One of the most common questions we get asked is
– “What type of finish should I use on my floors?”
That’s a great question to ask for two reasons. First, because it can greatly affect the overall look, feel and color of your floors and second, because it has a huge impact on the durability and longevity of your floors.
Obviously choosing the appropriate finish for you and your hardwood floors is extremely important.
In this article we will look at all the different finishes available and discuss the pros and cons of each to help you decide which is best for your hardwood floors.
What Is “Finish”?
Finish is the layers of coatings that are applied in liquid form to your hardwood floors to help protect them from wear and moisture. These coatings also accentuate the wood's natural beauty and color and provide a nice sheen.
Finishes can be split up into three basic groups...
1) Surface finishes, 2) penetrating finishes and 3) a new breed of finishes we’ll call hardwax/modern penetrating oil finishes.
Let’s discuss them one-by-one…
GROUP 1 Surface Finishes
Surface finishes are very popular because they are durable, water-resistant and need very little maintenance.
These finishes are basically combinations of resins mixed with solvents or water. The solvents or water allow the resins to be fluid. Once the finish is applied, the water or solvents evaporate and leave the resin to set up a thin “plastic” film on the surface or the wood.
Surface finishes in general are very durable and easy to clean. But... they can be difficult to repair
They’re commonly referred to as urethanes or polyurethanes because that is what remains on the surface of the wood to form the protective coating.
This creates a protective barrier between the wood floor and the surrounding environment. When you walk on the floor you are really walking on the finish. As wear occurs on the floor, it’s the finish, not the wood, that’s wearing away.
Surface finishes in general are very durable and make cleaning easy, but they can be difficult to repair and patch without refinishing the entire floor. They’re generally available in high-gloss, semi-gloss, satin and matte sheens.
There are four basic types of surface finishes available for site finished floors:
Oil Based/Oil Modified Polyurethane
Oil based finish is a solvent based urethane. In the past this was the most common surface finish used in New Jersey and the surrounding areas. It was durable and it turned wood a beautiful rich amber color when applied.
Recently the powers to be have begun to limit this type of finish because of the high VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds). Finish manufacturers have been scrambling trying to come up with new formulas that meet the new low VOC laws. The high VOC oil-based finishes from the 60s are very different from the new lower VOC oil-based finishes available today.
The downside of oil-based finish is that it has a somewhat strong solvent smell for a few days after application, it takes a long time to dry and it will change color and darken over time when exposed to sunlight.
Water Based/Waterborne Polyurethane
Water based finishes are polyurethanes, acrylics or a blend of both. They come as either a single or a two-component product. The two component products have a separate catalyst that is added to the finish just prior to use. They are fast drying and the finish is clear when dry. They have far more wear resistance than most regular oil-based finishes.
Being water based, they have extremely little odor. There are no solvents released as it cures, only water vapor. They also have the lowest VOC’s among surface finishes.
Two component water-based finishes are among the most advanced types of finishes. Every finish manufacturer is putting lots of effort into making these the best finishes available and these finishes are the way of the future when it comes to surface finish systems.
They’re among the most durable finishes as well. They are generally the most resistant to chemicals, scratches and abrasion when compared to other types of commonly used residential finishes. Most have the benefit of having built in UV inhibitors so your floor won’t change color anywhere near as fast as it will with an oil-based finish.
Of all the finishes, high-end two component water-based finishes are the most expensive. The cheap single component water-based polyurethanes (found in big box stores) are nowhere near as durable as professional systems. These low-quality versions won’t last as long and are affected by UV quicker.
Moisture Cured Urethane
Moisture cure is a solvent based urethane finish. As its name implies, it reacts with moisture in the air to cure. It’s one of the most durable and moisture resistant finishes available. It’s mainly used on commercial projects. It is extremely difficult to apply, very toxic and has an extremely high amount of fumes, VOCs and smell.
Not many homes have this finish and it’s now banned in many areas because of the very high VOC’s.
Swedish Finish/Acid Cure
Most commonly referred to as Swedish finish, acid cure is a very durable finish. This finish was quite popular in many areas years ago. It provides a nice amber color to the wood similar to oil-based finishes.
Swedish finish has extremely strong fumes that smell terrible (similar to moisture cure) and comes with a very high VOC level. It will also change color over time and it takes quite a long time to cure.
