What Kind Of Hardwood Floor Finish Should I Use?
It’s a big decision to make, after all. Your floor can be finished to suit the appearance you want it to have.
However, you need to balance aesthetics with practicality. You may love a particular finish, but find out that it does you no good due to the wood, home traffic and so on. Some finishes don’t hold up too well to any abrasion or much, if any, rough treatment.
So, what kind of finish is right for you? It depends a whole lot on your home and what you want out of your hardwood floors.
What Kind Of Hardwood Floor Finishes Are There?
There are a number of different kinds of hardwood floor finish. Each has strengths, but each has weaknesses. Which is the most appropriate for you and your home depends a little on the finish, but mostly on you.
What do you want from a hardwood floor? Appearance above all, or do you relish durability more? Do you want the two in perfect balance?
Additionally, how much is too much maintenance? Are you okay with more frequent retouches or do you prefer something a little more set-and-forget? Or somewhere in between?
These are questions you need to answer before you have a hardwood floor finish applied. Otherwise, you can wind up with a finish that you hate.
What Are The Hardwood Floor Finishes I Can Get?
Here are the available types of hardwood floor finishes.
Urethane finishes are among the most common. Urethane is a synthetic crystalline compound that cures into thin coating on the surface of woods. There are several kinds, however.
Oil-based urethanes, the most common of them, has a petroleum base along with synthetic resins and other compounds. It gives a range of sheens, develops an amber patina with age and dries fairly quickly; what gets finished at night is dried by morning.
Water-based urethane uses water as the base rather than petroleum. It doesn’t yellow with age and likewise offer a number of sheens to them, whether you want high gloss or a dull shine. It cures a little more quickly, like in a couple hours.
Moisture-cured urethanes are concentrates that use the moisture from the air to cure. These can yellow or not, but only come in satin or gloss. Curing time is relative to humidity. If you live in Florida, it’ll be quick. Arizona? It’ll take a while
Hardwood varnishes come in two varieties. Swedish varnish, also called a conversion varnish, are alcohol-based and cure by acidity in the compounds. These are binary treatments, comprised of a bottom layer and an acidic catalyst, which causes the compound to rapidly cure and harden.
Traditional varnish was formerly made with vegetable oils, but are more commonly vinyl-alkyd today. These varnishes harden and form a thin film over the wood. Both conversion varnishes and typical varnishes produce clear coats, but Swedish varnish can yellow a bit.
Wax, including paste wax and wax-based shellac, can be used as a finish over a stain and spreads over a floor. It speaks for itself; wax is more of a sealant rather than a stain.
Shellac, in and of itself, is a resin that’s mixed with a solvent (usually an alcohol) and spread over the surface. However, wax shellac has given way to non-wax shellac finishes. Just like wax, however, it’s more of a sealant than a finish; it’s typically paired with a stain coat.
Penetrating sealants, solvent-based finishes, are buffed into the floor using a mild abrasive such as steel wool. It acts as a sealant and stain both. Tung or linseed oils are typically the base, as these speed up the drying and curing process.
Lacquer is not a common choice, and for good reason. While it can create a durable finish and a glossy sheen, it is highly flammable and highly toxic. Given the other choices of finish or sealant, it should be avoided.
Which Hardwood Floor Finish Is Best?
Which hardwood floor finish is best…is highly subjective. Here are what you should know about each.
Urethane finishes are the modern standard, as they have mostly (though not completely) supplanted varnishes as the hardwood floor finish of choice. They cure rather quickly – often overnight – and give the owner great latitude in choice of appearance, especially the sheen of the floors. Water-based urethanes set very fast indeed, but moisture-cure urethanes require professional installation as they are quite difficult to work with.
They can give you a good protective layer and resist moisture well. However, they do patina over time and give the floor a yellowish tint in many cases. They also give off very strong odors, especially moisture-curing urethanes. Urethane finishes are the middle ground of everything. They require medium effort to install and medium effort to maintain. They can take decent traffic and aren’t terribly expensive for the most part.
Waxes are in many ways the best and in many ways the worst. They are cost-effective, easy to apply and also easy to maintain; just give it another coat if it starts to thin. It dries quick and tends to last. It buffs to a matte shine, but can also darken the wood.
However, it is also rather soft and brittle. In other words, a wax finish will require more regular maintenance, but it will be a bunch of small touch-ups rather than periodic complete re-finishing. Cost-conscious and environmentally friendly, to be sure, but – again – does require more frequent attention.
Shellac does give a good finish, but it scratches easily. It was replaced by lacquers and varnishes for good reason, and unless you use a particular wood that requires it specifically – and there really aren’t any – you probably should stay away. It is easily touched up, but takes little insult before being damaged. Older floors may be finished with it, and in that instance you may stick with it…but given the choice you should look into other options.
Varnishes are still viable choices. Swedish finishes must be done by professionals as there is little margin for error and the chemicals are very toxic. In fact, they give off formaldehyde during the curing process. A Swedish finish can be quite hardy, but are hard to touch-up if anything happens to them. A traditional varnish is easier to work with, but doesn’t stand up as well to abuse.
Penetrating oil sealers, along with waxes, are the easiest for the DIYer. They’re great for antique floors, aren’t toxic, won’t knock a buzzard off a garbage wagon and give floors a warm, mild sheen. They don’t scratch easily IF they aren’t subjected to heavy traffic and show off the grain of wood very well. However, they need more frequent retouching (though it’s easy) and the initial finishing process can take days as several coats are needed.
Lacquer…just don’t. Unless your floor is already lacquered, lacquers are more flammable and more toxic than a hardwood floor finish needs to be.
So there you have it. Each of the popular hardwood floor finish types discussed here have benefits and drawbacks. You’ll have to weigh what you want from your finish.