Boulder hardwood floor installation

What Are The Differences in Floor Finishes?

One flooring company may use polyurethane to finish wood floors, while another might use waterbased. What’s the difference?

Every unfinished wood floor needs to be sealed first, with either a sealer or a stain, and then have at least two coats of finish applied. Whether that finish is water-based or oil-based is up to the homeowner. Here are some facts about the two types of finishes:


  • Water-based finish dries quickly, and can be walked on with stocking feet within 4-5 hours. Furniture can be moved back within a few days.
  • With water-based finish, the natural tones and character of the wood is more apparent.
  • Many professionals in the wood flooring industry feel that water-based finishes are better than oil-based.
  • It is extremely durable.
  • They are much more environmentally friendly and have lower VOCs (volatile organic compounds).


  • Oil-based polyurethane finishes appear amber in color, and may amber more over time. They darken the color of the wood.
  • It can take 10-24 hours dry to a point where you can walk on it with stocking feet, 4 days until you can move furniture back, and up to 30 days to cure.
  • It is very durable.
  • It is much more “smelly”, due to a higher level of VOCs.

There are different sheens or glosses of finish, as well. Satin (a low sheen) is a very popular choice. It looks natural and shows less wear. A higher gloss sheen will show wear and dirt more easily, but may be the look you are after. Think of a grand piano–it has a high gloss sheen and shows everything. It depends on how “shiny” you want your floor to be. Here are the choices:

  • Matte has very little shine at all.
  • Satin is a softer, lower-level sheen.
  • Semi-gloss is a mid-level sheen (most prefinished floors have a semi-gloss finish)
  • High gloss–just as the name indicates!