GROUP 2 'Old School’ Penetrating Oils and Waxes
Penetrating oils, as the name implies, penetrate into the wood pores and then harden to form a protective penetrating seal. So instead of walking on the finish, like you would with the finishes we talked about above, you are actually walking on the actual wood and it’s the wood that wears down, not the finish.
These types of finishes include tung oil, linseed oil, Danish oil and other specialty oils. These have been used as a wood finish for centuries.
Penetrating oils are easy to repair. But they dry slowly and don’t offer great spill protection.
Most of these oils take a much longer time to dry compared to other finishes. Penetrating finishes also don’t offer a lot of resistance to staining from solvents, water, alcohol, and urine. But on the positive side, most scratches can easily be repaired by simply recoating the affected area. Another advantage of penetrating finishes is that they are flexible and move with the wood, this can be beneficial especially on softer or wider plank floors and in areas with high swings in humidity where wood moves a lot.
After some types are applied, wax is sometimes buffed into the floor to give them a higher sheen and for durability. In this case, wax needs to be regularly maintained with additional thin applications of wax buffed into the floor.
Only certain cleaners can be used on the floor with these penetrating oil finishes otherwise they will be ruined.
GROUP 3 Hardwax and ‘Modern’ Penetrating Oils
This group of finishes are the new kids on the block. They’ve been around for a few years here in the States and far longer in Europe (where they originate from). Finally, we have enough real-world data and experience with them to be able to talk about and recommend certain ones with confidence.
Hardwax Oils are the most environmentally friendly finishes. They are easy to repair too
These finishes are blended from natural, environmentally friendly ingredients like plant oils and waxes.
One of the biggest benefits is that they are extremely low in VOC’s. In fact, a few of them have absolutely no VOC’s at all. That’s good for the environment and good for the nose as well. At the very most they will have a slight cooking oil aroma for a little while as they dry.
Unlike surface finishes that lay on top of the wood and ‘old school’ penetrating oils that sink into the pores of the wood, these oils are designed so that they impregnate the pores of the wood and leave a protective surface—although not a hard “plastic” looking or feeling one. The finished product is like a hand rubbed velvety matte look.
Some are 1 coat systems and others are 2 or 3 coat systems. There’s also the option to add a little sheen with additional steps if you like with some of the systems.
One of the great things about these finishes are that they combine a lot of the benefits of surface and oil finishes and they remove many of the disadvantages. For example, hardwax oils are much easier to spot repair than surface finishes. They don’t have the headache of constant maintenance and waxing like penetrating oils.
Plus, they don’t stink up the house and drive you out of your home like some finishes will.
We’ve been spending quite a bit of time, money and effort testing them over the last few years and we feel there is definitely a very bright future for hardwax and the new breed of penetrating oils in the professional refinishing world.
How Do You Choose Between All of These Finishes?
Choosing a finish is not an easy or obvious decision to make as there are many factors that you need to consider about each of them. One might excel in one area but is a deal breaker in another area. We’ll talk about each of these factors and then line up each finish in a side by side comparison chart.
For convenience, we’ll split them into two groups...
GROUP 1 Durability
One of the big deciding factors when it comes to choosing between these finishes is their durability and how they will hold up over time.
Below we’ve listed the three areas that affect the durability of a finish:
Abrasion resistance refers to how well a finish stands up to everyday wear from shoes, dirt or other things rubbing and wearing against the finish.
Scratch resistance refers to the finish's resistance to damage beyond everyday wear. Things like furniture and kitchen appliances being dragged across the floor, rocks brought in by shoes and pets running across the floor with unkempt claws etc.
Chemical resistance is the measure of a finish's ability to be unaffected by a variety of chemicals such as nail polish remover, blood, coffee, wine, cooking oils, ammonia (pet urine) and alcohol within an allotted time.
GROUP 2 Other Factors
While durability is a very important factor in a finish, there are other things to consider as well when choosing which finish to use...
You want to choose a finish that accentuates the wood's natural beauty and color and provides a nice sheen. Most surface finishes are available in four sheens: gloss, semi-gloss, satin and matte. Penetrating finishes have a beautiful hand rubbed look unless they are waxed and buffed. Hardwax oils can be either matte or satin.
As floors age, some finishes start to yellow or amberize because of the effect of UV rays. This will be especially noticeable in areas where you have furniture and area rugs that have been moved after an extended period of time.
More and more people are concerned about the environmental impact and emissions (VOC's, solvents and off-gassing) from the products they use. This is a good thing for not only the protection of our planet but also for your family's and pet’s health.
