11 Different Types of Hardwood Floor Finishes

If you purchase a product through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission. Details

If you have hardwood floors, you have a variety of finishes to choose from. It is critical to know which type of finish will be the most suitable for the kind of hardwood floor you have.

The effect of wear and tear on your floors will determine the frequency with which you need to refinish them. Typically, if you are just two adults, you need to refinish your hardwood floors every ten years. But if you have kids and pets, you may end up refinishing every three to four years.

Different Types of Hardwood Floor Finishes

Whether you apply a fresh finish or you are refurbishing, you need to know the suitable topcoat to use. There are so many types of wood that we use for making hardwood floors. The eleven types of hardwood floor finish that we highlight in this post should help you in taking the right decision:

Water-Based Polyurethane

Varathane 200241H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane, Quart, Satin Finish
Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane. (Image: Amazon)

Water-based polyurethane is suitable if you want a clear finish that will dry fast. It is easy to apply and clean and low on odor and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). You get a smooth and glossy finish that doesn’t become yellow over time. The downside is that this finish quickly shows up scratches and scrapes.

Water-based polyurethane is a bit milky in appearance when you look at it in the can. Although the high-gloss variety enjoys wide popularity, you can also get satin and semi-gloss types.

This type of polyurethane finish contains plasticizers and other synthetic substances and provides a reasonably water-resistant coating. However, it would be best if you still were quick to wipe up spills. Be warned that waxing floors with a polyurethane finish can dull the surface.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

ZAR 33912 Oil Based Polyurethane Wood Finish, QT
Oil Based Polyurethane Wood Finish. (Image: Amazon)

This floor finish is best-suited for high-traffic areas like the dining, and the living room of the house. Oil-based polyurethane is reasonably-priced, and you can maintain it easily. The downside of this finish is that it takes a long time to dry, and it becomes yellow over time.

Oil-based polyurethane contains linseed oil, and some synthetic resins, and plasticizers. It is high on strength, and durability, making it suitable for use in commercial establishments, although homeowners also make fair use of it in high-traffic areas. This finish is easy to maintain, and you only have to sweep, vacuum, and wipe it with a wet cloth or sponge regularly.

It takes longer to dry than the water-based variety, and you need to use mineral spirits to clean up. The typical drying time of oil-based polyurethane is ten hours between coats and up to 48 hours for it to get completely cured.

You can read more about polyurethane in another informative post of ours.

Oil sealer

Penofin Deep Penetrating Oil Treatment for Exotic Hardwood Exterior, Wood Stain IPE Finish (1 Gallon)
Penetrating Oil Treatment for Exotic Hardwood. (Image: Amazon)

Also known as penetrating oil sealer, this category of wood finish is perfect for you if you are doing a DIY  project. It’s easy to apply and doesn’t dry as hard as the other categories of polyurethane finish. The unique factor of this type of finish is that the grain patterns stand out as well as the color of the wood. You can also perform some useful touch-ups later on.

Oil sealers are low on gloss and bring out the natural effect of wood. This category of finish is suitable for bringing out an antique and classic look. The main ingredient of Oil sealers is tung oil. You will need to re-apply these coatings every 3 to 5 years. And oil sealer finish has a relatively long drying time typically 24 to 48 hours, and you will need to apply multiple coats.

Types of Urethane

Although we consider urethane the same as polyurethane, there are a few unique variations when it comes to hardwood floor finishes. Hence there are some of the commonly-used  varieties of this category of finish:

Moisture-Cured Urethane

Top Coat Epoxy Finish Moisture-Cured Polyurethane, Against UV Degradation, Non yellowing, Chemical resistance, Long Lasting Wet Look (Quart)
Moisture-Cured Polyurethane. (Image: Amazon)

We can best use this category of finish for flooring that is going to take a heavy beating. For instance, it is good to use for finishing the flooring of a bowling alley. It is incredibly durable but very high on VOCs, which can linger in the air for weeks.

It is also challenging to apply, but it has a very high shine when it dries. Moisture-cure urethane has a high level of resistance to moisture, staining, scratching, and general wear and tear. This finish draws moisture from the atmosphere for curing; therefore, changes in the humidity level of the atmosphere can adversely affect the final result.

We generally use moisture-cure urethane on the flooring of commercial establishments like dance halls restaurants and bowling alleys.

Oil-Modified Urethane

Minwax 710330000 Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane, gallon, Satin
Oil-Modified Polyurethane. (Image: Amazon)

It is the commonest surface finish and the easiest to apply. Oil-modified urethane has a petroleum base, and it is blended with synthetic plasticizers and resins, and other substances. You get a durable, moisture-resistant surface, and it takes about eight hours to dry.  Oil-modified urethane takes on an amber coloration over time, and you get different levels of sheen.

