These Are the 8 Best Finishing Options for Hardwood Floors

Best 8 Types of Hardwood Floor Finish

Let’s say you’re working with a client who wants to install new hardwood floors in a room or a house. Or perhaps your client wished to refresh and restore decades-old hardwood floors, and is looking for advice on how to make sure their flooring lasts a lifetime. While the type of hardwood chosen and the installation process play a big part, one factor that will have a massive impact on the durability of hardwood floors is the finish. 

Perhaps your client likes the look of raw, unfinished wood, or maybe they prefer a super-glossy, shellac-like aesthetic. As a professional, you will know what works best for each client, and your recommendation could make or break the end result in the long term. So, here’s what professionals and customers alike should know about the different types of hardwood floor finishes. 

1. Water-Based Polyurethane

For homeowners or business owners who enjoy a shiny look to hardwood, but don’t want to sacrifice durability, water-based polyurethane might be a good option. This is a smooth finish that’s commonly used in various applications, applied as a liquid, water-like layer that hardens into a moisture-resistant top coat. Over the years, water-based polyurethane has come to replace oil-based polyurethane as one of the most popular types of finish, since it’s a lot more environmentally-friendly. This type of hardwood floor finish dries fast, is very durable, and showcases the actual color and grain of the wood. The downside is that it costs more than oil-based polyurethane, and might require several layers to properly protect the hardwood flooring. 

2. Oil-Based Polyurethane

For years and years, oil-based polyurethane was one of the most sought-after types of hardwood floor finishes, for several reasons. This type of finish is great for high-traffic areas, such as hallways, offices, or homes with children and/or pets. Oil-based polyurethane is easy to find, relatively inexpensive, is moisture-resistant, very easy to clean and maintain, and highly durable, making it a great option for most clients. However, if your client is looking for an eco-friendly option, the water-based alternative might be a better choice. Because oil-based polyurethane is, as the name suggests, made with synthetic resins, plasticizers, and linseed oil, it releases a very strong odor, so you will need to wear protective equipment to keep from inhaling any vapors. Oil-based polyurethane also tends to yellow a bit over time, so if that’s not something you want, then water-based polyurethane is the better choice. 

3. Wax

If you or a client is looking for a low-sheen finish for hardwood flooring, then wax might be a great option. It’s easy to apply and maintain, and can even be mixed with wood stain to color the floors in the waxing process. A wax finish will also dry very quickly, the result being a very natural, low-shine appearance – you might not even realize that the floors have been coated in any way. This is why wax is a popular choice for historic or rustic homes, as a way of protecting decades-old hardwood floors without ruining the look. However, it’s important to know that a wax finish will tend to darken or yellow over time, and it generally does not combine very well with water. It’s also not the most durable finish, but it can be layered to hide scuffs or scratches. 

4. Shellac

Wax is a solid option for customers who enjoy a low-sheen, natural look to their hardwood floors. However, if a client prefers a high-shine aesthetic, then shellac is a good option for them. It dries to a high-gloss finish with a slight orange tint, and dries very quickly, without emitting a lot of VOCs. It can, however, be mixed with denatured alcohol to create a more matte appearance, depending on one’s preference. The downsides? Shellac is quite difficult to apply, and is very flammable, so it requires extra care in the installation process. It’s also vulnerable to water and stain spots, and is not quite as durable as other options on our list. 

5. Moisture-Cure Urethane

If you have a client that’s looking to install or restore hardwood floors in a high-traffic commercial setting, like a restaurant or pub, a bowling alley or even a cinema, then moisture-cure urethane might be a solid choice. It’s basically one of the toughest, most durable types of finish out there, which means it’s also quite tricky to apply and releases a high amount of VOCs that can linger for weeks. It’s not commonly used in households because it’s so difficult to apply and will require family members to relocate for a while as the finish dries. However, for a high-traffic commercial location that requires the most heavy-duty protection from foot traffic, moisture, and wear-and-tear, moisture-cure urethane is an option to consider. It dries down to a glossy finish and is incredibly durable. 

6. Acid-Cured Finish

If your client is installing or reconditioning exotic wood flooring, then an acid-cured finish might work great for them. It’s extremely durable, dries quickly, and highlights the natural color and grain of the hardwood. It’s considered a high-end type of finish, and it requires a professional application to ensure the wood is coated properly. However, this type of finish also releases high levels of VOCs, and has an intense odor, requiring protective equipment like full-face respirators during the application process. It’s also not the easiest to touch up or refinish, but given its durability and resistance, that shouldn’t really be a problem. 

7. Penetrating Oil Sealer

Penetrating oil sealers are not as popular nowadays as they once were; their popularity gradually decreased as polyurethane-based sealers were introduced back in the 1960s. Still, they’re still a favorite among homeowners who enjoy the natural look that penetrating oil sealers bring to hardwood floors. This is a low-shine type of finish that is easy to apply and highlights the natural patterns and hues of hardwood. It’s not too matte, but not too shiny, either, making it a great choice for historic homes or low-traffic spaces. Why low traffic? Because penetrating oil sealers are not very durable, requiring recoating every few years, and they’re quite pricey, too. This type of finish is not really a ‘coating,’ as it penetrates the pores of the wood itself; because of this, it can be topped off with a layer of wax for better protection and durability. 

8. Aluminum Oxide

We’ve saved the best for last. Aluminum oxide offers the absolute best protection and durability for hardwood floors, making it the best choice out there for heavily trafficked areas. It’s quite low maintenance and available as a low-gloss or high-shine finish, depending on one’s preference. It won’t change the color of the grain of the wood, and it will last a lifetime – aluminum oxide can last up to 25 years. The downside is that it’s not something that can be applied directly on existing hardwood floors; it is only available on prefinished flooring planks. Still, if durability and low maintenance is what your customer is looking for when installing new hardwood flooring, then this might be the best option on the market for that. 

If you’re looking to buy hardwood or engineered flooring or accessories, stains, and various other types of equipment, check out our offerings at First Atlanta Flooring, and don’t hesitate to contact us for more details.