Ask The Craftsman: What’s the Best Finish For Wood Floors?

The process begins with choosing the proper top coat, regardless of whether you’re safeguarding recently installed wood floors or restoring ones that are decades old. Discover the variations among eight common finishes to select the one that is most appropriate for your project.

You have finally chosen the ideal hardwood for your floors, whether it be a warm cherry wood, a deep, rich walnut or a rustic oak. Even though there are numerous hardwood species suitable for flooring, each with a unique appearance and level of attractiveness, they all have one thing in common: they all require a protective finish to maintain their aesthetic quality. However, picking the ideal top coat for refinishing boards that are a touch worn out or for newly installed wood floors might be a little intimidating. After selecting your preferred wood, the convenience, durability and even glossiness of hardwood floor finishes are among the most significant aesthetic factors. By reviewing the fundamentals of the eight most common varieties of hardwood floor treatments, you may make your decision a bit easier.

Keep scrolling to learn all about it. 

Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane occasionally appears milky in the can, but it dries clear and doesn’t yellow over time. Water-based polyurethane might be an excellent choice for homeowners or business owners who like the polished appearance of hardwood but don’t want to give up durability. There are satin and semi-gloss alternatives available, yet most homeowners prefer to apply a water-based polyurethane sealer with a high gloss. This is a smooth finish that is typically applied as a water-like layer that hardens into a moisture-resistant top coat. There are a variety of application methods. Since it is far more environmentally friendly, water-based polyurethane has gradually displaced oil-based polyurethane as one of the most widely used finishes.

Water-based polyurethane emits far fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than many of the alternatives. When applied, it doesn’t have much of an odor, which is great if you intend to polish the floors yourself. In general, you need to wait two to four hours between coats because it dries quickly (three to four coats total is the usual recommendation). After that, it won’t take long for you to be able to walk on your new flooring; however, you should wait at least 48 hours before rearranging any furniture. This kind of hardwood floor finish accentuates the true color and texture of the wood, dries quickly and is very durable.

Water-based polyurethane is a very resilient finish that tolerates moisture reasonably well (although you should still immediately mop up any spills or leaks). It is made with synthetic resins and plasticizers. Other than that, maintaining hardwood floors with this finish is simple—all you typically need is a broom and a moist mop. The drawback is that it is more expensive than polyurethane based on oil, and it may take several layers to adequately protect hardwood flooring. Polyurethane floors should never be waxed as this might diminish the sheen.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Linseed oil, artificial resins and plasticizers are the main ingredients in oil-based polyurethane. Although many homeowners prefer to use it in high-activity areas within the home, its strength and longevity make it a popular finish for commercial properties as well. Fortunately, because of their durability, you won’t need to refinish the floors as frequently as you may with some of the other options. Additionally, it is simple to maintain—just frequently sweep or vacuum, and remove grime with a damp sponge.

If you want to give your floors a rich, warm, amber color, oil-based polyurethane can yellow even more over time, adding a slight amber or yellowish tint. It comes in satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss sheens. If you intend to finish the floors yourself, you should put on a respirator to protect your lungs because this finish emits a lot of VOCs and has a strong odor. As opposed to water-based polyurethane, you’ll also need to give significantly more time for the process and clean up using mineral spirits rather than soap and water. Each coat typically needs eight to ten hours to dry (two to three coats total is the usual recommendation). After the final, you must wait at least 48 hours before putting shoes on the floors and four days before furnishing the rooms with furniture.

Moisture-Cure Urethane

Moisture-cure urethane may be a wise choice if you have a client who wants to install or restore hardwood floors in a busy commercial space, such as a bar or restaurant, a bowling alley or even a movie theater. Moisture-cure urethane dries to a very high sheen and becomes exceedingly resistant and durable. It is resistant to wear, stains, scratches and moisture. But a DIYer may find it less appealing due to its complex use. Everyone in the home will need to move out for up to two weeks after application because of the extremely high level of VOCs it releases and the fact that they can linger in the air for weeks.

Moisture-cure urethane takes moisture from the air to cure, which means that the humidity on the day of application has an impact. The finish won’t cure or dry evenly in extremely dry air. If the air is too humid, it might begin to dry before it has covered the floor completely. This fickle finish necessitates a swift hand and deft touch for an even application. Moisture-cure urethane is mostly utilized in commercial settings, such as bowling alleys, dance halls and restaurants, where its resilience to wear and moisture, high-gloss look, and strength exceed its drawbacks. This is because the finish has many disadvantages.


Wax was the preferred hardwood floor finish for hundreds of years before polyurethane finishes were created in the 1960s. It continues to be a popular option for historic homes today, and DIYers commonly go for it because they prefer the low-sheen, natural aesthetic. Wax could be a wonderful choice if you or a client wants a low-sheen finish for hardwood flooring. It is simple to use and keep up, and during the waxing process, you may even color the floors by combining it with wood stain. Additionally, a wax finish dries extremely rapidly, giving the floors a very low-shine, natural appearance. You might not even notice that the floors have been covered at all. For this reason, wax is a preferred option for older or more rustic homes as a means of preserving hardwood floors without detracting from their aesthetic. 

