One of the main decisions to make when selecting a finish for your hardwood floors or some other wood surfaces is the sheen level. While glossy surfaces may be spectacular to the eye, they are not the ideal choice in some cases.

When it comes to polyurethane finishes, you may have to decide between satin vs semi gloss polyurethane finish as they are the two most popular options. Overall, polyurethane finishes come in matte, satin, semi-gloss, and high gloss options.

This guide will compare these different polyurethane types to help you choose better for your next project.

What is Satin Polyurethane? 

A satin polyurethane forms a finish with a medium to a low sheen that hides dirt and imperfections better than high-gloss finishes.

This subtle luster is due to the higher amount of flattening paste in satin finishes, giving them less glare than a semi-gloss or high-gloss finish. 

This polyurethane finish is ideal for hardwood floors because it will not highlight imperfections more effectively.

In addition, this property makes wooden floors with satin polyurethane easier to maintain than high gloss polyurethane floors. 

Satin Polyurethane Pros and Cons

Pros of satin poly

  • Satin finish is less slippery and may be less prone to slipping-related accidents.
  • Hides dirt and surface imperfections better 
  • Reflects more light than matte polyurethane, which can be more aesthetically appealing to some people
  • Satin finishes are low maintenance 

Cons of satin polyurethane

  • This finish could show scratches more than a matte polyurethane finish
  • Satin finishes are less bolder than semi-gloss paint

What is Semi-Gloss Polyurethane?

This is a polyurethane finish with more sheen than satin and matte finishes. It is, however, less lustrous than a high gloss poly. 

Since a semi-gloss finish offers a moderate shine falling between satin and high gloss finishes, it reflects more light than satin floors. The more lustrous sheen gives such floors a more formal feel that highlights the beauty of the wood. 

Additionally, a semi-gloss poly tends to be highly protective to hardwood floors, so you get good protection and a moderate shine. 

Semi-Gloss Polyurethane Pros and Cons 

Pros

  • Offer more resistance to moisture
  • The finishes have a bold appearance
  • A semi-gloss polyurethane provides highly durable protection for a wood floor.
  • The glossy surface is easy to clean

Cons

  • A semi-gloss poly requires more upkeep than satin and matte finishes because dirt is more visible on the highly reflective surface.
  • Semi-gloss polyurethane finishes are less recommended than satin or matte for households with small children and pets since they allow scuff marks, scratches, or dents to be more noticeable.  

Satin vs Semi Gloss Polyurethane Finish: Side by Side

This section shows how satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes compare in terms of sheen level, durability, VOC levels, practicality, and maintenance. 

Polyurethane satin vs semi-gloss: sheen level 

The sheen level of any finish refers to the amount of light the surface reflects. In this case, high-gloss finishes are the most reflective, followed by semi-gloss, satin, and matte, in that order. 

A high-gloss polyurethane finish has about 70 percent luster. Unfortunately, this sheen level makes this finish very slippery and unideal for homes where it could cause occasional slipping and related accidents.

Think about bowling alleys and gym floors to get the picture of a high gloss finish. A semi-gloss finish has about 55 percent luster, so it falls below high gloss in terms of sheen level or reflectivity.

Semi-gloss paint is ideal for those who prefer the bold appearance of shiny surfaces without the highly slippery feel of gloss polyurethane. While semi-gloss finishes are still significantly shiny, it is practical enough to use in your living spaces. 

A satin finish has approximately 40 percent luster. It is the preferred choice for most household applications and goes well with all shades of wood, from light to dark hardwood floors.

Professionals recommend it, and customers choose it over other options because it is convenient.

Verdict: Semi-gloss is shinier, but satin is more preferred  

Polyurethane satin finish vs semi-gloss: Durability 

There is very little difference in durability between the various polyurethane finishes. For this reason, some people argue that they are technically the same in terms of durability. 

However, an easier way to decide which polyurethane finish is more durable than the other is to consider whether it is waterborne or oil-based.  

