You’re probably wondering about hardwood floor finish if you have decided to install, refinish or restore your hardwood flooring. Finishing is last – but not least important to getting your floor to turn out flawless. You will want to take your time to do it right and make sure you get the right products. You want all your hard work to pay off!

Let’s look at some of the more popular hardwood finishes out there and the pros and cons of each one.

Oil-Modified Urethane VS Water-Based Urethane

Oil-modified urethane, or polyurethane as we usually call it, is one of the most popular types of hardwood finish out there today as it is fairly moisture and scratch resistant. It dries in about eight hours, depending on the weather conditions. Three coats are usually applied – allowing each coat to dry completely. Rushing won’t do you any favors.

It’s made from a petroleum base, with synthetic resins, film formers and plasticizers, and it’s available in different sheens. As this finish ages it takes on an amber hue, which adds warmth to your floor over time.

On the other hand we have water-based urethane that is, well, a water-based product. It is non yellowing, so it will retain the same look for years which makes it good for light colored wood and stains. It alsom comes in a variety of sheens and it dries quickly, in about two or three hours.

To compare the water and oil-based finishes, the water-based has a less potent odor and dries faster with easier clean up. The down side is that the drying is so quick it makes application a bit tricky. Water-based are also more expensive than other hardwood floor finishes.

Moisture-Cured Urethane

This is a solvent-based finish that offers superior moisture resistance over other types.

The down side is that moisture-cured urethanes take incredibly long to dry, have a very strong odor, and are very hard to apply! Masks are a must. If you choose this type of finish, it’s probably a job best left to professionals.

Conversion-Varnish Sealers

Conversion-varnish sealers originated in Sweden, and are often called ‘Swedish finishes.’ This is a two-part product, that includes acid curing and alcohol based sealers.

There are definite benefits since this type of hardwood floor finish is all we could want from a wood protector – clarity and resistance to scratches, moisture and chemicals. It’s higher in quality but less used because it’s also higher in other important areas – cost, application difficulty and disposal and clean up.

Penetrating Sealers

Finish Hardwood Floor TungoilUnlike surface finish, like those above, penetrating sealers soak into the wood, instead of resting on the surface (it penetrates!). They are solvent based and they often combine a stain or color with the sealer itself. There are also natural products, known as penetrating oil sealers, which are made with linseed or tung oil.

Excess penetrating sealer needs to be wiped off or buffed into the floor after application, so application can be a bit longer and more tedious.

Paste Wax

Paste wax is another type of floor finish that penetrates the actual wood. While it’s the cheapest, longest wearing and easiest to apply, it means that any wear and tear happens directly to the wood and not just to the finish, like with polyurethane for example.

It dries quickly, is easy to maintain, and with proper care will last and last. It may be more straightforward to apply but it’s time consuming, applied in thin, even layers and then buffed.


Another old hardwood floor finish, shellac is less popular today than it used to be. Dewaxed shellac, however, is still a fairly popular hardwood floor finish, since the wax in the finish that caused problems in the past is removed. When refinishing old floors with shellac finish, the floor would need to be completely sanded before a new polyurethane finish could be applied. Polyurethane does not mix with any wax-based finishes!


Varnish Floor HotzeplotzVarnish has been virtually replaced by urethane based hardwood floor finishes, but it is still sometimes used. These days, most types of varnish used for hardwood floor finishing are synthetic products, but they were originally natural products, made from oils and other ingredients.


Lacquery is used more for wood working – small projects rather than for entire floors. Lacquer is generally considered to be too volatile, flammable, and difficult to maintain as a hardwood floor finish, and it is not recommended as a choice for your hardwood floors. Lacquer is made from tree sap while Shellac is comes from the lac beetle.

Prefinished Flooring

There are several types of prefinished flooring on the market these days that do not require finishing after they have been installed. This makes installing them quick and easy but may mean that repairing or restoring your hardwood floors later on is harder, or even impossible.

Deciding which type of hardwood floor finish is best suited to your needs will depend on your budget, the size or the area to be finished, traffic, maintenance and many other factors.

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