Ultimate Guide to Hardwood Flooring

Wood Finishes

Satin and glossy finishes

A finish is a top coat that will protect your floor from everyday wear and tear. The finish is also what gives the floor its color and luster. Finishes are a great way to personalize your hardwood floors. Whether you like light-colored wood or dark, a satin finish or high-gloss, the options are endless.

When considering finishes, you need to decide whether you want to apply it yourself or buy pre-finished flooring. Pre-finished flooring offers a wide variety of wood species and saves hours of labor and cleanup, while unfinished wood floors allow you to have a customized finish. Though pre-finished flooring can cost as much as $1.50 more per square foot than unfinished, it may save you some mistakes. You also get an extended factory finish warranty with pre-finished floors. Regardless of whether you opt for pre-finishing or finishing the floor yourself, you will need to know what types of finishes are available.


There are two kinds of hardwood finishes: surface finishes and penetrating finishes.

Surface Finishes

Surface finishes are the most popular kind. They require a stain to achieve the desired color and then a top coat of polyurethane or varnish for protection. Surface finishes are easy to maintain and quite durable. The four surface finishes are:

  • Oil-Based Urethane - The most common surface finish, oil-based urethane is applied in two or three coats and is available in gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens. The downside to this type of finish is the drying time -- up to 8 hours for each coat. You will also need adequate ventilation. And, keep in mind that oil-based urethane finishes do yellow with age.
  • Water-Based Urethane - A good option for the DIY-er, this finish dries quickly and cleans up easily with soap and water. Water-based urethane has less odor than oil-based urethane and doesn't yellow over time.
  • Moisture-Cured Urethane - Slightly more durable than others, this finish is most often used on commercial projects and is best handled by a professional.
  • Conversion Varnish - Because of the strong odor and fumes, this finish should only be applied by a professional.

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes penetrate the wood deeper than surface finishes. The finish soaks into the wood and then a wax is applied to give a low-gloss sheen. With this finish, wax needs to be reapplied periodically and only certain cleaners can be used on the floor. For this reason, surface finishes may be a better bet for the non-professional installer.

Next, as if there weren't enough options already, you also have to select the sheen of your finish. Sheen is the shine of the floor. You can choose from high gloss (very shiny), low gloss or satin finish.

Though high-gloss finishes look professional, they show scratches more easily. Low-gloss or satin finishes are typically used in residential hardwood floor installations. Keep in mind that if you go with pre-finished flooring, you will need to make the finishing decisions when you order the product.