Some of these finishes have such strong off-gassing as the solvents evaporate that you can’t be anywhere near them for days, sometimes weeks if you’re very sensitive. Others have zero VOC’s and extremely minimal smell.
You also want your floors to be easy to look after, clean and maintain.
Surface finishes provide a hard, durable surface that is very easy to sweep, damp wipe and keep clean in general. If properly maintained, they provide excellent moisture and chemical resistance. However, when the surface is scratched or damaged, they can be more difficult to repair without professional help.
Penetrating finishes on the other hand can be easier to repair if they’ve been scratched, most scratches can be repaired by simply recoating the affected area. But they offer minimal resistance from water and chemical damage and thus need to be maintained often.
Drying and Cure Time
You want your floors looking great, but you also don’t want to be out of your home for any longer than you need to be. Because of this the drying, application and curing time becomes important, especially if you need to move back in a hurry.
Hardwood Floor Finish Comparison Chart:
The numbers are the general average and our personal opinions for each finish type. Specific products peform better or worse.
- 5 - Excellent
- 4 - Very Good
- 3 - Good
- 2 - Fair
- 1 - Poor
- 0 - Horrible
What Finishes do we recommend?
That’s a lot of information to take in about finishes. It may be hard to believe, but we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to information about all these finishes. This article could be ten times longer if we provided every single detail.
We’ve had the benefit of testing all these finishes in many different circumstances over many years. And we continually test new products that come on the market as we like to be up to date with what’s happening in the industry, so we can provide our clients the best options.
Before we talk about our recommended finishes, lets run through the ones we don’t use and our reasons why...
First... finish systems we do NOT use or recommend
While durability is a very important factor in a finish, there are other things to consider as well when choosing which finish to use..
We ruled out moisture cure because of the toxicity, safety concerns (fire hazards, combustibility etc.) and the horrible smell and fumes from the solvents evaporating as they dry.
Swedish finishes were ruled out as well for pretty much the same reasons as moisture cure. We don’t like subjecting ourselves to those issues, let alone others. Yes, they’re extremely durable finishes, but the high-end two component water-based finishes are just as durable and they don’t have the stinkage or safety issues.
‘Old School’ Penetrating Oils and Wax
We also ruled out penetrating oils because most people are used to the convenience of surface finishes and aren’t willing to spend the time maintaining a penetrating oil or wax floor like their grandparents were. They also spot very easily when liquids are spilled on them and they take far too long to dry and cure.
Cheap Single Component Water Based Finishes
We also don’t use cheap single component water-based finishes you can find in big box stores because they’re nowhere near the quality of professional finishes. Some guys will use these to save themselves some money, or they use these as a base coat and put better finish on top. But by doing either of these things they end up cheating their customers out of a strong, long lasting floor.
Finish systems we do DO use and recommend
Depending on your answers to the 10 questions below, we’ll recommend one of, or a mix of, 4 different finish systems...
- either a premium Oil-Based Polyurethane finish
- a top-of-the-line Single Component Water Based finish
- a high-end Commercial 2 Component Water Based finish
- or a high quality Hardwax Oil or New Breed of Penetrating Oil
10 QUESTIONS to Determine the Perfect Finish for Your Floors
- What type of floor do you have? Is it residential or commercial?
- Will you be staying in your home long-term, or selling soon?
- How many kids/pets/customers do you have using and abusing your floors?
- Will you be walking on your floors with dirty/wet/muddy outside shoes?
- How regularly will you clean them?
- Do you want the best finish available regardless of cost, or would you like a durable finish at a more reasonable investment?
- What sheen do you want?
- How “green” do you want to go?
- How sensitive would you be to the odors, VOCs and chemicals inherent to some types of finishes?
- Do you want your floors to be easier to repair?
Your answers to these questions will play a big part in helping you choose the perfect finish for your floors. Each of the finish systems we recommend below have different traits and strengths, depending on what you want and need from a finish. When we come out to visit you in person for your quote, we will be able to go through these questions and options together.
Our Bronze SystemOil-Based Polyurethane
These are among some of the nicest looking finishes available. They provide a nice thick build after multiple coats. They have a beautiful traditional amber glow and look great on red and white oak floors.
There’s a few downsides to them you need to be aware of though…
First: They have strong fumes and smell due to the high VOC level. Depending on the air flow in your home, it can last for a few days up to a week or more as it cures.
Second: They are one of the worst culprits for aging/yellowing. If you have area rugs in rooms with lots of sunlight and don’t move them for long periods of time, you will notice a big difference in color.
