4. How To Choose A Hardwood Finish

4. How To Choose A Hardwood Finish

Today’s modern pre-finished floors often feature an invisible coating designed to add extra durability and protect against scratches, dents, stains, and wear. More advanced DIY-ers may wish to finish or refinish their  hardwood floors themselves. So, how can you tell which floor coating is right for you? Let’s take a look.


When talking about floor coatings, the terms ‘polyurethane’ and ‘urethane’ are used interchangeably; both terms refer to a polymerizing carabamic compound that produces flexible, non-toxic floor coatings. Polyurethanes are polymers, or large molecules. There are a few kinds of urethane on the market today, so we’re going to do a quick breakdown:

PROS: Urethane makes a flexible, abrasion resistant floor covering that is both durable and nontoxic while maintaining a great long-lasting shine.

CONS: Urethane is naturally thick, which can complicate the application process. It must be applied in a thin layer to create an even surface. However, this can lead to consistency issues in the finished application.

Oil-Based Urethane

PROS: The most common of the urethane family of floor coatings. Less expensive than water-based urethane. Easy to apply and very durable.

CONS: If you’re looking for a finish with a quick drying time, oil-based urethane is not for you. Can yellow with age. High Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) content also means a strong odor during the drying process.
Water-Based Urethane

PROS: Dries much faster than its oil-based counterpart. Due to a low VOC content, water-based urethane has less of an odor. Does not yellow over time. Water-based urethane is easy to apply, which makes it a good option for novice DIY-ers.

CONS: More expensive and less durable than oil-based urethane.
Moisture-Cured Urethane

Moisture-cured urethane is frequently used in commercial applications. It’s also great for active homes with a lot of foot traffic from kids and pets.

PROS: Exceptionally durable. Moisture-cured urethane has a fast drying time, so multiple coats can be applied in a single day.

CONS: Extremely high VOC content leaves a pervasive odor that can linger for some time after application. Can only be applied by professionals. Expensive.
Not interested in a urethane formula? Don’t worry, there are plenty of other options available!
Aluminum Oxide

Like urethane and polyurethane, aluminum oxide is a popular choice.

PROS: Long-lasting and very strong.

CONS: Only available on pre-finished floors. Cannot be refinished.

Shellac has transformed from a technical term into a sort of catch-all for all things artificially hard and glossy, but it is, in fact, a genuine thing! It’s also the only product on this list to be naturally produced – shellac is actually a resin secreted by female lac bugs. It’s been used all over the world for centuries.

This is a lac bug. What a lovely shade of red!

PROS: Shellac is nontoxic, inexpensive, and is very easy to work with. It’s also great for spot repairs, especially on older hardwood floors that already have a shellac coating.

CONS: Not very durable and must be refinished periodically. Since many shellac products contain wax, they can’t be combined with more modern finishes like urethane.
Acid-Cured Finish

This is a great option for exotic wood floors and floors with decorative inlay patterns. It’s also known as the Swedish Finish. The ABBA soundtrack is optional.

PROS: A Swedish Finish can dry in 2 hours! It’s worth noting that it can take up to 60 days to fully cure, though. This is another highly durable option.

CONS: Very expensive. Can only be applied by professionals. High VOC content means that a Swedish Finish has a very strong odor, which can very easily make a house uninhabitable for a few days. Once an acid-cured finish is applied to a floor, it’s the only type of finish that can be used.
Penetrating Oil Sealer

PROS: This is a great option for DIY-ers with less experience in floor finishing. It’s inexpensive, and great for older wood floors. Since it’s nontoxic, the odor is far less offensive than other finishing options.

CONS: Needs to be reapplied with more regularity than other finishes, as frequently as every two to three years.

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David has written and made videos about flooring products and installation since 2011 at Floors To Your Home (.com), where he is also the PPC Manager, a Researcher, a Website & Marketing Strategy Team member, Videographer, Social Strategist, Photographer and all around Resource Jito. In my spare time I shoot and edit video, put together a podcast, explore film history, and mix music (as in ‘play with Beatles multi-tracks’). Connect with  W. David Lichty


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