“What is the best finish to use on hardwood floors?”
Every day. We get this question every single day.
And if we thought there was a perfect finish for everything, we would sell just one. But it’s not that simple. You need the best hardwood floor finish for YOU, which means you need choices.
So Pete’s has narrowed down our recommendations to a short list of well-tested, user-friendly options.
The best finish for slippery stairs might not be the one that works for your c.1900 quartersawn oak floor. The right finish for you you will depend on your priorities: how you want your floor to look, how long you expect your maintenance interval to be, and how much you want to spend.
You just need a little help filtering through your needs and wants to choose the best hardwood floor finish for your situation.
But you may be surprised to find it wasn’t the product you thought you wanted.
Let’s start with some common floor finish openers from our customers.
Do any of these resonate with you?
“I don’t want any finish at all – an uncoated, raw floor is the most natural and beautiful.”
Please, let’s all just accept the fact that your interior wood floors need protection.
Raw wood absorbs water and dirt like a sponge. And don’t even think about what happens if someone walks in the house with dog poop on their shoes. There needs to be SOMETHING between you and the wood.
In the above photo, the floor had a finish, but it was worn off by wear at the high-traffic entry. The raw wood just kept accepting more and more dirt until it looked like this. This dirt doesn’t wash out – it settles deep in the wood grain and will have to be sanded out. No, not hand-sanded.
But wait – some finishes actually do look like raw wood.
While still relatively unheard of here in the US, there is a class of finishes that has been used for decades in Europe known as hard-wax oils or hardened oils. These finishes do not contain plastics. They take advantage of what many oils do automatically, which is to turn into a semi-solid after exposure to oxygen.
Look at the spot on your pantry shelf where you keep your cooking oil – you’ll see that the wood is darker and harder there. Well, these modern finishes start as pure linseed, tung, or soybean oil, but are engineered and tempered to cure much harder and faster than that. Some have added waxes (usually carnauba and beeswax) to create a further barrier to wear and liquids.
Because the solids form after the oil is absorbed into the wood, there is no film and no sheen. These finishes leave wood as close to its natural uncoated state, while still preventing damage from foot-soil and blueberries.
Pallmann Magic Oil is designed as a two-layer finish, but there are some woods that will be protected in one coat. But the effect is one of near invisible protection.
“I just want the floor to look like my grandma’s house…you know, a golden, shiny waxed floor.”
We can do that, we just don’t recommend you use wax to achieve it.
Wood floors in early part of the 20th century were frequently maintained with highly burnished paste wax over shellac or lacquer.
While that combination looked good, it wasn’t very protective and needed constant rewaxing and polishing.
But DuraSeal oil-based polyurethanes are an excellent modern workaround.
Duraseal delivers that rich depth and warmth, especially on oak floors, but are far more protective against water and wear than wax.
Oil-based polyurethanes have been around since the early 1950s, and their technology hasn’t changed much, so these aren’t our first choice if your main concern is floor protection; these finishes perform acceptably, but modern commercial waterborne finishes are now tougher. We primarily sell DuraSeal because it is the easiest way to get the amber look that customers associate with more traditional hardwood floors.
These finishes are dissolved in mineral spirits, so the VOC levels are high and linger for up to two weeks as the finish cures. And these finishes, while tough, have been surpassed in strength by contemporary waterborne finishes.
Another option for that old-world look is Waterlox tung-oil based finishes.
Waterlox specializes in high-quality old-school varnishes, built from tung oil and phenolic resins, but the look they deliver is deep amber and beautiful.
The drawback, as with oil-modified polyurethanes, is the amount of petro-solvent they push into your house, but Waterlox has developed some alternative sealer coats that help to reduce that.
“Ugh, I have to get rid of the orange on these floors.”
Yes, there miles upon miles of hardwood floors that were coated with amber, oil-based finishes in the late 1980s and early 90s.
But the trends have turned and people are anxious to “un-orange” their interiors. This is easily done by sanding your floors back to bare – the orange is created by yellow in the finish over the pink tones of red oak – and choosing a waterborne polyurethane to protect your floors instead.
Modern waterborne finishes rely on non-yellow urethanes and acrylic solids that leave wood much lighter and more modern looking. Early waterborne finishes from the early 1980s did struggle with quality, but 21st century waterbornes are chemical engineering triumphs of tough protection and ease of application with minimal odor.
We carry three different brands of water-based polyurethane to cover every possible wood floor need:
Vermont Natural Coatings PolyWhey – least petro-chemical dependent with easy application. Also the only brand family to have an interior UV protective sealer that prevents even the slight yellowing that is caused by sun exposure on wood floor finishes.
Pallmann – easiest application with a deep product selection. They carry two versions of the popular white sealers that give wood that nude, uncoated look, as well as the most cost-effective 2-component commercial finish that is also accessible to the DIYer.
Bona – the first patent-holder in the waterborne floor coating industry and still well-respected, but the company itself is still very biased toward professional floor sanders- they feel their products are too difficult for first-time users. So we continue to stock this brand for our full-service contracting work. We are happy to sell it to DIYers, but it is not a line we promote heavily because both Pallmann and VNC have products that can outperform Bona for lower cost and hassle.
“I don’t care what my floor looks like, as long as it’s not shiny.”
“I don’t want my floor to look plastic.”
“This wood floor needs to look like nothing is on it, not even a matte sheen.”
Well, we have good news.
Almost all modern waterborne AND oil-based finishes come in a wide range of gloss levels, so you should never be stuck with a shiny floor. In fact, current trends are for much less shiny floors, so it can be challenging to find gloss versions of most products because they don’t bother making as much. Vermont Natural Coatings, Pallmann, Bona, DuraSeal, and Waterlox all carry products in multiple sheens.