Third: Out of the finishes we recommend, these dry the slowest — 24 to 48 hours to dry and up to 30 days until they are fully cured and you can put your rugs back.
First: They have a beautiful rich amber tone with a nice thick build that looks great on red oak, white oak and pine flooring.
Second: They are the most affordable finishes available.
Oil based finishes are not a high-end finish, the most durable, easiest to repair, fastest drying or the lowest in VOCs... and never will be. But they are the most reasonably priced finishes available. They can be a great choice if your budget is stretched and you are willing to compromise a little.
Bronze Finish System:
After testing and using many oil modified polyurethane finish systems, we have decided on a product from a well-known New Jersey company called Lenmar. It’s a local product manufactured by the high-end USA coatings company Benjamin Moore. It’s one of the best premium oil-based finishes available. It has 350 VOC and is available in Gloss, Semi-Gloss and Satin. Dry time is around 24 hours and full cure is 7 days.
Our Silver SystemHigh End Residential Water-Based
As we talked about at the start of this article, high-end water-based finish systems are on the cutting edge of technology and are among the most durable finishes available. But to be completely upfront with you, I’ll go through the minor drawbacks of these finishes so you have the full picture.
First: One downside to water-based finishes, if you have oak floors, is the color. If you just apply a clear water base finish to red or white oak, it looks dull, flat and lifeless and doesn’t do much to enhance the grain. So... your floor will need to be stained first with a neutral stain. This way you’ll get a rich, deep color and durability.
(NOTE: We in no way recommend using lacquer sealers as a base coat under any finish system. They are highly flammable, have super strong fumes and are very bad for durability.)
Second: Another downside to water-based finishes is the price. These are among the most expensive finishes. A gallon of high-end water based finish is in the triple digits—compared to maybe $30.00 for cheap “handyman” finish from the local big box store.
Third: They are also far more challenging to apply for some contractors because of their extremely fast drying times. This means if your finisher isn’t an expert at applying them and he messes a coat up, the entire floor will have to be re-sanded, meaning more surface wood being removed, and the finish reapplied from scratch. (This of course doesn’t apply to us as we would never send out an unqualified finisher.)
Now for the good points…
First: Like we’ve already discussed, these high-end finishes are very durable. Multiple coats provide a very nice build layer and they’re very easy to clean and look after.
Second: Another huge benefit they have is they don’t have the horrible fumes all the other solvent and oil-based finishes have (although the stain will have a slight odor if used).
Third: They dry and cure much faster than oil-based finish systems, which is important if you are pushed for time and need to move back in as soon as possible.
Fourth: These finish systems have built in UV inhibitors, so they won’t change color in sunlight anywhere near as quickly as the oil-based finishes.
There are two types of water-based finish systems—single component and 2 component. The 2-component finishes are much more durable and you will want to use one of these as your top coat. It’s called 2-component because they are made of two parts — the finish and a catalyst. The catalyst is an industrial grade hardener and when it’s mixed into the finish, the chemicals blend and mix to form an extremely tough and extremely durable and scratch resistant floor system when it’s dry and cured.
Silver Finish System:
Our Silver level finish system is 2 coats of Emulsion PRO (single component) + 1 coat of StreetShoe NXT (Commercial 2 component)... both from a USA company Basic Coatings.
If you’re looking for a finish system with amazing durability, great looks, very low VOC’s and is easy to clean and take care of, then this system is going to be an excellent investment for your floors. Both have less than 275 VOC. They’re available in Gloss, Semi-Gloss and Satin. Dry time is around 2 hours and the StreetShoe top coat is 90% cured in 24 hours!
Our Gold System Commercial Grade Water-Based
This is the surface finish we use for our commercial projects like retail stores, hotel lobbies, cafes and restaurants. We also offer this system to homeowners that want the absolute best surface finish system they can invest in for their home. Both the products in this package are 2 component catalyzed finishes, which makes it an incredibly durable finish system.
The downsides to this finish system are the same 3 as listed above for all water-based finishes, so we won’t repeat them again here. On top of those — expect to pay around 20% more for this Commercial Grade system compared to the Silver water-based system, and about 50% more than the Bronze oil-based system.
This is a super tough and durable finish system!
If you have a high traffic home with lots of dogs or children, or you’re always walking across your wood floors with your dirty shoes, then you might want to consider this commercial grade option.
