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Varying Types And Sheens Of Hardwood Floor Finishes

After a quarter of a century in the wood floor industry, we have seen a lot of unusual floors. As is always the case with all things interior design, trends come and go. Some trends are easier to change than others. And varying types and sheens of hardwood floor finishes are stunning, convenient, and won’t cost as much as some of the other trends we’ve seen.


There are many different types and brands of finish a Certified Professional can apply, which include but are not limited to water based finishes, wax finishes, oil based finishes, and natural oils. But the fundamental differences are whether the finish forms a film (oil based polyurethane finish, water based polyurethane) or penetrates the wood (linseed oil, tung oil, penetrating oils).


Both types of finishes have advantages/disadvantages and different drying times. Some hardwood floor finishes also have safety concerns with their application that need to be fully explained to the client, such a swedish finishes and moisture cure. This is where the concept of varying them over one floor comes into play.


This carved African Mahogany stair landing is finished with both film-forming finish (applied to the flat areas) and penetrating oils (applied to the raised carved art). Film-forming finishes like oil based polys or water based polyurethanes protect the wood by forming a coating that seals as a top layer over it, dries quickly, and are extremely durable. One advantage is durability, particularly with a two-component water-based polyurethane. Adding the catalyst or cross-linking (or hardening component) makes it a commercial-grade finish. Another advantage is the range of sheens on the market, from high gloss to ultra-matte. When hiring a contractor to apply film-forming finish, be sure the contractor is applying three coats for a lasting build to handle the wear and tear of shoe traffic.

Side note: We highly recommend matte sheens to our clients, especially when they have kids and dogs. Why? Finish indentations from pet claw marks or a dropped or dragged toy are less visible. This is due to the lower reflectivity of a matte sheen.


Penetrating finishes like linseed or tung oil protect the wood by bonding to it at a molecular level. Indentations in film-forming finish can be obvious, especially with a higher sheen. But, depending on the wood and the physics behind the mark, penetrating oil can be a little more forgiving. The warm and raw feel of wood when finished with penetrating oil convinced several of our clients to add wood flooring in their bedrooms, which makes for a much floors cleaner and less allergenic space than carpeted rooms. Great for those with health concerns. Most penetrating finishes have no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) and no gassy smells. In fact, we use them as perfume! (Kidding—making sure you’re paying attention)


Both types of finishes can be found in matte sheens and both contain very little VOC. They can both usually be cleaned by the same type of cleaner. Each type of finish has a different maintenance program. This is a game-changer for some of our clients.


Maintenance for any type of wood floor is important to extend the life and aesthetics of the floor. Many people, who live in homes with hardwood flooring, hear the expression: maintenance coat or screen and coat. A full sanding and finishing is required in order to change color, texture, mitigate water or moisture damage, and eliminate scratches down to the raw wood. This is the case whether you use a film-forming polyurethane or a penetrating oil. The color, texture, and any existing damage doesn’t change. Some existing indentations may be filled in and the sheen can (and likely will) change.


When a Certified Professional wood flooring contractor applies a maintenance coat to a film-forming finish, he abrades the top coat of polyurethane and adds a fresh coat of polyurethane to the entire wood floor all at once. When a Certified Professional wood flooring contractor is hired to maintain a wood floor that is impregnated with penetrating oil, he can buff the oil into traffic areas without moving furniture or rugs, making it easy to apply and less invasive. Many of our homeowners who enjoy large furnishings and pianos don’t need to worry about hiring movers and appreciate the convenient maintenance of penetrating oil.


We decided to apply two different types of finish on this homeowner’s second floor. Now, when they hire a professional to maintain the finish applied to the red oak in their upstairs hall and bedrooms, they won’t need to move as much furniture as they would with a film-forming finish. The master bedroom stands out from the rest with a low-sheen, water-based polyurethane over hickory. Because there isn’t much traffic in their bedroom, the polyurethane should last a long time. The difference in color is dramatic but the difference in sheen and type of finish gives the floor even more of a unique aesthetic and makes the red oak border look even more intentional.


Want To Try It?

Ask your National Wood Flooring Association Certified Professional for dry and cure times for both finish applications. You can access your wood floors once they’re dry. But in order to prevent damage, we highly recommend not placing rugs and furniture on the floors and keeping pets away until the finish is fully hardened or cured. The good news is that most modern finishes cure within 24-48 hours. Before you commit to hire a wood floor professional, be sure you know the extent of the dry and cure time so you’re not surprised at the end of the project!

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