Wood Floor Finish Options 101

Finish Being Applied to Newly Installed Wood Floor
Photo Credit: Jinx McCombs

Less than 50 years ago, choosing a floor finish was a very basic decision. The choices have greatly increased since then to include numerous options for both surface and penetrating finishes. With these new choices comes the issue of which finish works best for a given situation, budget, or aesthetic goal.

Understanding the differences between each type of finish will greatly increase the chances of creating that perfect wood floor you’re after.

Factors to Consider

While it may be tempting to buy a finish based on its appearance alone, there are many factors which must be considered before making a final selection. Your lifestyle and how much abuse the floor will see will affect your options. The following are some important variables in choosing the best finish for your floor.

Traffic

When preparing to buy a finish, you should consider the amount of traffic and general abuse the floor will be handling. A high-traffic region such as a hallway will require a much higher durability finish than one in a guest bedroom, for example. Additionally, heavy furniture can scuff some finishes or even create gouges.

VOCs

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are a large grouping of chemicals which can be found in household products such as paints, cosmetics, and finishes. Once present in your home, they release gasses that may or may not be detected by odor. Many of these chemicals create short or long-term health issues. The degree of risk varies from one chemical to the next, and some organic pollutants have no known side effects.

Homes generally have between two and five times more VOCs than outdoor settings, but this may increase to a much as 1,000 times or more while adding or removing paint or finishes. The environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an article discussing VOCs and their effects.

Understanding Sheen

One of the most important factors in choosing a finish is a matter of aesthetics. The sheen of a finish is how well it shines, and there are four distinct options to select from. Unlike other factors, selecting a specific sheen will not affect the longevity of your floor, although it does affect the appearance of the room, sometimes greatly.

Gloss Sheen

Gloss sheens are best used when you want a highly reflective surface. The benefit is a floor that gives a lot of shine and can reflect natural light throughout a room. However, you should carefully consider the amount of light present in a room before choosing a gloss finish, as too much reflected light could cause headaches or otherwise reduce the visual appeal of the room.

Semi-Gloss Sheen

Semi-gloss sheens are perfect for sunny rooms where you want plenty of light reflection but not overwhelmingly so. It’s one step down from a gloss sheen.

Satin Sheen

Satin finishes are less shiny and have a much lower reflection level. They are perfect for brightly-lit rooms where you want a softer glow.

Matte Sheen

Sometimes you want the wood to look as close to natural as possible. Matte sheens give minimal light reflection, making them the least visible of all sheen types.

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes function by sinking deep into the wood itself instead of sitting on the surface. These finishes have a low, satin sheen and you are limited in the types of cleaners you can use on them. They also must be periodically reapplied. While not as practical as many modern alternatives, penetrating finishes are still popular in older homes where an authentic look is preferred.

Penetrating Oil Sealer

Oil sealers are a traditional option which is slow-drying (up to 48 hours for each of the three recommended coats) but is easily applied and has low VOC content. This low-sheen finish enhances the natural grain patterns and darkens the wood, making for a beautiful floor. However, oil sealers must be reapplied every two to three years and are not as durable as polyurethane finishes.

Shellac

Shellac is a natural, non-toxic option which has lost popularity in recent years due to its incompatibility with modern finishes. It is easy to reapply and touch up, but has lower durability than most alternatives. This type of finishing is best reserved for older floors which already have shellac finishing.

Swedish Finishes

Available as acid-cured or water-based, Swedish finishes are often considered the ultimate choice. Highly durable, they bond to the wood to provide a long-lasting, transparent finish. Unfortunately, due to the high toxicity of Swedish finishes, they must be applied professionally. Likewise, you can walk on them in as little as three hours but have to wait up to 60 days for it to fully cure before placing carpet.

Wax

Wax is a traditional, low-sheen choice that remains popular today. Applying wax requires some effort, and a base coat of shellac is needed if you don’t want the wood to darken over time. The downsides to wax are the need to refinish occasionally, lower durability than modern polyurethane finishes, and low resistance to stains.

Surface Finishes

More common than penetrating finishes, a good surface finish can be purchased in a wide variety of sheens and types. These typically require less maintenance and will last longer than wax or other penetrating options.

Moisture-Cured Urethane

Far more durable than polyurethane finishes, this option should be left to professionals due to the quick drying times. Due to the high levels of VOCs, you will also need to vacate your home for up to two weeks while waiting for the fumes to dissipate.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

In many ways, oil-based polyurethane is the opposite of its water-based alternative. Costing less, it is more durable but takes up to ten hours per coat to dry. It is also less environmentally-friendly and has a stronger odor while drying. Over time, it will yellow slightly, which may or may not compliment the wood, depending on the type your floor is made of.

Water-Based Polyurethane

The most popular choice in modern homes, water-based polyurethane finishes dry in as little as four hours, have very little odor, and don’t yellow over time like their oil-based alternative. It is easy to apply the three to four recommended coats, making this an ideal option for DIYers. It is also one of the most environmentally-friendly options currently available.

Comparing Finishes

When choosing your finish, it is important to weigh various factors. The following chart compares different types of wood floor finishes. Please note that prices are estimated and subject to change based on region, availability, and general market inflation.

FinishTypeApplicationCostDrying TimeDurabilitySheenVOC Content
Moisture-Cured UrethaneSurfaceProfessional$2-4 per footFast, but long venting timeVery HighVariableVery High
Oil-Based PolyurethaneSurfaceDIY or professional$30-40 per 400-500 square feet DIY/$12 per foot professional8-10 Hours per coatModerate-HighVariableHigh
Penetrating Oil SealerPenetratingDIY$60-70 per 500 feet24-48 Hours per coatLow-ModerateSatinLow
ShellacPenetratingDIY$80-90 per 300 square feetLow, variesLow; stains but easy to retouchVariableLow
Swedish FinishPenetratingProfessionalExpensive, varies by type2-3 Hours; up to 60 days to cureHighVariableHigh
Water-Based PolyurethaneSurfaceDIY$40-60 per 400-500 square feet2-4 Hours per coatModerateVariableVery Low
WaxPenetratingDIY, Time-consuming$10-25 per 400-500 square feetLow, variesFair, stains easilySatinLow
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