Water-Based Urethane

Rust-Oleum 250241H Ultimate Spar Urethane Water Based, Quart, Satin Finish
Urethane Water-Based. (Image: Amazon)

It is a waterborne urethane blended with synthetic substances like resins and plasticizers. You get a durable and moisture-resistant surface, and the finish is clear and does not become yellow over time. You also get different levels of sheen with this finish. This type of finish for hardwood flooring usually comes at a higher price than the other types of finish.

Conversion-Varnish Sealers (Swedish Finishes)

This finish consists of two components which result in acid curing, in combination with alcohol-based sealers. It is is better known as Swedish finish thanks to its country of origin. It is another extremely durable finish, even more, durable than polyurethane. However, one downside of this type of finish is the high toxicity level which can last from three days up to a whole month. It depends on the level of humidity in the atmosphere at the time.


Minwax 785004444 Paste Finishing Wax, 1-Pound, Natural
Finishing Wax. (Image: Amazon)

One easy to apply but natural finish is a wax and incredibly hard wax oil that imparts a warm look to the wood surface. There was a time when wax treatment of wood went out of vogue, but it has experienced a comeback today.

Wax gives you that low luster-looking finish that is also easy to apply and touch up. Generally, finishes of hard wax oil are well-known for having low durability and are susceptible to stain easily. You will find that you have to re-apply wax regularly. You generally need to apply wax repeatedly every two to three years.

The advantage of wax is that you can quickly get a low-Sheen finish that can be applied and touched up easily. It is also low on VOCs, and odor, combines well with stain and it dries quickly within one hour of using it. Downsides of wax are that it is labor-intensive, low on durability, and tends to become yellow or dark over time.


Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish, Quart
Spar Varnish. (Image: Amazon)

Previously varnish used to be made from vegetable oils. Today we make it from vinyl-alkyd compounds.  It would be best if you had quite a high level of skill event to mix varnish almost as much effort goes into it as applying it. There is a lot of procedure involved with mixing it and getting the right consistency to apply. The ultimate performance of varnish depends on the type of solvents used to mix it.


Rust-Oleum Zinsser 304H 1-Quart Bulls Eye Clear Shellac
Rust-Oleum Clear Shellac. (Image: Amazon)

Shellac is a good option if you are looking for a natural product with a low level of VOCs and dries quickly. It is a natural product, sustainable, and we can best use it on oily tropical woods, where it adheres well to surfaces.

The downside of using shellac is that it is highly flammable. It is also not an easy finish to apply and doesn’t have the level of durability than many other wood finishes. Another difficulty with shellac is that it needs to be mixed freshly before each application.

We make shellac by combining a substance secreted by the lac bug with denatured alcohol. It enjoyed prominence for applying finish to wood surfaces for hundreds of years. Shellac dries with an orange tint and gives a high gloss finish. We sometimes tint it and add color. We can also add bleach and change the proportion of denatured alcohol to create a matte finish.

Aluminum Oxide

SamaN 160-005-1L 1-Quart Interior Water Based Flat Varnish with Aluminum Oxide
Water-Based Flat Varnish with Aluminum Oxide. (Image: Amazon)

It is a finish that is very useful for applying on flooring in high traffic areas in case you need additional protection against wear and tear. Aluminum oxide finish is one of the toughest and most long-lasting varieties of finish. It is also low on maintenance, and you can get it in different levels of glossiness. On the downside, you will find it difficult to touch up an aluminum oxide finish.

Aluminum oxide is a mineral that occurs naturally and considered environmentally friendly. You get adequate protection for your hardwood floors from scratches, water damage, and wear and tear. You can apply this finish without changing the color of the wood or masking the grain pattern.

We get this finish in various levels of sheen from matte to high gloss. An interesting point about aluminum oxide is that you don’t get the finish as a separate component. It comes in the form of floor planks. The high durability of aluminum oxide can be highlighted by the fact that it lasts 25 years.


When the time comes that you have to install hardwood flooring in your home, you can consider any of the finishes that we have mentioned here. Now that we have discussed the various uses of each specific variety of finish, you would probably be able to make a suitable choice for the beautiful hardwood floors of your home.

Whether you are refurbishing or installing new floors, you will surely be able to use this information to the best of your advantage to reflect a beautiful home and the trendy lifestyle that hardwood floors imbibe.

Happy woodworking!