Why Use Penetrating Oil to Finish a Hardwood Floor?

At one time penetrating oil systems were one of the most common wood floor finish options. When polyurethane (both oil-based and water-based versions) came onto the market, penetrating oil took a backseat. Nowadays, penetrating oil finish like those offered by WOCA, Rubio, and Bona are becoming more fashionable once again.

But what’s the difference? Why do some people prefer penetrating oil versus a traditional polyurethane finish?

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Penetrating oil is more durable

The key difference between penetrating oil and polyurethane is how the finish interacts with the hardwood floor.

Polyurethane finish systems are applied on top of a wood floor. This creates a “wear layer” that people, pets, and furniture stand on top of. On the other hand, penetrating oil actually incorporates itself into the wood. Certain penetrating oils also contain hardening agents. This creates a finish system that soaks into the wood and hardens.

This fundamental difference between the two makes penetrating oil more durable than a polyurethane finish.

A penetrating oil finish almost never needs a re-coat

After polyurethane finish systems are applied they will experience wear and tear and inevitably need a recoating, or even a full refinishing. With a penetrating oil system, however, there is usually never a refinish. Instead, floors are simply cleaned and re-oiled. However, the penetrating oil may need more frequent maintenance and care depending on the location of the application.

Hardwood floors are meant to be walked on. No matter what system is in use, it will eventually need to be repaired in some capacity. With polyurethane finishes, the process of recoating or refinishing can be time consuming and expensive, because the entire floor is likely re-coated if a repair is required.

Click here to browse our selection of penetrating oils, including European hardening oil, tung oil, and wax.

With penetrating oils, most hardwood floor repairs simply require an application of a cleaning solution and simply re-oil the problem area.

Penetrating oil lends the wood a more natural appearance than polyurethane

Aesthetically, many people find that penetrating oils offer the most natural look for hardwood floors. This is because the oil becomes part of the wood itself. Penetrating oils also avoid the “plasticky” look of polyurethane finishes. The oils also are one of the best options for low-sheen finish systems.

Polyurethane finishes can come in options like satin or matte, but ultimately they will still have that “plasticky” sheen quality to them. Products like WOCA’s penetrating oil really allow the warm, insulating effect of wood to come through. The wood floor finished in this style system also feels warmer under foot.

Penetrating oil is forgiving

Many hardwood floor professionals are fond of the easy application for penetrating oil systems. With polyurethane there is concern about lap lines, feathering, and streaking in an application that can result in a poor looking finish.

Penetrating oil is much more forgiving than a polyurethane finish. Many penetrating oil systems simply require the oil to be applied with either a lambswool brush or roller and buffed into the wood. However, keep in mind that penetrating oils do take a bit of a longer time to cure.

If you’d like to learn more about penetrating oils such as WOCA please call City Floor Supply at  800-737-1786 or email us at info@cityfloorsupply.com.

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35 thoughts on “Why Use Penetrating Oil to Finish a Hardwood Floor?

  1. Simon Brooks

    Thanks for the great advice, I recently found some hardwood floors under our kitchen during a renovation and I’ve been looking for the best way to bring them back to life. I have to admit that I had never even considered using penetrating oil to finish it until I found your article. I’m definitely going to have to give it a shot if it helps the floor stand up to wear and tear from pets like you claim.

  2. Rob

    Tricky to apply. Find someone who has done it. Have them do it.
    Awesome product. Soft deep finish. WAY better than stain and poly, esp when it comes to durability. Our dogs scratched off the poly in our kitchen over the years. Looked terrible. This stuff they still run and skid and it makes NO MARKS at all — even when their nails go into the oak, the color remains. Would definitely use again. We have an 1870 farmhouse and it makes the strip oak floors we installed 25 yrs ago look like they go with the original house. Beautiful.

  3. Jen

    I have beautiful dark wood floors that were put in late 90s. When I wipe the floor with a damp cloth, the color of the stain is on my rag. The floors don’t have a sheen or layer on top, so I am suspecting they were done with a penetrating stain. Would the stain wipe off like that if it were a penetrating stain? What should I use now? Thanks!

    1. Caran Baxter

      Hello. Thanks for the question. Typically stains are coated with a film forming finish as this provides the best protection for both the wood and the preservation of color. There are instances where only stain is used as a non-film forming finish. Can you tell me how this floor has been maintained? Sometimes the cleaning solvents can adversely affect a system of stain only as a penetrating finish. I would be hesitant to recoat any floor that has stain showing up on a rag. The only other system I can think of that may lift like that would be a European hardening oil and for sure normal floor cleaners could cause that to lift. Hope this helps!

