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Wood Floor Finishes Explained: How They Look and Feel

Oiled, varnished, thermo treated: there are many variations on the type of finish you can choose for your wood floor. But how does each one look, what is it suitable for and which should you choose for your home?


Oil-Based Polyurethane


Oil-based polyurethane is a mix of linseed oil, synthetic resins and plasticisers. These create a highly durable finish, popular with commercial properties that experience a lot of footfall, but also for high traffic areas in busy homes. It takes around ten hours for each coat to dry, with two to three coats being the usual recommendation. After the final application you’ll need to wait 48 hours before walking on it.



Oil-based polyurethane has an amber or slightly yellowish tint that tends to turn even more yellow over time, which adds a rich, warm tone as the floor ages. It’s available in high-gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens, allowing you to choose how much of a shine you want on your floor.



Oil-based polyurethane is relatively cheap and highly durable. It is highly resistant to moisture, meaning it’s a good choice for a kitchen or any area that will be exposed to water. It’s easy to maintain and can be cleaned with regular sweeping and a wash with a damp sponge.



This finish takes a long time to dry, which can be inconvenient if it’s a high use area. It also has a strong odour and releases high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and cause nausea, so a respirator should be worn whilst it’s being applied.


Water-Based Polyurethane


Water-based polyurethane is made of synthetic resins and plasticisers, giving it a durable finish that resists water fairly well (though spills should be cleaned up immediately). It will usually require between three and four coats, with each coat taking two to four hours to dry. After the final application you’ll be able to walk on the floor within a few hours.



Water-based polyurethane dries clear and resists yellowing over time, giving the floor a natural look and feel. High-gloss, semi-gloss and satin options are available.



This finish is easy to apply and dries quickly. It is environmentally friendly, releasing far fewer VOCs than other finishes, and has little odour whilst being applied, making it ideal for doing yourself.



The high-gloss version will make every scratch and scrape highly visible, ageing your floor prematurely.




Wax is a traditional wood floor finish with a long history, and is chosen for its classic appearance. It comes as either a liquid or a paste and requires several coats that need to be buffed by hand. Wood stain can be mixed with wax if you wish to colour your floor.



Waxed floors have a low-sheen natural appearance that enhance the organic appearance boards. Wax may yellow or darken over time, so it’s best used on wood that already has a warm tone.



Wax is easy to apply and maintain, has little odour or VOCs, and dries quickly.



Not very durable and shows up scuffs and scratches. Exposure to water causes white marks, making it unsuitable for kitchens and bathrooms.


Penetrating Oil Sealer


Though less widely used since the advent of polyurethane sealers in the 1960s, penetrating oil sealers are still popular with people who like the way they enhance the natural grain, beauty and depth of wood without adding a high shine. Penetrating oil sealers require at least a day between coats, so you’ll need to be committed to the task.



Penetrating oils don’t leave a hard surface on top of the wood, meaning each board can be seen in all its natural glory. A top coat of wax may be required for added protection.



Though slow to dry, this finish is easy to apply. It enhances the innate beauty of the wood, rather than covering it with a hard ‘shell’, and is easy to touch up.



Penetrating oil sealers are not durable and will require re-finishing every two or three years. Easily damaged by water or chemicals so specialist wood floor cleaners are needed.


Acid-Cured Finish


Acid-cured finish (also known as conversion finish or Swedish finish) is an expensive option that is usually used on exotic wood or parquet floors. It has an alcohol base and uses acid for the curing process, resulting in a finish that has a high shine and is very resistant to scratches, scuffs and other damage. 



Despite its hardwearing nature, an acid-cured finish beautifully highlights the wood’s grain, colour and natural aesthetic appeal. 



Once applied, this finish should stay looking as good as new for a long time. It dries quickly, meaning rooms can be in use quickly after application.



This finish can only be applied (and repaired) by experts, making it expensive. It has high levels of VOCs and a strong smell, meaning you can’t be resident in a property whilst it is being applied.


Thermo Treated


Thermo treated wood has been heated to 180 degrees celsius whilst being protected from burning using steam. It has essentially been cooked, which removes organic compounds from the wood, so it will not absorb water, cup or bow.



Thermo treated wood has a rich, deep brown appearance that will not change over time. If exposed to the UV rays of sunlight and not waxed, the wood will naturally weather to grey.



No harsh chemicals are used during the treatment, so it is very environmentally friendly. It doesn’t absorb water, making it a great choice for a kitchen, bathroom or even a sauna.



Thermowood may age quickly and change colour beyond what you initially expect if not waxed on a regular basis. Can become brittle if not properly cared for.


There are plenty of options available when it comes to choosing a finish for your wood floor. You should consider how much wear and tear the floor will get, how long application takes and what levels of VOCs you are prepared to be exposed to before settling on one. Whichever you choose, it will help to enhance the natural beauty and durability of your wood floor.

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