hard-wearing and water-repellent surface.

Avoiding destruction in your construction

This 8km, 15 year old road in East Kalimantan is due to be shipped off to Bali and replaced with new illegal Ulin wood

This 8km, 15 year old road in East Kalimantan is due to be shipped off to Bali and replaced with new illegal Ulin wood

In today’s ever-globalising world, it is hard for the discerning consumer to know where the wood they buy comes from. How do we get reliable information the wood’s origins, particularly when production is increasingly less localised and further away from the point of sale?

It is not easy, but it is possible.

The current laws for both new and reclaimed wood are, quite frankly, not that great and wide open to loopholes, as a recent trip to Kalimantan showed me. Exploiting a 2008 regulation from the Ministry of Forestry on inter-island trading of Ulin (Kalimantan Ironwood), I met with traders who were busy setting up deals with communities to replace their 15 year-old Ulin roads and bridges with new Ulin, only to sell the old stuff to the Bali reclaimed wood market! The old wood was pulled up as the new stuff was being simultaneously laid down. As one trader said, ‘We can’t send it out of Kalimantan, but we can replace the old wood with new and send that out instead!’

Much of this imported reclaimed wood ends up in the yards of reclaimed wood wholesalers in Denpasar, who supply raw material to many projects and retailers on Bali.

What concerns me is the possibility that the demand for reclaimed wood in Bali and elsewhere is actually fueling greater destruction of the forests, instead of the reverse. We got into the reclaimed wood trade because we saw it as a way to re-use an old and valuable material, thus reducing demand on the need for new wood. The average punter we meet generally buys recycled timber in an effort to help the planet.

The government was obviously concerned to when in mid 2007 in an effort to ward off the extinction of Ulin, it froze all harvesting and trade of the species and instigated an island-wide inventory of remaining stands in natural forest. The moratorium on the harvesting and trade of Ulin lasted until mid-2008, when it was replaced by a new law that limited export of Ulin only to a handful of Kalimantan-based timber companies who had existing stocks of Ulin in their forest concessions.

Current regulations require that Ulin traders obtain an endorsement from the BRIK (Forest Industry Revitalisation Agency) and a permit (PROKALINDO) to export Ulin out of Kalimantan. Only a handful of companies currently hold this permit. This has made it very difficult for new Ulin traders to find export markets for their wood.

Reclaimed wood exports require all sorts of permit processes of their own, including site inspection by the forestry department, police and forestry permits and so on. But generally speaking, it is relatively simple for the trained eye to differentiate new wood from recycled.

The big issue is of course sustainability. It was unsustainable and rampant exploitation that led the government to implement a law to restrict Ulin trading in the first place. Ulin has a 50 year in ground rating, which means we can expect a heartwood post to last 50 years, or more if it above ground. Growing at around half a centimetre a year, a 5 x 20 board would be cut from a tree that is at least 40 years old. Roughly speaking, a sustainable cutting cycle for Ulin would need to be at least 50 years. We are all for wood being used by local communities for appropriate applications. But what will this community do when in another 15 years when the roads need replacing again and there is no wood left?

So here are the three things you need to make sure your wood is legitimate reclaimed wood:

  1. Ensure your supplier can provide evidence of the original structure the wood came from and its location (photographs or documentation)
  2. Ensure that the original structure was not replaced with new wood when it was demolished
  3. Only buy from trusted suppliers that can comprehensively and satisfactorily respond to your queries

Building termites out

I was recently called over to a client’s house to take a look at a pool deck that was installed a year previous using reclaimed wood that the supplier had advised was Ulin (Kalimantan ironwood).The deck was literally crumbling and on the surface showed evidence of rot and termite infestation. The installation had all the classic signs of bad building practices and what NOT to do in exterior wood applications!

The enemy of wood... subterranean termites

When building with timbers outside there are 3 main things that we must protect against:
1) Solar degradation, 2) Rot and 3) Termites. I will talk more about sun and rain in forthcoming newsletters, but for the moment lets focus on termites.

There is a myth that some timbers are termite proof, this is simply not true. Certainly some timbers like Ulin (Eusideroxylon zwageri) are less attractive to termites as their heartwood contains specific extractives that have anti decay and insect resistant characteristics. Untreated Ulin heartwood posts are expected to last 50 years in ground contact, giving this timber the distinction of being one of the most durable timbers in the world. For sure this timber is particularly unattractive to termites, but it is not true to say that it is immune to an eventual attack from termites.