    2. Caran Baxter

      Hello. Thanks for the question. Typically stains are coated with a film forming finish as this provides the best protection for both the wood and the
      preservation of color. There are instances where only stain is used as a non-film forming finish. Can you tell me how this floor has been maintained?
      Sometimes the cleaning solvents can adversely affect a system of stain only as a penetrating finish. I would be hesitant to recoat any floor that has stain showing up on a rag.
      The only other system I can think of that may lift like that would be a European hardening oil and for sure normal floor cleaners could cause that to lift.

  4. Susan Grainey

    We have an old house built in 1926 in Florida. I’ve just sanded a floor and I believe it to be Heart Pine. Would this product work on this kind of wood?

    1. Caran Baxter

      Hi Susan Grainey,
      Yes penetrating oils like WOCA, Rubio Monocoat or Bona 2K Craft Oil will all work wonderfully on Heart Pine. We have used each of the products on heart pine with great results. Thank you for your inquiry

  5. Mrs. Walker

    Hi, our refinished oak flooring is showing wear on the edges next to the cracks. Will this product make these blend with the rest of the finish. Also, can floors later be sanded and refinished or does this product prevent that.
    Thank you, Mrs. W

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      Hi Mrs. W,

      Thanks for your question. If your floor has been previously finished with penetrating oil, yes, you may be able to use a penetrating oil product to get rid of some of the damage in the finish. Always do a spot test before applying large amounts of the product to the floor because you want to make sure that the finish is, in fact, a penetrating oil product and that it won’t react poorly to the application of whichever new product you’ve selected. Also make sure to clean the problem areas with a wood-friendly, penetrating oil-friendly solution like WOCA soap before re-oiling them.

      You can sand and refinish floors covered in penetrating oil, but if you put in regular maintenance and simply re-oil any damage, you shouldn’t have to.

      We hope this helps!

  6. tom K

    Question: What would be a good clear oil to finish a new “distressed” redoak hardwod floor so that we get a light satin finish that shows some red grain but would not dull or darken the floor. Especially when I touch it up to fix damaged spots or if we ever need to recoat the whole floor. Keeping it lighter fits our color scheme. We’d like an oil finish that doesn’t keep making the floor look darker and darker every time it is touched up. I assume buffing would make the floor look a little more shiny closer to satin water based poyurethane finish, whcih is the look we would like, but we are seriouly considering going with the oil because of the ease of touch up.


    1. Caran Baxter

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your question. A conversion varnish sounds like an ideal product for your request. These acid cure products are solvent based but will not darken and yellow over time. They can also be repaired more easily than standard urethane finishes.

  7. jeff bartlett

    We have recently had our hardwood floors refinished with a penetrating oil and I am not as fond of the finish as the rooms that have a polyurethane coating. It has too much of a matte finish and shows every scratch from our dogs nails. I asked our contractor who finished the floors if we could put a satin polyurethane over the refinished floors and he said “no we would have too sand them down and put a different stain on” . Is that true? Is there no product we can put over a penetrating oil to give it a protective layer with a sheen without completely refinishing the floors.

    1. Caran Baxter

      Hi Jeff,

      Without knowing the brand of the penetrating oil we wouldn’t be able to answer this. There are some oils that can be recoated and some that cannot be. If you are able to find out what product was used, we might be able to help.

      Thank you!

  8. Lucy Oliver

    Have just installed previously used pine flooring. Like the idea of oiling. It has gouges and gaps that I would like to fill. What would be good to fill these floors with?
    They have not been finished before because I installed the underside on top.

  9. Lucy Oliver

    There was no product used. This is the back side which has never been finished. There are gaps and gouges which need to be filled. What should I fill these gaps and gouges with, before using an oil of yours?

  10. Melissa

    I am working on restoring an 1800’s house with wide worn planks. Some have been painted, but 50% of the paint has worn off . Is penetrating oil a good finish for boards with various age and coatings?

    1. Caran Baxter

      Hi Melissa, thanks for your question.

      We would recommend testing an area that has the paint to see if you get adhesion and drying of the penetrating oil finish.

  11. Darlene

    I have a dark spot on my oiled floors that got wet from wet clothes laying on it. Any suggestions to fix the darkened spots

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      Can you let us know what oil was applied to the floor? Also what species of wood was used? Did the floor have any pre-treatments done to it prior to oiling?

