Types of Hardwood Flooring Finishes: A Comprehensive Guide

Hardwood flooring is a popular choice for homeowners due to its durability, beauty, and ability to increase the value of any space. Choosing the right type of finish is essential to enhancing and protecting your hardwood floors.

There are various hardwood flooring finishes available, each with its unique characteristics and benefits. Some popular finishes include oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane, and penetrating oils.

Oil-based polyurethane offers a durable and long-lasting finish, while water-based polyurethane provides a quicker drying time and lower odor. Penetrating oils, on the other hand, give a more natural appearance and are easier to maintain over time.

Surface Finishes

When it comes to hardwood flooring finishes, surface finishes are among the most popular choices. These types of finishes provide a protective layer on the surface of the hardwood floor, shielding it from daily wear and tear. Some common surface finishes include polyurethane, water-based urethane, UV cured finishes, and aluminum oxide.


Polyurethane is a highly durable surface finish that is available in two main types: oil-based and water-based. Oil-based polyurethane offers a deep, rich shine and is highly resistant to scratches and scuffs. It typically takes 24 hours to dry per coat.

On the other hand, water-based polyurethane dries faster (4-6 hours per coat) and emits less VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) making it more environmentally friendly. However, it might not offer the same level of richness in appearance as oil-based polyurethane.

Water-Based Urethane

Water-based urethane is an alternative to traditional oil-based polyurethane. It provides a clear finish that does not yellow over time. This type of finish is well-suited for lighter-colored hardwood floors due to its non-yellowing feature. A few advantages of water-based urethane include:

  • Low VOC emissions
  • Quick drying time
  • Easy to clean and maintain

UV Cured Finishes

UV cured finishes are another type of surface finish for hardwood floors. These finishes are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light during the manufacturing process, which instantly hardens and cures the finish. UV cured finishes offer several benefits:

  • High durability and scratch resistance
  • Reduced installation time
  • Less VOCs and odor

Aluminum Oxide

Aluminum oxide is a strong and long-lasting surface finish that is factory-applied to engineered hardwood floors. This type of finish consists of tiny aluminum oxide particles suspended in a urethane mixture. Some key features of aluminum oxide finishes are:

  • High resistance to scratches, scuffs, and stains
  • Increased longevity with a typical lifespan of up to 25 years
  • Low maintenance requirements

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes are popular choices for hardwood flooring due to their classic look and protective qualities. There are various types of penetrating finishes to consider:

Oil Finishes

Oil finishes are known for enhancing the natural beauty of hardwood floors because they penetrate the wood’s surface, offering a low luster and durable finish. Two popular types of oil finishes are:

Tung Oil

Tung oil, derived from the seeds of tung trees, is an all-natural and environmentally-friendly hardwood finish. This traditional choice creates a water-resistant layer and highlights the wood grain. Some benefits of tung oil include:

  • Easy to apply and maintain
  • Non-toxic and eco-friendly
  • Highly water-resistant


Wax finishes are another classic option for hardwood flooring. Applied in thin layers, wax creates a beautiful, low-sheen finish that is easy to maintain. It is often used in conjunction with oil finishes for added protection. Some features of wax finishes are:

  • Simple application and maintenance
  • Provides additional protection against spills and stains
  • Can be used with other penetrating finishes

When choosing a penetrating finish for your hardwood floors, consider your desired look, budget, and maintenance requirements. Each option has its own advantages and can provide a long-lasting, attractive finish for your flooring.

Associated Factors

When selecting a hardwood flooring finish, it’s crucial to consider several factors that influence the overall performance and appearance of your floor. This section will discuss the durability, application process, maintenance and repair of various hardwood flooring finishes.


Durability is a critical aspect when choosing a finish for your hardwood floor. The wear resistance and overall longevity of the finish will determine how well it can withstand daily usage.

  • Water-based polyurethane: Offers excellent durability and is resistant to scratches and abrasions. It generally lasts up to 10 years before requiring refinishing.
  • Oil-based polyurethane: Provides moderate durability and can last up to 7 years before needing refinishing.
  • Hard-wax oil: Offers medium durability, with a lifespan of approximately 5 years before requiring maintenance or refinishing.

Application Process

The application process for each finish varies, affecting the time and effort required for installation.

  • Water-based polyurethane: Dries quickly and requires multiple coats, but has a low odor during application.
  • Oil-based polyurethane: Requires fewer coats but has a longer drying time, along with a stronger odor during application.
  • Hard-wax oil: Can be easily applied with a cloth or brush, but may require more maintenance over time.

Maintenance and Repair

The maintenance and repair requirements of hardwood flooring finishes play a significant role in their overall practicality and convenience.

  • Water-based polyurethane: Easy to clean with mild soap and water, and can be spot repaired if damaged.
  • Oil-based polyurethane: Also easy to clean with mild soap and water, but requires full refinishing when damaged or worn.
  • Hard-wax oil: Needs regular maintenance like reapplication of oil, and can be spot repaired as needed.

Environmental Impact

Hardwood flooring finishes have different environmental impacts, which can primarily be categorized into two main aspects: VOC Emissions and Sustainability.

VOC Emissions

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain chemicals found in various products, including some hardwood flooring finishes. These emissions can contribute to air pollution and have potential adverse health effects on the occupants of a building. It is crucial to be aware of the VOC content in different finishes to make an environmentally friendly choice.

  • Water-based finishes: They typically contain lower VOC levels, which makes them a healthier option for indoor air quality. However, the VOC content can still vary depending on the specific product.
  • Oil-based finishes: These finishes generally have higher VOC content than their water-based counterparts, although low-VOC oil-based products are available for more eco-conscious consumers.


Another crucial factor to consider regarding the environmental impact of hardwood flooring finishes is their sustainability. Sustainable finishes are those that have a low environmental footprint, use raw materials responsibly, and are long-lasting, which reduces the need for frequent refinishing.

A comparison of the sustainability aspects of popular hardwood flooring finishes can be seen in the table below:

Finish TypeLongevityRaw Material Source
Water-Based PolyurethaneHighMore sustainable, less toxic materials
Oil-Based PolyurethaneHighGenerally less sustainable, may contain toxic materials
WaxLow to mediumDepends on the wax type; beeswax and carnauba wax are renewable resources

By considering the VOC emissions and sustainability profiles of hardwood flooring finishes, homeowners can make more informed decisions that have a positive impact on the environment.


In summary, there are various types of hardwood flooring finishes available on the market, each with their unique characteristics and benefits. Choosing the right finish for your hardwood floor is a matter of personal preference and lifestyle.

Some popular options include:

  • Water-based polyurethane
  • Oil-based polyurethane
  • Hardwax oils
  • Acid-cured finishes
  • Aluminum oxide

Consider factors like durability, appearance, maintenance, and environmental impact when selecting a finish. It’s also important to consult with a professional flooring expert for proper installation and care to ensure the longevity of your hardwood floors.

Leave a Comment