Know the sheen spectrum.
The available sheen spectrum in most polyurethane product lines goes like this: gloss, semi-gloss, satin, and matte, with gloss being the most shiny, and matte being the least.
Sheens vary by brand.
Keep in mind that the actual glossiness of a “satin” sheen can vary between brands! But also keep in mind that the matte sheen might not be the least plastic-looking. Hear me out.
The default sheen for most coating products is full gloss. In order to make the coats less shiny, they have to add a lot of mineral diffusers that, when they dry on the surface of your floor, scatter light so the surface appears more dull. But those flatteners can also look slightly hazy and opaque, especially in the matte versions where you need more of them. So, for our money, a satin finish tends to look the least shiny, but also the least artificial.
But, wait, there’s more. It is true that modern finishes – the kind that build layers of plastic over the wood that allow you to see the wood but not feel it- are plastic. This is slightly problematic because, over time, that plastic, however clear it was in the beginning, does “dinge” or yellow slightly. Fine scratches in the top layer can look hazy and dirty, even when clean.
You can protect your wood floors without building up layers.
But in Europe, they have had a class of floor finish for decades know as “hard-wax oil” or “hardened oil” that somehow manage to protect wood floors without building up layers over the wood. In the past 15 years, these finishes have become increasingly popular in the US because they deliver that silky matte, no-build, almost invisible protection.
We carry two brands of this kind of finish, Rubio Monocoat and Pallmann Magic Oil. They are gorgeous and easy to apply. They resist solvents and wear. But this form of wood protection does not come from layers of plastic over the wood; it comes from a layer of oil hardening into the very top layer of the wood. this is mind-blowing and revolutionary because it does not need solvents or petrochemical-based plastics to protect wood – the oil ITSELF hardens enough to protect. But because of this is a much thinner material, it requires a mindset change that embraces regular maintenance.
Hardwax or hardwax-oil floors have to be booster-coated every one to three years to maintain their appearance and protection level. This doesn’t mean they are inferior. In fact, we believe that a well-maintained Rubio floor improves with wear and maintenance in a way that polyurethane never will. But you have to actually do the work. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff for sure, but you need to know that before diving in.
“I want a gym-floor finish because they last forever.”
“Those old toxic finishes were stinky, but they protected better than that modern crap.”
We will acknowledge a tiny bit of truth is these chestnuts..
There is a class of finish known as “moisture-cured” polyurethane that is demonstrably tougher than anything made today. But moisture-cured finishes have fallen out of favor because they give off formaldehyde as they cure and you can’t even keep food in your cupboards as it’s drying in your home. Sadly, we know many flooring professionals who died tough, early deaths through exposure to products like this.
We get it – you want a tough finish. You went through all this effort to sand your floors and you never want to do it again!
But you can protect your floor responsibly. We can assure you that three layers of a modern, 2-component waterborne polyurethane like Pallmann Pall-X Gold, or Bona Traffic HD, or even the single component PolyWhey3500 will wear like armor without harming you or your installer.
And the belief that gym sealers are somehow magically better than other floor finishes needs to be debunked. The reason gym floors look good is that custodians baby those floors, and don’t allow outdoor shoes on them. Also, they get recoated over the summer when you’re not looking. If you took care of your floors like that, they would look amazing as well.
“I’m eight months pregnant, so I have to get the baby’s room coated, like, yesterday.”
“I want to coat my floor, but I’m so sensitive to all those chemicals.”
We hear you and have two great options.
If you really are pregnant, DO NOT MESS AROUND. The only products we can sell you are either Rubio Monocoat or Pallmann Magic Oil because they have no solvents to evaporate through your space and through you.
Like we mentioned above, these hardwax oil finishes are not for everyone because they take more disciplined maintenance, but if you need to get that nursery coated now, this is your choice and you should embrace it.
The good news is that Rubio and Pallmann come in multiple colors, so the floor will be beautiful AND safe.
For sensitive people.
If you are just generally sensitive to petroleum-derived solvents or are worried about even the very small amounts of mutagenic and reprotoxic effects of the crosslinkers they use in waterborne polyurethanes, then the whole Vermont Natural Coatings product line is your jam.
Without any compromise to performance or ease of use, the PolyWhey line has replaced all of its solvents with whey proteins that are the by-products of the cheesemaking industry.
If they can do it better without the side-effects, why would you bother with anything else? Exactly.
“I have this floor photo from Houzz that I love and I have to match it exactly.”
Please do not be offended, but you are bat-poop crazy if you think you are going to match anything.
Coloring wood with accuracy is a gift from the heavens and very few flooring professionals have it. And they are worth paying to do it for you.
It is a goal not worth pursuing.
Because it means staining your wood before you apply protection, which means sanding your wood so perfectly, so flawlessly that you can’t even tell it was sanded. Because it means finding the color with testing and hoping it still matches when you scale it up to the whole floor.
I guarantee you this will lead to tears and at least one resanding. Click the button to read our article on why I will talk you out of stain.
Pete’s Bonus Tips
Get a one-on-one phone consultation with a hardwood flooring expert.
For a small fee of $25, we can provide the wisdom and knowledge that you need to complete your hardwood flooring project.
When you don’t know what you need to do next, that’s when it’s time to call Pete’s Hardwood Floors Help Hotline.
An actual flooring contractor will answer all of your questions!
We have a crack staff with a range of specialties, from carpentry through floor machine maintenance, and we can troubleshoot just about any hardwood flooring mystery thrown our way.
If you are stuck or struggling with your hardwood floor project, one call could save you hours in the long run.