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Oil, Varnish or Lacquer: Which Finish Should I Choose For My Wood Floor?

A major part of having a solid wooden floor installed is choosing the correct finish for it. Depending on what you choose, the finish will give your floor a completely different look and feel, and will contribute to how long your floor lasts and how much wear it can take. In this article, we’ll look at the most popular floor finishes of oil, varnish and lacquer in detail.


Varnish and Polyurethane Varnish

Whilst the term ‘varnish’ tends to be used generically for any kind of finish, there are actually two types: varnish and polyurethane varnish. These are often referred to interchangeably, but each one has distinct uses and offers different levels of protection. Let’s break them down further:


Oil-based polyurethanes are easy to apply but are now rarely used as they add a lot of colour to wood and can take a long time - potentially weeks - to fully dry. They are also very smelly and are prone to brush marks, which could ruin the look of your floor.


Water-based polyurethanes smell much less and dry faster, making them a great choice for putting a quick and convenient finish down on your floor. They also dry clear, meaning they enhance the natural look of your chosen wood floor, rather than adding extra colour. However, they are more expensive than other polyurethane types.


Solvent-based polyurethanes dry very quickly but are very smelly, not to mention environmentally unfriendly, due to their high VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) content. Solvent-based varnishes are usually used in places where very tough, fast-drying finishes are needed, such as bar tops or sports halls. 


Traditional varnish is an older form of finish that contains alkyd resin, solvents and oil. When applied to wood, varnish cures into a thin, glossy film with a faint yellow tint. Varnish has a higher level of solids than polyurethane, which means it is less susceptible to ultraviolet damage. This makes it a great choice for outdoor furniture and decking.


In general, any type of varnish will last a long time - typically up to ten years or more - so once you’ve applied it you don’t have to worry about it for a good while. A properly applied coat of varnish resists most impacts and spills and prevents damage to the wood. However, varnish itself can be prone to cracking and peeling, which is unsightly to look at and could lead to damage.

Oil Finishes

Oil finishes penetrate wood floorboards, hardening and strengthening them from within. They don’t provide the same level of gloss as varnish or lacquer but do show off the natural patina of your wooden floorboards much better. Whilst oil finishes don’t prevent floor damage as successfully as varnish does, the damage is easier to repair. The wood can be sanded down without needing to remove the finish, and only one coat of oil is needed to blend the repair with the rest of the floor. 


Natural oil, as the name suggests, makes the most of the natural look of your floor. It gives floorboards a soft sheen, rather than a high shine as varnish or lacquer does. It provides a slip-resistant, hard wearing finish and is particularly suited to homes with pets and children as it doesn’t show scratches and scuffs as much as varnish.


Coloured oils do everything that natural oils do, but with added colouring. Using a coloured oil on your floor can help achieve a new look if you’ve had the same floor for a long time, or change the colour of a new floor if you aren’t happy with it. 


UV oiled boards are a different finish altogether because the boards are finished in the factory before being installed in your home. This gives it a silky finish and helps to disguise any imperfections in the wood. It also protects your floor from the sun, making it a good choice for particularly bright rooms.



Lacquer is similar to varnish in appearance and purpose. It sits on top of the floorboard and forms a seal, preventing moisture and dirt from penetrating it. Lacquer comes in high gloss, gloss and matt, but even the matt options tend to have a noticeable sheen (if you want a completely matt floor, oil is the best option). Though no wood floor can cope with being immersed in water for any length of time, because lacquer forms a protective barrier over the surface of the wood, it is more resistant to spillages. If moisture is cleaned up relatively quickly, no harm will be done to the wood below, making it a good choice if you have children or pets. 


Lacquer is tough and stands up well to everyday wear and tear, but if it receives a significant scratch or gouge, it will be very obvious. Any damage like this should be repaired quickly or you risk exposing the boards below to moisture, which can cause damage. The whole board should be sanded down and re-lacquered to make sure it matches the rest of the floor. One of the biggest plus points of lacquer is that once applied, it lasts a long time. A properly applied and well cared for lacquer finish should last between 10 and 20 years, making it a great investment.



Each type of floor finish has its pros and cons and ultimately it comes down to personal taste and lifestyle. If you need a tough floor that is resistant to water and wear, varnish or lacquer is probably the best choice. If you want something that allows the natural beauty of the wood to shine and is easy to apply, oil is your best bet. Whichever you choose, it will go a long way to protecting your floor so you can enjoy it for many years to come.

Oil, Varnish or Lacquer wood floor finishes