The best way to stop termite infestation is by understanding how termites like to live and build things that don’t suit their lifestyle. Although termites need water, they can’t actually drink, instead they absorb it either through the food they eat, or through a waxy layer on their outer skin. Hence if you design your building so all timber is separated by a visual barrier from any water source, you will at least be able to see them coming and going from water to food and stop them in their tracks. A good example of visual barriers are:

  • Reinforced concrete slab with an exposed slab edge (that’s a slab with no cracks greater than 1.2mm (the width of a skinny termite). Termites will have to crawl over and around the slab, to go from water to food, hence you can just check your slab edge regularly.
  • Steel stirrups or shoes on the bottom of posts, so the steel enters the ground and not the timber
  • Flat metal sheet caps on top of the brick columns under your house. (known as Ant Caps). 
  • All of these measures are environmentally friendly work forever at no running cost and all you have to do is a regular inspection.

Most of the termites that attack buildings are subterranean termites, living underground, then coming up inside trees and houses to eat dead wood, getting their water from moist ground contact. Subterranean termites cant crawl about in the open and will have to build mud tunnels to protect them from the sun, making their intrusion into your house much easier to detect and treat. In the tropics we also have arboreal and air born termites that can fly into your home. Again though as before the golden rule is that they all need to gain access to water.

A common practice in Indonesia is to install timber decks and stairs directly onto concrete slabs. This builder had closed the edges of the steps with a small wall of concrete, which had the dual impact of not letting light and air in, and trapping water under the timber boards. This is a big no-no if you want to increase the life of your timber and avoid termites. Exterior timber really needs to be kept dry and be installed in a way that allows good airflow and access. This is particularly important in the tropics, where there is a relatively higher decay and inherent termite hazard than in the temperate zones. In this case, the termites had simply tunneled up from the slab and into the boards.

Remember it’s the combination of water and timber that cause most trouble, so design your house so the timber stays nice and dry and preferably out of the sun. And build your house so it’s comfortable for you to live in but not for termites. Darrin, who runs Termite Web, one of the best information hubs on termites around ( advises that we can learn a lot from traditional house building practices in the villages in Southeast Asia, as these communities these have co-existed with termites for hundreds and thousands of years. He reckons stilt building prevents 90% of common termite problems (subterranean termites), because it controls the entry points for termites very well.

Throughout the world there are many agents selling complicated systems for termite protection, including a great range of toxic chemicals and the like. These systems vary from outright stupid to out right dangerous, with a fair amount of crossover in between. Fancy visual barriers i.e. things that termites cant crawl through but must crawl round do work, but are often expensive and often a complex solution to a simple problem. When in doubt fall back on the good old fashioned three step rule:

1. Separate timber from water (including ground) with a visual barrier
2. Regularly check the visual barrier
3. If there is an infestation, bait the termites with a nice soft piece of timber soaked in an accumulative poison that they can take back home and feed the queen to kill off the hive. Killing off 1 or even 1 million termites won’t stop them, killing off their one queen will.

Another small eco-tip… world timber supplies would be much healthier if we simply used the right timber for the right application. So build that one-off handmade guitar out of some amazing beautiful rainforest timber, but don’t waste that timber making wood pulp for paper or packing crates! And use a good quality, preferable second hand exterior grade timber in an exterior application and try not to waste it on interior uses where a less resistant more common and perhaps even prettier timber will do.

By the way, we checked the termite infested timber that my client had installed and it turned out it was NOT ulin… it was a less-resistant Shorea species completely unsuitable for external applications!

For more information read “Building out Termites” by Robert Verkerk

Thanks to Dave Hodgkin and Darrin from Termite Web for help with this article.

Quoting Alex Ryan, Kaltimber Founder

One of the reasons we deplete our resources so quickly is because we don’t design in a clever way. If we can put longevity into the design phase, I believe there will always be a market for reusing, reclaiming and designing around the material’s original state. I know that is not always possible, but it is what I am trying to promote.
— Alex Ryan, Kaltimber Founder