There's no mistaking whose house you're in upon entering the gym at Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio. "We put this 30-foot Firebird right at midcourt, and it's the first thing you see," says Scott Kaufman, athletic director and assistant principal at West, which recently refinished its gym floor. "There's a lot of pride that goes into that."
Though the action taking place on it tends to rightfully garner much of the attention, a well-maintained gym floor can be a crown jewel of any sports facility.
"A lot of times that gym floor is really the focal point of the community," says Bill Price, national sports director for Bona US, a manufacturer of wood floor care products for a variety of applications. "It's not just for basketball or volleyball; it's for every type of event that's now held in a community. And more and more, we're seeing them spend the money to make that gym floor a show piece."
For those mulling a gym floor refinishing project, here are a few things to consider to make your floor something you — and your community — can be proud of.
Make it pop
Trends in gym floor design have evolved since John Prater, the president of Praters Flooring, first got into the business in the early 1990s. "Back then, basketball courts were basically just a simple border with some block lettering maybe, nothing real detailed, maybe a painted lane," he says.
Price agrees. "Twenty years ago, it was 2-inch lines and a letter in the center and that was it," he says. "Now, you look at what's going on on floors, and there are high schools that look like professional courts."
Court aesthetics quickly expanded beyond the center circle, as oversized logos and lettering became increasingly common. Now, the canvas for adding scenes, shapes, silhouettes and color has extended even beyond the bounds of the court itself. Graphic design techniques, as well as new products and processes, are making it possible for even high schools and middle schools to achieve a ready-for-television-type floor.
Color is increasingly used as a way to make a court stand out. "We've started to see people getting away from just going with solid-color paints to starting to use more stains so you see the natural maple underneath the color," says Price. "We really didn't see this at all more than three years ago — definitely not 10, 15, 20 years ago."
Stains are one way to achieve the desired natural look, but Prater says that his company uses an alternative technique when applying color to a court — mixing pigment with the sealer.
Regardless of the method, using court aesthetics to solidify a brand is a goal that's more accessible than ever. "A lot of our customers are very cognizant of their brand and their PMS (Pantone Matching System) colors, and so it's a little bit of a process to keep the correct color but still have it transparent so you can see the wood grain," says Prater.
Whereas in days gone by, even professional teams might have been okay with a generic color speaking for their brand on their court, these days facility managers can get as specific as they like. "In the past, teams just said, 'We want green, we want red, we want Laker-yellow,' but there was never a standard for what the colors really were," Price says. "Now, for matching colors — the blue, the red and the yellow — they want four or five different samples of the same PMS color. They want to see it blended different ways."
Color is, of course, only a piece of building a branding message. With the help of vector artwork and computer technology, flooring professionals are able to create unique scenes that take up the entire court. Praters created a swamp scene for the University of Louisiana Lafayette with the help of vector art, vinyl templates and different shades of sealer.
Creative facility managers may even find ways to use different colors to help program their facilities.
"We have certain areas that when the bleachers are pulled out, they're covered up," says Kaufman. "So, we put in some fitness and conditioning lines on the floor, so coaches don't have to bring out ladders or bring out cones or bring out dots — because we painted them into the floor."
Mind your VOCs
Apart from choosing the right design features, facility directors must also consider the type of finish to be applied to a new court.
There are two main categories of finishes — oil-based and water-based — each with their own benefits and drawbacks related to flow, leveling, workability and appearance once dry. Oil-based products can cure in such a way that the underlying wood appears darker, which, depending on when paint is applied, can be viewed as either a positive or a negative. Water-based products, meanwhile, dry more clearly, but take more coats to provide the floor with proper protection.
"There's always been a debate or a discussion on which is best, and there's no real wrong answer for it," Kaufman says. "I can make a strong argument for either one."
Oil-based products, according to both Prater and Price, were the popular choice in years past, but water-based products are gaining ground due in part to regulations prohibiting the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air.
In the U.S., the federal limit for VOCs in floor coatings is 400 grams per liter according to the Environmental Protection Agency (Pt. 59, Supt. D, Table 1) — but many states adhere to more strict limits (see sidebar). "The restrictions are going state-by-state, and eventually we're going to see a good majority of the states going to a low-VOC restriction," Price says. "That's going to change a lot of the practices that sport contractors are used to."
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The reasons for these restrictions are numerous, but are mostly safety related. Lower-VOC products don't subject students, faculty, staff or contractors to fumes. "I grew up in a family of contractors," says Price, "and there are so many hazards that exist on a wood flooring job site that 50 years ago no one knew existed. But now, people are pretty in tune. It's always safer not to have any exposure."
Praters has been using water-based products for more than 30 years, in part because when Prater began the business he realized that he didn't want to be smelling oil-based coatings all the time. Use of water-based coatings also provides the company with a business edge, as Prater says it's easier for him to get into schools for an annual recoat during the school year with water-based products than it would be with oil-based products, which typically need to be applied during the summer when school's out.
"From a practicality standpoint, so much refinishing work is done in the summertime," Prater says. "Well, I try to keep everything out of the summer, because everybody is just so swamped with work because school is out. Our busiest time for recoating basketball courts is September and October, because we try to get it looking good for basketball."
However, hybrid systems, which use a mix of both oil- and water-based finishes, are becoming increasingly common, according to Price.
Over the course of his 27-year administrative career, Kaufman has learned to defer to the experts. "At the end of the day, I trust our contractors," he says.
Most gym floors are sanded down every 10 to 15 years. During sanding, a wood flooring contractor will go over the court multiple times with a scale of grits — from coarse to a finer grit — to remove existing coatings and paint. Depending on the nature of the project, the floor is then buffed, stained, glazed and sealed.
As tempting as it may be to use sanding as an opportunity to jump on a trend, it's worth remembering that in most cases, a wood floor will outlive the facility in which it resides.
"If it's sanded properly, a floor will last 50 or 60 years before it needs to be replaced," says Price. "That wood floor — if they properly maintain it by recoating annually and sanding it down about every 12 years — should outlast the building."
As such, Prater advises caution before committing to a bold stain. "If you apply stain to the court, it'll actually stain the court," he explains, "And so when they go back and sand these courts back down to bare wood, it'll leave a discoloration in the wood."
If facility directors pay proper attention to important aspects of the project, refinishing a gym floor can be a chance to make a lasting impression.
Kaufman put his stamp on the recently refinished Lakota West floor by specifying stains in some areas of the court and paints in others. He says he's pleased with the look, though he acknowledges the risk involved. "It ended up just gorgeous," Kaufman says, adding, "The next time they have to sand it down, you never know how deeply the stain might get absorbed into the wood. But I'll say it's the next guy's problem."
Federal and state VOC regulations for wood floor coatings
The federal limit on VOCs is 400 grams/liter (g/L) or less. Certain states and counties, however, have stricter limits that must be considered before tackling any floor refinishing project. These regulations are subject to local authority, and you should always be sure your wood flooring contractor is up to date on applicable restrictions prior to selecting a particular finish for your project.
States and localities with 350 g/L restrictions for finishes and varnishes include:
States and localities with 275 g/L restrictions include:
Source: Bona US
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "What to consider before your next gym floor refinishing project." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.