An oil-based polyurethane typically lasts longer than a water-based option. As a result, this is an excellent finish for high-traffic areas of the home—making it the actual winner in terms of durability. 

Read more on oil vs water-based polyurethane finish.

Both satin and semi-gloss polyurethane may have the same rating, considering the sheen level. A water-based polyurethane in a semi-gloss finish is just as durable as a water-based poly in a satin finish.

Satin and semi-gloss polyurethane are equally durable since all polyurethane finishes have the same basic formula. Nonetheless, the shinier semi-gloss finish will show damage more visibly over time than the satin alternative. 

While satin and semi-gloss polyurethane will sustain damage over time, satin will better hide the imperfections.

Verdict: It is a tie 

Satin vs semi gloss wood finish: Scratch resistance 

While satin polyurethane generally does better at hiding surface imperfections, sharp objects can dent it more easily than the smoother semi-gloss poly. 

Dents and scratches are more visible on a semi-gloss surface because they reflect light. However, a semi-gloss polyurethane finish will better resist scratches from sharp objects than a satin one. 

Verdict: Semi-gloss poly is the winner  

Polyurethane semi-gloss vs satin: VOC levels 

Since polyurethane finishes have the same basic formula regardless of the sheen level, the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in a satin finish is the same as semi-gloss. 

The VOC levels are only different across different bases. Therefore, a water-based wood finish will generally have lower VOC levels than an oil-based option.

Further, a solvent-based option may contain far more volatile organic compounds than an oil-based product. 

Verdict: It is a tie 

Semi-gloss vs satin polyurethane: Practicality  

Even though a high gloss polyurethane finish is bold and likely more appealing to the eye, it may not be practical to use at home. The shiny surface is highly slippery and may cause accidents frequently.

This explains why high gloss poly is not a popular finish for home applications. On the other hand, a semi-gloss poly is slightly less slippery than a gloss option, hence more popular for homes. 

Satin urethanes tend to be the most preferred option of these finishes. It offers only a slight level of sheen, ideal for living spaces. In other words, it is neither entirely flat in appearance nor too slippery for safe foot traffic. 

Satin urethanes also hide scratches and surface imperfections better. This property makes it a more practical choice than a glossier option. 

Verdict: Satin varnish, paint, or poly is a more practical choice

Semi-gloss vs satin wood finish: maintenance 

The more sheen a polyurethane or any finish has, the more noticeable dirt and debris will show on its surface.

So while satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes may have the same level of dirt at a given time, the shinier semi-gloss surface will appear dirtier. 

The glossier surface reflects more light, making debris and dirt more visible. Footmarks, animal prints, or scuff marks will also be more noticeable, depending on the lighting around the place.

For this reason, a semi-gloss poly will require more maintenance than a satin paint or poly. However, the latter will do a much better job hiding footprints or scuff marks that might have required immediate attention on a glossier surface. 

Notice, however, that cleaning a polyurethane-coated wood surface is hassle-free and straightforward. You only need to use a vacuum cleaner to pick up the debris on the wood surface.

Wipe it with a damp rag or mop to make it sparkling clean. Whether you use a rag or mop, you want to ensure it is not soaked.

The glossy surface will not take up that much water, and you don’t want the excess water seeping into some cracks in the wood as that could cause warping. 

Likewise, getting polyurethane off hands is easy; you only need to apply mineral spirits or denatured alcohol and rub your hands to get it off.

Verdict: Semi-gloss polyurethane requires more maintenance to keep it looking clean and new

Other Sheens

Now that we’re done comparing the finishes – let’s look at other options.

What Is a Gloss Polyurethane?

A gloss or high-gloss polyurethane is the shiniest, with the highest gloss rating of all finishes. This polyurethane finish has about 70 percent luster. You usually find it on gym floors, bowling alleys, and other commercial setups. 

This finish is rarely used on wood floors due to its very slippery nature. However, it is more commonly used on specialty wood species, accent borders, and exotic hardwood flooring. 