You may also want to look into investing in this finish system if you have old antique hardwood floors that have been sanded and refinished many times before and now don’t have a lot of wood left to sand. In this case you will want to protect and preserve whatever amount of flooring you have left with the best finish available.
Gold Finish System:
Our Gold level finish system is 2 coats of Commercial Catalyzed Sealer (Commercial 2 component) + 2 coats of StreetShoe NXT (Commercial 2 component). Again, manufactured in the USA by Basic Coatings.
This is as good as you can get if you’re looking for a surface finish that looks great, is low in VOC’s, is incredibly durable, won’t yellow and is easy to clean and maintain. It really is an amazing finish system. Both have less than 275 VOC. They come in Gloss, Semi-Gloss and Satin. Dry time is around 2 hours and the StreetShoe top coat is 90% cured in 24 hours!
Alternative Gold SystemHardwax-Penetrating Oil
This relatively new breed of finishes (in this country at least), have been a big welcoming surprise to us over the last few years. As you can see from the Finish Comparison chart above, their overall score comes in second only to the 2 component water-based finishes.
Like the other finish systems we recommend, these finishes are highly water resistant, very durable and they’re easy to look after and maintain. They have a lot of things going for them over conventional surface finishes. They are the most “green” and environmentally friendly finishes available at the moment. The one we use and recommend has 6 VOC’s!
But like all finishes, there are some drawbacks you need to be aware of...
First: If you love super glossy finishes, then these oils won’t make the cut. The highest gloss level they can attain is a dull satin sheen, usually with extra steps in the finishing process. Fortunately, most people that choose to use hardwax and the new breed of penetrating oils love them for their beautiful matte, natural wood look.
Second: Unlike surface finish systems, these finishes need to be refreshed several times throughout their life to maintain their protective coating. While this could be considered a con, it is also a huge plus as we will show below.
Third: Like the Gold level water-based system, this is a premium finish. That means it’s a bigger investment verses the Bronze and Silver systems.
Now for the positive points…
First: These are the most environmentally friendly finishes available. That means no more being driven out of your home for days on end by strong fumes and toxic chemicals. If you have issues with strong fumes or have young children or pets, hardwax/modern penetrating oils will be a great choice.
Second: Because they don’t form a plastic film that sits on top of the floor surface, it makes them far easier to spot repair. If you ever have an accident, we can repair the damage in the middle of a room and it will be virtually impossible to see if you didn’t know it was there. To do the same with a surface finish, we would need to re-coat the entire area so we could ensure that the new finish and sheen blends in properly.
Third: They dry and cure much faster than oil-based finish systems, which is important if you are pushed for time and need to move back in as soon as possible.
Fourth: Because of the repairability of this type of finish, you can ideally never sand your floor again. If you clean them regularly, take good care of them and keep up with the maintenance coats, you will have a forever floor that can be refreshed as it needs it — as long as you still take good care of the actual wood and don’t gouge, chip and dent your floors.
These finishes can be used in domestic as well as high traffic commercial applications. In fact, they’re becoming very popular in commercial projects because they dry fast and don’t stink up the whole building or restaurant for days. With certain systems, the custom colors and mixes you can achieve is incredible. If you want something completely out of the ordinary and unique then you’ll definitely want to consider a hardwax-penetrating oil.
These oils have definitely added viable options to the hardwood finish mix. If you’re open to a non-conventional finish approach, appreciate the many benefits they offer and can live with the minor downsides, then a hardwax-penetrating oil could be perfect for your home.
Alternative Gold System:
After months of testing all the leading hardwax oil and modern penetrating finishes we have decided to offer a top-of-the-line product from the Danish company Woca. The finish is called Diamond Oil.
It’s mainly vegetable oil components and boasts an incredibly low 6 VOC level. It’s available in Matte sheen. Your floor can be back in use in 24 hours. Full cure time is 3 days.
We hope this article has helped educate you on the basics of hardwood floor finishes and has shown you a clear choice as to what finish system you’d like to invest in for your hardwood floors.
If you have any questions or you would like to see samples of our recommended finishes in person, please feel free to call us and ask. We’re always happy to help. When you are ready to find out how much your project will cost, click here to Schedule Your Estimate and we’ll be in touch.
HAPPY CLIENT feedback
Brain and his assistant Ethan did an absolutely fabulous job. They were friendly, always available to answer questions, and left the building clean and ready for move-in. I cannot recommend them enough!!! They exceeded all expectations.Linda W - Collingswood, New Jersey | 5 Star Review on Google