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Different Types of Wood Floor Finishes

Choosing the right type of wood floor finishes is no Sophie’s choice; yet, you might find yourself putting a lot of thought into it. 

Whether you’re moving into a new place or you’re refinishing your floors, it doesn’t stop at finding the best looking finish. You’re probably considering durability factors, like tearing, staining, moisture interaction, and the need for regular maintenance as well. 

Moreover, there’s a drastic difference between choosing a floor finish for a household of two adults and choosing one for a family of two kids and a pet, making things even more confusing. 

The good news is that we know what’s going through your mind, so we can help you choose the right topcoat for your hardwood floors. We also made sure to highlight the best features and things to look out for with each type, so check out this rundown of the most common types of wood finish that you’ll come across while redoing your floor. 

By the way, check out our wood floor vacuum guide here as well as soft bristle brooms guide here.

6 Different Types of Wood Floor Finishes

Wood floor finishes are quite variable, and each is more suitable for a particular use. In this part of the article, we’ll be getting into more details regarding the common types you’ll encounter, what they’re best for, and their pros and cons.

1. Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane is among the popular options for those looking for high-gloss floor finishes. However, you can find semi-gloss and satin water-based polyurethane finishes on the market.

Applying the coats is pretty simple as it doesn’t take long for a layer to dry, so you can refinish your floors in no time. For the best results, wait between three to four hours before applying a new layer with a maximum of four coats. 

Although there’s probably no harm stepping on the floor after a couple of hours of applying the last layer, it’s best if you wait for two days before you start putting the furniture back in place to make sure there aren’t any wet spots.

While applying the finish, you’ll notice it has a white color, but it comes off clear when it dries. Most users think that the milky color causes yellowing, but water-based polyurethane resists yellowing for long periods. 

Also, it’s moisture-resistant. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to mop any spills right away, but it means that such spills are unlikely to damage your finish if they are swept straight off.

Water-based polyurethane is environment-friendly, releasing a minimal amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs); hence, it doesn’t have a strong odor. 

Pros:

  • Easy to apply 
  • Low VOCs
  • Different sheens
  • Resists yellowing and moisture

Cons: 

  • Scratches are usually quite apparent

2. Oil-Based Polyurethane 

Oil-Based polyurethane is a perfect choice for those who prefer rich colors. Unlike the water-based finish, it tends to yellow with time. The good thing about using an oil-based finish is that it’s durable, so you won’t need to refinish your floors anytime soon. 

Because it can withstand high-traffic areas, it’s perfect for shops, workplaces, and large family houses. Satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss sheens are available, so you can choose whichever you’re more comfortable with. 

Applying oil-based polyurethane takes longer than the water-based one because you need to wait for ten hours before applying a new layer. Regardless, you don’t need to use as many layers with this finish; you’ll be good to go with just two layers. 

Again, it’s best to wait for two days before you start dragging your furniture across the newly refinished floors. Another thing to keep in mind is that oil-based compounds are highly volatile, so you should never apply them without wearing a respirator; otherwise, you might cause some serious damage to your lungs.

Cleaning oil-based wood finish isn’t as difficult as one might think, not if you used mineral spirits instead of soap. 

Pros:

  • Reasonably priced
  • Extremely durable 
  • Easy to clean
  • Moisture-resistant

Cons:

  • Dries slowly 
  • Flammable
  • Yellows with times
  • Releases a lot of volatile compounds

3. Wax

Wax has been used for refinishing wood floors for as long as one can remember. It’s the easiest to apply; but of course, the method depends on the formula. You can either choose to get it in a liquid form or a solid one. For liquid wax, use a wool applicator to spread the polish over the surface. The solid wax, on the other hand, is more like a paste that you apply on the floor using a rag. 

The two main advantages of using wax are high penetration and easy application. The easy application makes wax an excellent choice for DIYs and makes up for the short durability too. Accordingly, you can refinish any parts whenever suitable to cover up any scratches and hide them under another layer. 

Nonetheless, it’s not the smartest option for surfaces with high friction, neither for kitchens and bathroom floors, because it doesn’t handle moisture that well. The high penetration is great for mixing the wax with stain and coloring the floors while finishing them.

Wax looks quite natural, and it darkens with time, so you should expect warmer and richer tones as time goes by. Lastly, it releases little or no VOCs, so it’s safe to say that it’s less hazardous than oil-based polyurethane and other strong compounds.

Pros: 

  • Easy application 
  • Can be mixed with stain 
  • Non-irritant 
  • It dries up quite fast

Cons:

  • Less durable than many other options

4. Shellac 

Shellac has an elegant orange tint and leaves the wood with a high-gloss finish. Yet, you can get a more matt finish by mixing it with denatured alcohol. You can also tint it or even bleach it to get a different shade, although it wouldn’t look as natural. 

Applying shellac isn’t all that easy because it dries quickly, so unless you get help from an expert, you might end up with lap lines, stains, and even water spots. On the bright side, though, once it’s applied right, it seals the wood well. 

Shellac isn’t the most durable option to go with, but it’s easy to retouch using another layer of shellac or even wax. However, it won’t hold up if you applied polyurethane over it; in such a case, it’s better to strip away the shellac layer then apply the polyurethane if you want to. 

Pros: 

  • Natural finish 
  • Easy to fix 
  • Can be mixed with different tints
  • Seals wood with a smooth texture

Cons:

  • Difficult application 
  • Not as durable as polyurethane 

5. Moisture-Cured Urethane

Moisture-cured urethane is the toughest, most durable finish you can get for your floor, but applying it is a bit complicated. 

First off, it’s affected by the humidity, so it should be applied at a specific time of the year for the best results. If the weather is too dry, it dries slowly, and if it’s too humid, it will dry up while applying it, so it’ll be difficult to spread. Regardless, it dries fast in optimal conditions, and the entire process wouldn’t take more than one day, even when applying several layers. 

On the flip side, as durable as it is, it releases a high level of VOCs, which doesn’t only require professional application, but you’ll need to relocate for around two weeks until the smell disappears. All that aside, the strength of moisture-cured urethane outweighs its downsides, and if you don’t mind moving out for a couple of weeks, it should be on the top of your list. 

Pros:

  • Extremely durable
  • Resists scratching

Cons:

  • Requires pro application
  • Highly volatile
  • Lingers in the air for weeks

6. Acid-cured Finish

The acid-cured finish is also known as the “Swedish finish,” and it’s best for covering exotic wood like parquet. 

It’s more durable than polyurethane, and it dries more quickly. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t apply it yourself, and even though the smell doesn’t linger for as long as moisture-cured urethane smell does, you’ll still need to move out for a couple of days to avoid the complications of inhaling VOCs.

Although the acid-cured finish isn’t easy to retouch, you probably won’t need to retouch it in the first place as it’s resistant to scratch and holds up pretty well for extended periods. It’s also worth mentioning that this finish is quite expensive, which is pretty expected with all fancy, chemical-resistant finishes.

Pros: 

  • Durable
  • Perfect for exotic wood floors
  • Resistant to scratches and scuffs

Cons: 

  • High VOCs levels
  • Needs professional application

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right wood finish depends on your lifestyle, taste, and budget. It’s essential to allow each layer to completely dry before applying the next one; that’s to say that you’re going for a DIY option. Meanwhile, it’s better to hire a professional for more complicated applications.