In case you are planning on painting over glossy paint easily, here’s how to.

The Pros of a Gloss Polyurethane

  • Gloss poly is highly resistant to staining 
  • It is moisture-resistant
  • The surface is highly durable
  • It is easy to clean 
  • The bold appearance of this surface can brighten up a room or other living spaces.

Cons of gloss polyurethane

  • This finish highlights imperfections the most 
  • The glossy finish makes streaks from cleaning, dust, pet hair, and water spots much more apparent.

What Is a Matte Polyurethane?

Matte polyurethane is the opposite of gloss poly in terms of sheen levels. It has almost no sheen gloss rating with barely any light reflection.  

Because of its flat appearance, mate is not the most popular finish, even though some customers love it. Instead, the preference for a matte finish is mainly due to its excellent ability to hide dirt and surface imperfections. 

The Pros of a Gloss Polyurethane

  • This finish is the best at hiding dirt and other imperfections on the wood surface.
  • It is low maintenance since it does not show dirt and dust easily 
  • It does not reflect light, so it is ideal for people with light sensitivity 
  • It allows the wood color to come out more accurately than glossier polyurethane finishes
  • The finish is less prone to accidents since it is not as slippery as its shinier cousins

Cons of Gloss Polyurethane

  • While matte finishes are durable, they are less moisture-resistant than glossier finishes. 
  • This polyurethane option will likely stain more easily than a semi-gloss or gloss poly finish. 

Comparing Matte, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss Polyurethane

Satin vs Gloss Polyurethane Finish

The sheen level is the main comparison of a satin vs. gloss wood finish. A gloss finish has the highest luster rating, meaning it reflects the most light. On the other hand, satin polyurethane finishes reflect only about half as much light as gloss.

Due to the shiny appearance, gloss finishes tend to be highly slippery and could easily cause accidents related to slipping and falling. 

Satin finishes have a flattening paste added to their formulations, leading to a reduced sheen and smoothness. This property gives satin polyurethane finishes more grip that could reduce the risk of accidents. 

Nevertheless, both satin and gloss polyurethane finishes are highly durable and hold well in high-traffic areas. 

Semi-gloss vs Gloss Polyurethane

Gloss vs semi-gloss polyurethane finishes battle mainly in their levels of shine. The two options follow one another, with gloss being the shiniest of all finishes, followed by a semi-gloss finish.  

Given the high sheen spectrum, gloss polyurethane has exceptional reflective quality and can be uncomfortable for people with light sensitivities. 

People who prefer the bold look of a glossy finish without the drawbacks of gloss polyurethane can find semi-gloss as a good compromise.

However, if the shine is not the most welcome factor for you, satin or matte finishes could represent the ideal set of characteristics for you.

Read: How to Get a High Gloss Finish on Wood

Satin vs Matte Polyurethane

Anyone looking for the lowest sheen level in their polyurethane finish may choose between matte polyurethane and satin.

The matte option has virtually no light reflecting off its surface due to the high levels of flattening paste in its formula. Satin sheens have more flattening paste added, but the amount is comparatively less than in matte.

Therefore, a satin polyurethane will reflect some light while doing an excellent job at hiding surface imperfections and dirt.

Because it represents a perfect compromise between gloss and flat polyurethane finishes, it is generally the most preferred option for residential applications.

Does Polyurethane Affect the Color of a Hardwood Floor?

Polyurethane may or may not affect the paint colors of hardwood flooring based on whether it is a water or oil-based poly.

An oil-based polyurethane has a yellow shade that transfers to the wood floor. When you use an oil-based poly on your hardwood flooring, expect to see an amber tint that becomes more noticeable with time.

If you prefer your wooden floor to have no yellowing effect over time, go for a water-based poly, as it does not affect the color of hardwood flooring.