Both paste and liquid wax are available; both require many layers to be manually rubbed in, although paste wax is often applied with a rag while liquid wax is typically applied with a wool applicator. Even while you’re finishing your flooring, you can color them by combining wood stain with wax. On the other hand, waxing hardwood floors doesn’t produce an especially robust finish. Wax is not the greatest floor finish for bathrooms or kitchens since it might leave white stains after water exposure. It will also scuff and scratch, but these are reasonably simple to buff out and conceal under a fresh coat of wax. However, it’s crucial to be aware that a wax finish tends to age poorly with water and will eventually darken or turn yellow. Although it’s not the most resilient finish, it can be layered to cover scratches or scuffs. Additionally, you will need to peel the wax off the floor if you decide to replace your wax finish with polyurethane.


Shellac has been used to seal and finish wood for hundreds of years. It is a substance made from denatured alcohol combined with the secretions of the lac bug, an insect native to Asia. Shellac is a good choice for a customer who loves a high-shine appearance. It dries rapidly, without releasing a lot of VOCs, to a high-gloss finish with a faint orange hue. Although shellac can be bleached, colored or combined with additional denatured alcohol to produce a more matte surface, it naturally dries with an orange hue and a high-gloss sheen. Applying shellac without creating observable lap lines can be challenging due to how rapidly it dries.

This specific hardwood floor finish also has a propensity to stain and water spots, and it is sensitive to alcohol and ammonia damage. Even though it doesn’t withstand foot usage as well as polyurethane, touching it up is simple—just buff on a fresh coat of shellac as needed. The drawbacks? Shellac requires extra caution during installation because it can be tricky to apply and is highly flammable. It is not quite as durable as other options on our list and is also susceptible to water and stain spots. You can buff wax over shellac, but you cannot apply one of the polyurethane finishes over shellac; therefore, if you want to alter the finish of your floor, you must first fully remove the shellac.

Acid-Cured Finish

Acid-cured finish, also known as Swedish finish or conversion finish, is the best hardwood floor finish available and is even more resilient than polyurethanes. An acid-cured finish can be ideal for your client if they are installing or refinishing exotic wood flooring. It is made with an alcohol base and is cured with acid, giving it a lustrous finish that is incredibly tough and resistant to chemicals, scratches, and scuffs. Even so, the treatment brings out the wood’s intrinsic beauty and color. The hardwood’s natural color and grain are highlighted, and it dries rapidly and is incredibly durable. It’s a high-end sort of finish that must be applied by a specialist to ensure the wood is correctly covered.

However, this finish also emits a lot of VOCs and has a strong smell, necessitating safety gear like full-face respirators while applying it. If you apply it, you’ll have to move your family and pets somewhere else for a few days while the floors cure. An acid-cured floor is difficult to repair or refinish once it has been installed, but because of its endurance, you shouldn’t have any problems with damage or wear under most regular circumstances.

Penetrating Oil Sealer

Penetrating oil sealers, which were extremely popular before polyurethane floor sealers were developed in the 1960s, aren’t commonly used today, but some homeowners still prefer them because they love the way the oil brings out the beauty, depth, and grain of the wood without adding a lot of shine or gloss. If you are renovating a historic house, it’s also a fantastic option. The most popular sort of penetrating oil is tung oil, which seeps into the pores of the wood to help prevent scratches and other types of damage. Penetrating oils don’t leave a hard “shell” on top of the wood like the majority of other hardwood floor finishes do; for this reason, a final layer of wax is frequently applied on top of the oil for added protection.

Even though penetrating oil sealers give wood a naturally attractive appearance, they don’t stand up well to foot traffic, so if you go with this option, be ready to re-oil your floors every three to five years. Additionally, you should be aware that water and chemicals might stain or harm oil-sealed floors, necessitating the use of wood floor cleaners made specifically for this sort of finish. But if your hardwood floors are scratched, it’s simple to fix; just buff additional oil into the harmed area. This is not a quick DIY endeavor because penetrating oils typically dry very slowly, frequently requiring a whole day between layers.

Aluminum Oxide

On hardwood floors, aluminum oxide, a naturally occurring mineral, provides a very durable protective covering. Without altering the color of the wood or masking the grain, it shields the floor from scuffs, water damage, fading, scratches, and normal wear and tear. It may be applied as matte or shiny as you’d like and comes in various sheen levels. However, as aluminum oxide is only offered as a choice on prefinished flooring planks, you won’t be able to apply this yourself.

On the downside, if you ever wish to touch up damage or change to a new finish, it’s difficult to remove or restore the aluminum oxide finish. To complete the task, potentially even to replace the floorboards, you’ll need to hire professionals. However, aluminum oxide is an excellent option if you want the most long-lasting hardwood floor finish—it can last up to 25 years—that is also low maintenance and you prefer the notion of installing wood flooring that is fully finished and ready to go.

To most people, this can be a confusing and downright impossible task to complete. The great thing is that you don’t have to be an expert. Instead, you can leave it to us, Valor Home Services. Our skilled team of refinishing experts can help you. If you’re ready to bring your wood floors back to their former glory, give our office a call today