The Dangers of Hardwood Floor Refinishing


A few months ago there was another unfortunate incident where a house was almost burnt to the ground during a hardwood floor refinishing project.

Dangers of Hardwood Floor Refinishing

Stories like this really upset us. For one, people die in these scenarios and two, they are completely preventable if you take the appropriate precautions during the floor refinishing project.

You can read the newspaper write up here:

Thankfully this time nobody was hurt and the house was mostly ok (as you can see in the picture below)…

House fire from floor sanding

Others have not been so lucky.

Most people have no idea about some of the potential dangers that come with having your hardwood floors restored. This blog post is to make you aware of these issues, so you can make sure they don’t happen to you.

Most floor refinishing contractors can tell at least one horror story about themselves or someone else they know and a floor sanding fire. There was even a hardwood floor refinishing fire in Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, so nobody is immune to the dangers.

We would hate for you to experience what these poor people in Allentown went through.

So what can you do to prevent this from ever happening to you?

Thankfully there are some very easy steps that can be taken to drastically limit or even eliminate the dangers.


One of the easiest ways to limit the threat of fire is by choosing a low combustible finish for your floors. We’ll list a few types of finishes below starting with the most dangerous to the safest…

Lacquer Sealers (Most Dangerous):

High solvent content based sealers used in hardwood floor refinishing are highly flammable – especially lacquer sealers.

Most of the older stories of hardwood floor fires you read about were caused by lacquer sealers. The extremely strong vapors fill up the room very quickly and then it takes just one tiny spark to ignite and…


If the floor refinisher you’re thinking of hiring says he’s going to use a lacquer sealer – RUN!

Thankfully, with the new VOC laws coming in around the country, this type of sealer is quickly being fazed out.

I won’t even bore you with all the details about how short the lifespan of a floor is with this type of sealer. In every way this finish is horrible. Businesses that use it are only doing so because of the fast drying speed and the money they can save themselves by rushing through the job and not using a better quality finish.

If you get a quote from a business that uses lacquer sealer, it would be a good idea to realize the huge risks and move on to the next business.

Solvent Based Finishes (Moderate Danger):

There are many other types of finishes that have solvents in them. These can be very good looking finishes and many refinishers use them without any incident.

But… these too need to be used with caution as they also give off strong fumes and vapors, some more so than others. As mentioned previously, there are new laws restricting these types of finishes now because of the levels of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds).

When there is a build-up of these fumes and vapors in your home – especially in the cold winter days when the doors and windows are shut up during the refinishing process – it’s not hard to imagine what could happen if there is an open flame from a pilot light or a cigarette.

If using one of these finishes please be aware that you need to be more alert to potential dangers.

Water Based Finishes and Low VOC Hardwax Oils (Safest):

One way you can completely eliminate this problem caused by combustible finishes is by using water based finishes that only release water vapor as they dry. No (or extremely low) solvents = no chance of fire. This is what we have decided to do to protect our clients.

How to Prevent Finish Based Fires from Happening:
  1. Make sure all pilot lights are out in any of the rooms before any flammable solvent based products are applied.
  2. Have as much ventilation as possible to let the solvents escape for at least the first initial couple of hours.
  3. And make sure there is absolutely no smoking on the job site!
  4. Also make sure your refinisher always carries an up-to-date fire extinguisher with him at all times – just in case.


This phenomenon usually occurs either because of the wood dust and old finish combination created by sanding the floor, or by rags used to apply stain that are not disposed of properly.

This was thought to be the cause of the fire in Allentown as you can see in the quote on the side here from the article…

…fire investigators believe the blaze started in a pile of rags dumped in the kitchen after recent work to refinish the hardwood floors. Such chemicals can generate heat and spontaneously combust, according to the fire captain.”

This happens because solvent soaked rags – from stain or finish – react with oxygen as they dry.

This oxidization gives off heat and if the heat cannot escape, the rags can become so hot they begin to smolder and burn without any external ignition source.

Also heat created from the friction of the machine and sandpaper on the floor can build-up to the point wood dust and old finish starts to smolder inside the cloth bag. Even if the dust bags are emptied regularly from the machines into a garbage bag, the dust and finish combination is still at high risk of spontaneous combustion.

How to Prevent It Spontaneous Combustion from Happening:
  1. The easiest way is by making sure your floor refinisher doesn’t leave any stain soaked rags or garbage bags of wood dust inside your home – including the garage – or outside your house on the porch or deck. Make sure all rags and dust bags are removed and properly disposed of every night.
  2. This should also include emptying the dust inside the cloth bags (if he hasn’t invested in a dustless system) on the machines if he leaves them at your place overnight.

Dust Bags

Dust bags full of combustible wood and old finish dust need to be removed each night.

There should be no reason why a hardwood floor refinishing project would cause a fire in your home.

The only reason is if the person you hire is not aware of the above cautions and does something foolish like they did in the house above in Allentown.

Please be careful who you hire to restore your floors and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions… it is your home and your family’s safety after all.

Updated Jan 2023

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Thank you for your article about the risk of fire on hardwood flooring projects. One item that doesn’t appear fully addressed is that the low VOC products (such as Rubio Monocoat) are excellent products, but because the have no solvents, they use linseed type oils which have a MASSIVE spontaneous combustion risk. People can be lulled into thinking zero VOC means low fire risk, but actually the opposite is true when we are talking about spontaneous combustion! Would love to see a blog on this issue specifically. Great posts by the way :)

Hi Terry,

Very true. Thank you for taking the time to share that.


Thank you for a wonderful overview about Hardwood Floor Refinishing! I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.

You’re welcome :)


Is it dangerous for fish in a tank while the floor is being refinished? The tank is in another room.

Hi Amy,

The degree will depend on the finish system you use, how far away they are from the work, air flow etc. . But I always recommend removing any pets from the vicinity of finish being applied as they are very sensitive to the fumes.

Much better to be safe than sorry.


A ‘Swedish Finish’ seems to still be the most popular in the Pacific Northwest. Since we have to vacate the house for 3-4 days while the stain and finish are being applied (due to the fumes), I can only assume this is one of the more dangerous solvents :(

Hi Carol,

Yes unfortunately it is. Just take good precautions and make sure all the suggestions above are done and you should be fine. You’ll want to air the house out for a good few days before moving back in as well.

Hope it goes well.


Is there a floor finish I can use in winter-time and not being able to open the windows? It is 25 degrees f. outside.

Hi Francisco,

A water based finish or a hardwax oil like Pallmann Magic Oil will work. Both don’t need oxygen to dry and cure and dry fast. Of course it’s always better if your windows can be open a bit as it will speed up the dry time.


Are there any guidelines for how long I should wait to have a fire in the fireplace after the floors have been refinished?

Hi Molly,

Depends if they are oil-based or water-based finishes. Once the solvents of the oil-based finishes have dispersed and the floor is dry it should be ok. Most fires are from freshly applied finishes where the rooms are full of flammable vapors still. But if you can, may as well give it a week or at least a few days to be safe.


are there any laws or regulation about the toxic fumes traveling to a neighbors apartment making them having to leave for 2 nights?

Hi Ben,

Not sure to be honest. And if so, I’m sure they are different according to where you are. Best to check with your local authority, they’ll know for sure.


I have red oak floors that are currently being sanded and refinished to cover more space. I am stuck on what color of stain to use to make the home look a bit more modern. Our house was built in 1995 with polyurethane honey oak cabinets and trim. I do not new finish to look golden, honey or anything close to it. What color(s) do you suggest?

Hi Cheryl,

With this combo, something along the lines of Jacobean or Dark Walnut works well.


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