How to Choose a Polyurethane Finish for Your Hardwood Floors

Many types of polyurethane finishes are available on the market, and choosing the right one for your hardwood floors can be challenging. Here are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a polyurethane finish:

Color of the Polyurethane Finish

The color of the polyurethane finish is important to consider since it will affect the overall appearance of your floors. Some poly finishes are available in various colors, while others are only available in a few shades.

While water-based polyurethane remains clear after drying, oil-based polyurethane turns yellow over time. Therefore, when deciding on a polyurethane finish for your hardwood, consider the color’s impact on the appearance of the wood.

For darker woods, go with oil-based polyurethane. However, use water-based polyurethane to maintain the bright color of your floor.

Still, these aren’t hard and fast rules; you may wish for a wider variety. Maple, for example, may be given a rich color with oil-based polyurethane even though it’s a light-colored wood.

Essentially, it all comes down to your design concept. For example, water-based polyurethane is the best option if you want to maintain the color of your wood floors.

Recommended Reading: What’s the difference between polyurethane and lacquer?

Cost

I have decided to put cost second because most painters and homeowners prioritize their projects depending on the cost, which is wrong. But deciding how you would like your floors to appear is critical.

This is because water-based polyurethanes are more expensive than oil-based polyurethanes. Choosing the cheaper option won’t be helpful if you don’t want a yellow tint on your hardwood floors.

If you’re okay with it or working on a huge project, dark wood is fine. However, for houses, gymnasiums, or other large surfaces, a water-based polyurethane finish will suffice.

Drying Time

Another aspect to consider is the project’s time constraint. If you need something done quickly, go for a fast-drying polyurethane. Again, water-based polyurethane is the champion in this aspect.

Water-based polyurethane takes less time to dry and can be re-coated in as little as two hours, whereas oil-based polyurethane must wait 24 hours. There is oil-based polyurethane that takes at least four hours to dry but costs more than the regular ones.

Water-based polyurethane will take anywhere from 1 to 3 days to cure after you apply the last coat. However, oil-based polyurethane takes roughly two weeks to cure fully.

Ease of Application

This is quite tricky. The application process is the same for both polyurethane, with a few minor adjustments. However, water-based polyurethanes are considerably easier to apply.

The difference comes in the ingredients, thinner agents, and drying time.

Water-based polyurethane is easier to apply because you don’t always have to sand between the coats. Most water-based polyurethane manufacturers say that sanding between coats isn’t necessary.

Related: Sanding sealer vs polyurethane

Therefore, if the hardwood floors are clean, you can apply a subsequent layer of water-based polyurethane minus sanding. This saves time and money.

However, water-based polyurethane raises the wood grain, forcing you to apply extra coats to obtain a smooth finish. Oil-based polyurethane requires only three applications, whereas water-based polyurethane needs up to seven.

In case of dust, flints, or bubbles when using water-based polyurethane, ensure you sand the surface. 

Odor

Because you’ll be spending hours or days finishing your floors, you must consider the odor the finish produces.

Water-based polyurethane has a mild odor and releases fewer volatile organic compounds, making it tolerable for the environment and your health.

The stench of oil-based polyurethane, on the other hand, is unpleasant! You’ll need to wear a respirator or a face mask when using oil poly. It’s also harmful to the environment because of the VOCs it releases.

Luster or Type of Finish

The polyurethane sheen may also influence your decision. Like oil-based poly, water-based poly comes in high gloss, semi-gloss hardwood floor finishes, satin and matte lusters.

With oil-based polyurethane, the different grades stand out considerably better. Unfortunately, high-gloss and matte aren’t popular for hardwood floors that get a lot of traffic.

Besides, water-based high-gloss finishes are prone to scratches and scuffs.

The advantage of oil-based polyurethane is, it’s suitable for a wide range of applications and looks beautiful in satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss finishes.

Satin polyurethane vs semi gloss FAQs

Is semi-gloss polyurethane harder than satin?

No. a semi-gloss finish is not harder than satin since the additives that distinguish their sheen levels do not impact their strength or durability.