  12. bob and kathy stiles

    We have a 6 year old home which we had built for our retirement 5″ oak wood flooring, stained and 3 coats of poly. It has been a nightmare. With our standard poodle, frequent visits from our grandsons, their standard poodle, etc. etc. the floors have easily scratched and show marks –we are very unhappy with them (3000 sq ft). We had a water accident about a week ago and insurance will cover sanding the floors and refinishing them. THIS TIME we want to do it right…looking at penetrating oil or wax. Learned probably penetrating oil might be best. I understand there are hard finish oils that already have the stain in them….can you give us your advice. We want to stain with a grey tone this time (no browns). Thanks. We need help!

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      Hi Bob and Kathy,

      Thanks for your question.

      Penetrating oils are fine finishes. They do require maintenance to keep them looking their best as well as helping them perform properly. These are non-film forming finishes. Our concern would be the scratches and marks seen in the previous finish (not sure what it was). We would be afraid this activity would scratch the actual wood since these finishes do not form a film.

      Thanks again,
      The CFS Team

  13. Jim Hayes

    Hi, I removed wall to wall carpeting in a home i bought a few years ago. The wood flooring looks sound but I have no clue what the finish is. Of course it needs a good cleaning. I can’t clean it without knowing what was used to finish it. I tried scraping a tiny spot with a coin to see if wax build up on coin to see if wax finish. I tried a few other things but the bottom line is if I rub my hand over the wood i can feel the texture and the grain. This leads me to believe its not polyurethane or wax. The home is about 60 years old. Was it common to use oil finishes that long ago? Is there a way I can tell if its oil other then the coin scrape test and running my hand over it test? And the most important question is what can i use to clean it if it is oil? I read use vinegar plus water or water and some dish soap. I know if I use the wrong thing on the wrong coating I will dull it at the very least. I just want to get the years of carpet dust and dirt off so I can access the situation and see if its good to go or if it needs reoiling. I did find a few spots where the wood was dark I believe from pet disasters through the carpet but I used some hydrogen peroxide on those spots and it did a great job of foaming killing the bacteria and lightened the wood so it blends in perfectly. I have a strong sensitivity to petroleum products and finishes so I prefer to clean it as naturally as I can. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.

  14. kurt steele

    I’ve got new white eastern pine flooring in a cabin I will be selling soon. My goals are

    1. keep it as close to natural white color as possible
    2. add some durability – I’m fine with the dents and dings that come with soft wood
    3. prevent yellowing
    4. be able to tell a buyer the floor won’t be hard to redo to their own staining / finishing taste

    What’s my best option, a penetrating oil or a water based poly? Poly just sands off but the the oil seems irreversible.

  15. Aldwin Graham

    Thank you for sharing. Flooring finishes have relied heavily on those volatile petroleum-distillate-based solvents that keep the solids and resins in solution until applied but evaporate quickly to allow the finish to dry and cure in a reasonable time.

  16. Tom Gober

    We are restoring a home and just installed a parquet floor. We do not want a polyurethane finish and prefer a penetrating oil finish. We prefer the matter finish plus we have dogs and like the fact that repairs are easy. Is there a brand that you recommend…we live in Ohio.

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      There are several brands of penetrating oil finishes currently on the market and for sale on cityfloorsupply.com. The Tung oil style product from Waterlox is available in a satin sheen. This is considered a non-film forming finish. The other styles are usually referred to as European Hardening Oils. The manufacturers of these are Rubio, Woca, and Bona Kemi. They are a much lower sheen than the Waterlox satin, however they will require more maintenance. Hope this helps.

  17. Daren

    Hello- is possible to re-oil floors without sandingthat were installed unfinished less than a year ago but not enough oil and/or dry time was allotted? No shoes have been worn in the house so not much wear on floors at all. The original oil used was Woca diamond white and we are thinking of re-oiling with Woca Diamond Active White .

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      Hello Daren,

      The recommendation is to Wood Clean the floors first, let that dry overnight and then apply Diamond Active White over the original Diamond Oil White. You’ll find the Diamond active to have a little more odor and possibly give a the floor a little more luster. Give the floor about 24 hrs before any light foot traffic.

    2. City Floor Supply Post author

      Hi Daren,

      The recommendation from Woca is to wood clean the floor, allow it to dry overnight, and re-oil with same color.


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