How to Choose a Polyurethane Finish for Hardwood Floors

Selecting a hardwood flooring finish made easy.
How to Choose a Polyurethane Finish for Hardwood Floors Image

Polyurethane and hardwood floors are a match made in woodworking heaven. Hardwood floors are timeless, fit in almost any design, and are reliable.

However, they are not indestructible, so it is important to know how to choose a polyurethane finish for hardwood floors. The right polyurethane will provide protection for years from water, dents, scratches, and weird stuff that come out of pets… and babies (I’m just being honest).

The good thing about polyurethane is that you can’t really make a wrong choice, as it can easily be refinished, but let’s see if we can help you get it right the first time.

Type of Polyurethane Finishes for Hardwood Floors

There are two major types of polyurethane finishes:

  • Water-based polyurethane
  • Oil-based polyurethane. 

There are a few other hybrid options, such as oil-modified water-based polyurethane. But it’s still just a water-based poly.

Both types of polyurethane do precisely the same thing and provide the same level of protection. Yes, back then, water-based polyurethane wasn’t as durable, but that has changed.

While oil-based and water-based are often interchangeable, there are some important differences that will influence your choice of finish.

Types of Polyurethane Finish

The options for polyurethane finishes include:

  • Matte
  • Satin
  • Semi-gloss
  • High gloss.

So let’s discuss each one in detail;

High gloss

High gloss is the most common polyurethane finish. A high-gloss finish will have a shiny, wet look to it when applied with polyurethane. It has the highest gloss rating of all.

Not often used on hardwood floors because it is very slippery. You are more like to see it on specialty wood species such as exotic hardwood floors or accent borders.

It is notorious for showing every imperfection and is therefore not suitable for high-traffic areas or families with children and pets.


A matte finish is not shiny at all. It provides a subtle, but noticeable difference in appearance from flat paint. Matte polyurethane can be used on most flooring types like hardwood floors, tiles wood laminate etc… This is usually an “in-between” finish that is not used often.


A satin finish provides a subtle sheen with less glare than high gloss finishes. It is the best choice for hardwood floors and won’t show imperfections as much as high-gloss polyurethane will. A drawback to it though is if you have pets or small children, this finish could show scratches while matte polyurethane would not.


A semi-gloss provides the most durable protection for wood floors with moderate shine. It is a nice middle ground between high gloss and satin finishes in that it will protect your hardwood floor but also provide you with moderate shine.

How to Choose a Polyurethane Finish for Your Hardwood Floors

1. Color of the Polyurethane

The main difference between these two types is:

  • Oil-based polyurethane has a yellowish or amber tint, and it becomes more yellow over time.
  • Water-based polyurethane dries and remains clear.

When choosing a polyurethane finish, you need to think about how the color will affect your hardwood. You should ideally choose oil-based polyurethane for darker woods. If you have white paint on the floors, water-based polyurethane will maintain that color.

However, these are not hard and fast rules because you might want that variety. For example, even though maple is a light-colored wood, it still looks great covered in oil-based polyurethane.

It really does depend on your design scheme at the end of the day. But if you don’t want to see any changes over time, stick with water-based polyurethane.

2. Cost

I intentionally put this second because many people want to prioritize projects based on costs, but that is a mistake. You need to decide on how you want your floors to look over time before looking at prices.

The reason is that oil-based polyurethanes are cheaper than water-based polyurethane. Choosing the cheaper option won’t be helpful if you don’t want a yellow tint on your hardwood floors.

However, if you don’t mind or are using dark wood, then it’s fair game, especially when working on a large project. If you need to coat the floors all over your house, in a gymnasium, or some other large area, the best water-based polyurethane finish for floors will do the job.

3. Drying Time

Another important factor to consider is the time constraint of the project. If you need a quick turnaround, then you should go with a product with a quick dry time. The winner in this category is water-based polyurethane.

Water-based polyurethane can be ready for a second coat in as little as two hours, unlike oil-based polyurethane that needs 24 hours. Even fast-drying oil-based polyurethane needs at least 4 hours, but these are slightly more expensive than the regular stuff.

After you have applied the final coat, water-based polyurethane will cure in 1 to 3 days. On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane needs about two weeks to cure properly.

4. Ease of Application

This is kind of a tricky one to gauge. Technically speaking, and I’ll explain what I mean, water-based polyurethanes are easier to apply in a minute. Both types of polyurethane are applied the same way, with just some minor differences.

For example, you need a different type of brush, the thinning agents are different, and the wait times are also distinct.

What makes water-based polyurethane easier to apply is that you don’t always need to sand between coats. Let me rephrase that: most manufacturers say you don’t need to sand between coats.

As long as the hardwood floors don’t have any dust, you can apply another coat of water-based polyurethane without sanding. That is a huge time-saver and cost-cutter if you know how long you should wait between coats of polyurethane on hardwood floors.

However, water-based polyurethane tends to raise the grain of the wood, so you need to apply more coats than oil-based poly to get a smooth finish. Three coats of oil-based polyurethane are all you need, whereas you can apply as many as seven coats of water-based polyurethane.

If there are bubbles, dust nibs, or flint in the water-based polyurethane, you will need to sand as standard, which then makes it a more difficult finish to apply. 

5. Odor

As random as this might seem, you will be spending hours or even days applying this finish, so it is important to pay attention to this.

Water-based polyurethane doesn’t have much of an odor and emits considerably less volatile organic compounds (VOCs), making it better for your health and the environment.

Oil-based polyurethane, on the other hand, is a very stinky product! You need to wear a respirator when applying this. And yes, it releases higher VOCs, making it more harmful to the environment.

6. Luster or Type of Finish

Another thing that may affect your decision is the level of gloss or luster you want. Both water-based and oil-based polyurethane come in matte, satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss.

As you would imagine, these different grades pop more with oil-based polyurethane. While you can use any of these, matte and high-gloss are not common options for hardwood floors that see a lot of traffic. A high-gloss water-based finish will reveal scratches and scrapes easily.

Oil-based polyurethane looks excellent in satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss, thus giving it a slight advantage.

What Kind of Polyurethane Should you Use on Hardwood Floors?

As you can see, knowing how to choose a polyurethane finish for hardwood floors is a straightforward process. You need to determine how you want your floors to look, your budget, the time frame you are working with, and your feelings about odors and the environment.

To help make your decision easier, we have written a roundup review of the best water-based polyurethane for hardwood floors and the best water-based polyurethane for hardwood floors.

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