Satin or semi-gloss polyurethane for kitchen table

If you are partial to a more lustrous or shiny finish, consider a semi-gloss finish over satin for your kitchen table. It will resist stains and moisture better than a satin finish, which can offer you more bang for your buck in the long run.

The same applies when comparing satin vs semi-gloss furniture.

What is the difference between a satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finish?

The main difference between satin and semi-gloss polyurethane is that Satin polyurethane contains a more flattening paste, giving it a duller appearance than semi-gloss polyurethane.

Because of the higher levels of flattening paste in its formula, satin polyurethane reflects less light than a semi-gloss varnish or polyurethane with less flattening paste.

These two types of polyurethane also differ in price, with semi-gloss polyurethane often slightly more expensive than satin formulas. However, the price difference is typically little and rarely impacts the choice between the two finishes.

Satin or semi-gloss polyurethane for stairs

When it comes to the stairs, satin should be your default choice of polyurethane finish over semi-gloss. This is because stairs are high-traffic areas likely to suffer scratches and denting more easily.

For this reason, you want a finish that can do a better job at hiding the imperfections—this is where satin comes in handy.

Is satin or semi-gloss better for hardwood floors?

There is no hard and fast rule for deciding the clear winner between the two polyurethane finishes. Instead, you want to choose based on the preference and practicality of a specific application.

Satin polyurethane tends to come above semi-gloss due to its better ability to hide surface imperfections and dirt on wood floors.

In addition, because semi-gloss paint and polyurethane finishes reflect more light, they will show footprints, dirt, and debris more readily than satin finishes.

So, a satin option will allow for more stress-free maintenance by hiding those common wood surface flaws more effectively than the glossier finishes. When you have a satin finish, you will not have to clean the floor every other minute.

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Semi-gloss polyurethane vs satin Final Verdict

The winner between semi-gloss paint or poly and satin finishes depends on what you are finishing and where it is located. For example, you may be better off with a satin finish for high-traffic areas such as the stairs and wood floors. 

In contrast, you can use a semi-gloss finish on everything else, provided you like the bold look of a highly reflective surface.    

Use satin polyurethane finish when:

  • You want a surface that stands up to occasional denting, scratches, wear and tear better than glossier options.
  • You want the finish to hide dirt, debris, footprints, and flaws on the wood surface well.
  • You have light sensitivity and prefer wood surfaces that do not reflect much light. The satin finish will give you a matte appearance that is friendly to a light-sensitive eye.
  • You have pets and children at home that are likely to scratch and dent the finished wood.
  • Stain or moisture resistance is not your primary consideration. For example, satin finishes resist moisture and staining but are not as effective as semi-gloss paint or poly finish.
  • You are finishing a high-traffic area, large space, or high-touch surface. The ideal candidates in this regard include kitchens and hallways, which face a greater chance of being touched frequently and dirty.
  • Finishing a master bedroom or living room where reflective finishes may be too overwhelming.

Use Semi-gloss polyurethane when: 

  • You want a smooth feeling surface
  • Finishing a bathroom, kitchen, or some other humid spots in the home where moisture and stain resistance are some of your primary concerns.
  • Finishing a small space with poor lighting. The highly reflective surface can significantly brighten up the space or room. 
  • Working on molding and trim where wash-ability and durability are equally essential. The shine can also help the area stand out from the rest of the wall, significantly adding visual interest.
  • Coating dressers, bookshelves, kitchen, or bathroom cabinets, which can use some reflect-ability

Related: How to Fix a Bad Polyurethane Job

Final Verdict

Regardless of the type, polyurethane is a popular finish for floors and other wood projects forming a tough topcoat and giving the surfaces a hard-wearing finish. This can significantly prolong the service life of the items it is used on.

However, knowing how the finishes compare can go a long way in helping you decide better for your next woodworking project.

Satin and semi-gloss are two of the most preferred types of poly, so it helps to know where to look when deciding between them.

Thankfully, you now have this tutorial to help simplify your choices. Ciao.

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