Guide to Choosing the Right Hardwood Finish
Color, wood species and style are all important decisions that go into choosing a hardwood floor. The finish of the floor is also important, however, when considering things like durability, how long the finish will last, and how easy it is to re-apply whether you’re installing a solid, unfinished hardwood or a prefinished engineered floor, the material used in finishing the floor can be just as important as the wood itself.
The terms “urethane” and “polyurethane” are often used interchangeably, and they refer to any one of a group of finishes that contain a polymerizing carabamic compound. A urethane finish is flexible, durable, and non-toxic, although some types may give off high levels of VOCs, which can produce a strong smell for several days. There are three types of urethane used on wood flooring:
Oil-based urethane is the most common and least expensive. It takes the longest amount of time to dry, and may become yellow with age. It also produces a strong smell for a few days after applying, so between that and the curing time, homeowners may need to relocate for a few days after it’s applied.
Water based urethane is more expensive but easier to apply and faster to cure. It has fewer VOCs and therefore less of an odor. DIY homeowners may choose this option because of its ease of use. It’s also less likely to yellow over time, but it’s less durable than oil-based urethane and may need to be refinished more often.
Moisture-cured urethane is most commonly used in commercial spaces applications, but is also good for high-traffic households because it’s so durable. It dries very quickly, so you can apply several coats in one day, but it also gives off high levels of VOCs and must be professionally applied.
For those looking to install prefinished flooring, aluminum oxide is a great choice. It’s only available on prefinished floors, and cannot be refinished, but it’s exceptionally durable and long lasting. Because it’s a factory applied finish, there are little to no VOCs or odors given off at time of installation, and no waiting time for the homeowners who may want to move back in quickly.
You may not realize it, but shellac is a completely natural, non-toxic material made from the resin of the lac bug. This is one of the oldest and easiest to use finishes around, as well as the only natural finish available at this time. It’s a good product for refinishing older hardwood floors, as you can spot treat small areas with it easily. It’s very easy to work with, as well as inexpensive making it a good choice for DIY home remodelers. It cannot be combined with urethane finishes, however, due to the wax content, so always make sure the floor being refinished is already coated in shellac. This finish is less durable than urethane and aluminum oxide, though, so it will need to be reapplied every few years to help the wood maintain its beauty and surface.
For exotic hardwoods or inlaid hardwoods, you may want to consider the acid-cured or Swedish finish. This exceptionally strong and durable finish dries very quickly, although it takes up to 60 days to cure completely. It’s one of the most expensive options and can only be applied by flooring professionals, as it’s difficult to work with. Once you choose an acid-cured finish for the floor, it can only be refinished using this method again – no switching to something easier down the road. It also gives off very high levels of VOCs, so it may be a better choice for new construction or floors in homes where the occupants can leave for a few days.
DIY home remodelers who have never refinished a floor before may want to try a penetrating oil sealer for their floor. This inexpensive product is very easy to use and has a fairly quick drying time. It also gives off lower levels of VOCs, so there’s less odor to contend with while it dries. It works best on older wood floors that have not had newer finishes like aluminum oxide or urethan applied to it already, but is much less durable, so be prepared to reapply every two to three years to keep the floors in good condition.
Wax is another great choice for older floors or for those who want to do the work themselves, rather than have their floors professionally refinished. Wax is easy to spot treat and apply and has very low odors. It’s also has a very quick drying time, so there’s no need to relocate while the floors are being done.
Acrylic finishes are fairly fast, easy, and can be applied by the homeowner. They’re more durable than oil or shellac finishes, but don’t last as long as urethane, acid-cured, or aluminum oxide. There are many acrylic finishes out there – some have lower levels of VOCs than others, and some are longer lasting. Some acrylic finishes can be applied over an oil sealer, getting the beauty of the oil with a longer lasting top finish. When choosing an acrylic finish, it’s important to find one that will meet the needs of the floor, as there is so much variation between them.
Find the Right Finish
There are several choices to be made with hardwood floors. From solid hardwood flooring vs. engineered to the width, color, and style of the plank, both homeowners and professionals have a lot to choose from. Don’t overlook the finish of the floors as the final step to ensuring the wood’s beauty, durability, and long-lasting style in every application.