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What You Need to Know About Floor Finishes

Learn about wood floor finishes

Choosing the right type of wood floor finish is as important as choosing the right type of wood species, or wooden floor in general. It all depends on your requirements, aesthetic preferences, lifestyle, needs and desires. As it is pretty individual for every project, the best approach you can do, when deciding on finish application (for unfinished floors) or refinishing is having your floor inspected by an experienced professional and get a recommendation about the best opportunities in terms of wood floor sealing you have. It is not rocket science and you do not have to be a professional on the subject to make a wise and beneficial choice, which will save you a lot of nerves, energy and money. All you have to do it continue reading our candid and easy-to-understand guide to the main sorts of wood floor finishes and you will gain enough basic knowledge to help you make the right choice!

What Does A Wood Floor Finish Stands For?

Solvent-based lacquer from Junckers

Envision your wood floor’s finish as the invisible barrier on top of the wooden surface that protects not only the surface but the whole wooden structure from everything in its environment that could affect it negatively. The results of the aggressive environment and aggressive agents include scratches, dents and scuffs, chipped finish and gaps between the boards, discolouration, dulling or fading of the natural wood’s colour, premature drying of the wood due to excessive exposure to sunlight or heat, etc. The function of the wood floor finish is to protect the bare wood from all these surrounding destructive factors wood has a negative response to, to prevent major issues and to preserve the natural colour, texture and overall condition of the wood.

How Many Types Of Wood Floor Finish Are Out There?

The best time to plan the application of wood floor finish is right after installation, in case your floor is unfinished, which means that it comes straight out of the factory/manufacturer without any protective coat applied, or right after sanding, once the old layer of finish is removed and the surface of the bare wood is evened out and smooth. In case you consider staining, staining comes first and finishing is the last step. There are many wood floor finish available on today’s industrial market, and all of them are divided into three main groups – shellac, varnish and lacquer. Shellac is a natural product with really low toxicity, however, it does not have the hard-wearing and long-lasting power of other options. Varnishes are called all oil-based finishes penetrating the wood’s structure, best known out of them being linseed and tung oils. Lacquer is the group of the wax-based finishes that are commonly the most natural solutions with less toxic agents.

What Is Polyurethane?

If you know at least a bit about wood floor finishes, perhaps polyurethane is a term familiar to you because it is often mentioned in various online articles and guides dedicated to the topic. It might get a bit too intimidating and confuse with adding polyurethane to the mix because by now we already have three groups of finishes and you don’t know where polyurethane fits into. Don’t worry, because we are here to bring some clarity! In general, polyurethane is not exactly a type of finish, this is why it does not belong to any of the three main finish groups.

Polyurethane is considered as an ingredient that, when dry, forms a plastic resin layer on top of the wooden floor and that way offers unbeatable, hard-wearing and long-lasting protection. This is why polyurethane is still considered as a finish, despite some differences with the three groups of finishes. Thanks to the superior qualities and power of polyurethane, it is one of the most popular choices among clients and customers. In case you are already thinking of polyurethane as the best option for your wooden floor refinishing, let us dig a little deeper and discuss the two main groups of polyurethane finish – oil-based and water-based.

Oil-Based | Solvent Based Polyurethane

Applying water-based floor finish


When it comes to wood flooring aesthetics, it is all very individual and a question of personal taste. What oil-based polyurethane can offer is more colour depth and shine, which is what of the wood floor owners would expect from a refinished wooden floor to look like. However, it is important to mention one downside – over time oil-based polyurethane tends to get darker and yellowish, which might not be your cup of tea, so make sure to choose wisely and keep in mind any long-term possibilities.


Oil-based polyurethane can be crowned the most hard-wearing and durable finishing option out there, more durable than the water-based alternative too. Oil-based polyurethane contains a considerable amount of VOCs, which are chemicals that help the finish to last in a very long run and a great resistance to scratches, heat and moisture. With that being said, oil-based polyurethane will require way fewer reapplications and repairs than other options.


If you are on a tighter budget and you want to save some pennies, oil-based polyurethane is the way to go, because it is lower in price than the water-based alternative. Considering its long-lasting power, the oil-based option is also a good investment in the long term and cut the cost even more significantly. Besides, with oil-based (solvent) polyurethane you need fewer coats for achieving an opaque and uniform coverage than with a water-based finish.

Health Concerns

One of the biggest downsides of the solvents is the health concerns linked to them. Because of the higher VOC content in those types of wood floor finishes, they are considered to be the less natural and less healthy alternative. Prolonged exposure to those chemicals can lead to several health issues and conditions occurring and also provoke allergies. However, this does not stop you from deciding on polyurethane with all its benefits, because the major part of the toxic chemicals are released as fumes during the floor installation process and within a few weeks after.

In order to have peace of mind, ensure very good ventilation in the room, where the floor is installed and treated, however, do keep in mind that oil-based solvents are known for their long curing time, which means that it takes significantly longer for the oil-based finish to dry completely and the VOC off-gassing to be completed. So if you don’t have all this time on hand, perhaps the water-based polyurethane option would be better for you.

Buy Solvent Based Floor Lacquers

Water-Based Polyurethane

Wood floor finish


When it comes to water-based finishes, the time they need to dry completely is significantly reduced compared to the oil-based alternatives. In the best case, you can get along with 24 hours until you can walk on the treated floor, 2 days for bringing in the furniture and 2 weeks for complete drying. However, keep into account that perfect conditions mean indoor humidity of 45%, good ventilation, air temperature no less than 21 degrees Celsius (70F). Additionally, the drying time starts being counted once the last layer of product is applied and you need to allow additional curing time in between each layer of product. The more coats you want, the more you have to wait.


Both oil-based and water-based polyurethane finishes have a strong odour and there is no way to get away with this fact. Strong odour not only disrupts your day-to-day life but can also be dangerous for your health, as you are inhaling chemicals. However, since water-based polyurethane contains less VOCs, the odour is less strong.

Health Concerns 

One of the biggest advantages of water-based poly over the oil-based alternative is the significantly lower amount of VOCs, which leads to less amount of harmful fumes and a faster off-gassing period thanks to the faster curing.


Unlike oil-based poly, water-based polyurethane does not change colour intensity with time, neither becomes yellow. This pretty much makes it the only best option for crisp white or grey-toned wooden floors, because the finish won’t affect the original colour.

Buy Water-Based Floor Lacquers

In Conclusion

Foor finishing product

As you can see, choosing between all wood floor finish options is a subject of personal preferences, time, budget, health concerns, aesthetic preferences, individual requirements and needs and is completely up to you. The main thing we can recommend to you is always do thorough research before making a final decision and asking for professional advice, depending on your project and case.

To summarize:

Water-based Polyurethane:

  • Takes less time to dry completely
  • Contains less dangerous VOCs and weaker odour
  • Does not change the wood’s colour over time
  • Is easy to apply
  • Is less durable
  • Is more expensive

Oil-based Polyurethane:

  • Takes longer to dry completely
  • Has a higher VOCs concentration and a stronger odour
  • Can become yellow or change wood floor colour’s intensity over time
  • Is easy to apply
  • Is cheaper
  • Is very hard-wearing and long-lasting

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London, NW2 7HW
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