How to Select The Right Floor Finish

Choosing a hardwood floor finish can be overwhelming! Not only do you have to choose between matte, satin, gloss, and semi-gloss, but you also have to pick between oil-based or water-based polyurethane, penetrating oil finishes, acid cure finishes, and more.

Walk through our guide below for some tips on selecting a floor finish. Want a more in-depth guide? Download our eBook, “7 Tips for Selecting a Floor Finish.”

Before weighing your options, you may also want to read our guide on understanding the different types of finishes.

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What Look Do You Like?

Of course, one of the most important things to consider when choosing your finish is the overall look. Flooring will greatly impact the overall aesthetic of the room you are working on, so getting a sense of your desired result is essential.

Sheen & Gloss Level

You’ll need to decide between matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. Gloss is the brightest and most reflective floor finish available and is often what you’ll see in retail stores and commercial spaces. Over the years, the trend in homes has been lower gloss finishes, like satin and matte. These sheens are better at hiding signs of normal wear and tear.

Another case where you would want to go with a satin or matte finish is if you are installing wood with a strong graining pattern or some other quality that you would like to show off. A satin or matte finish will allow the naturally beautiful character of the wood to show through rather than covering it up with too much sheen from the finish.

Oil-Based Versus Water-Based

Water-based finishes dry clear, while oil-based polyurethane finishes can yellow over time. Oil-based finishes have a higher gloss level than water-based finishes. So even if you choose a matte, oil-based finish, you may not achieve a fully matte look. Water-based would give you the more natural, matte look you may be after.

​​Another type of oil-based finish that has become popular recently is European hardening oil finish, also known as penetrating oil finish. They’re gaining popularity with homeowners because they provide a beautiful, matte look that allows you to preserve the natural look and feel of the floors. There are also colored penetrating oil finishes to choose from if you would prefer that over a natural look.

What’s Your Timeline?

Sometimes your decisions need to be based on the amount of time you have to complete a project. If your floors need to be used pretty quickly, it could impact your decision. In some cases, you also need to take the weather into account. Humid weather could slow your project down because it will require more time in between coats.

Curing Times

Generally speaking, water-based finishes will dry and cure faster than oil-based finishes, meaning that you’ll be able to put a floor coated in a water-based finish back into play more quickly (sometimes you can even walk on it as soon as 6-8 hours after the final coat). On the other hand, an oil-based polyurethane finish will typically take 24-48 hours before you can walk on it. All oil-based polyurethane finishes will take about 30 days for a full cure based on average temperature and humidity conditions, while typical water-based urethanes are fully cured in about a week. If you need access to the space quickly, you may opt for the water-based finish.


You also need to consider the amount of time you have to place the coats. While water-based polyurethane will dry faster, it typically will require more coats. Typically for a water-based finish, you’ll put down two seal coats and two top coats.

How Durable Does Your Flooring Need to Be?

In general polyurethane finishes are very durable. Oil-based polyurethane is one of the most durable finishes. Water-based polyurethane is highly durable, but you should still avoid exposure to excess water and chemicals.

Keep in Mind

Some other tidbits that may be helpful to know in selecting your finish include:

  • Water-based finishes will typically have lower VOCs and therefore less odor than oil-based finishes. The low VOCs make it a good option for families.
  • In terms of durability, oil and water-based finishes are quite similar.
  • Penetrating oil finishes are different from oil-based polyurethane finishes because rather than sitting on top of the wood, these products actually penetrate the planks and provide protection that way. Keep in mind that penetrating oil finishes require regular maintenance to re-oil the floors.

Time to Select Your Finish

Feeling better prepared to pick your finish? If you need more examples, be sure to download our eBook, “7 Tips for Selecting a Floor Finish.” We offer a complete walkthrough of how to select the right floor finish. You can also shop our selection of hardwood floor finishes.

We know choosing a floor finish can be daunting, so give us a call at 800-737-1786 if you need more help making your decision.

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