Hardwood Floor Finishes – Choosing the Right Finish for Your Floor

by on January 13, 2013Karie Fay

Hardwood floors are sought after and admired for their beauty, treasured for their history, and enjoyed for their practicality. If you’re home is on the market, your hardwood floors may attract more buyers and possibly even add to your home’s value, according to the National Wood Flooring Association.

hardwood floor finishesBut, you have to keep your floors finished and sealed in order to keep them looking nice. With the proper finish, a hardwood floor will keep the color and sheen you love throughout the years. Sure, an appealing stain dresses up the wood, but it’s the finish that protects it and keeps it worth looking at. Whether you are refinishing a floor or adding new wood flooring, a quality finish job will repel stains and moisture, block dirt, and lessen if not eliminate daily wear and tear.

Modern technology has delivered an array of finish choices, each with different qualities, advantages and disadvantages. Professionals generally divide all finishes into two broad categories: Penetrating sealers and surface sealers.

Types of Hardwood Floor Finishes

Surface Sealers

As the term implies, a surface sealer coats the top of your hardwood floor, creating a plastic-like barrier between the wood and the environment. The way it works is simple – a mixture of resin and solvent, a surface sealer begins to dry when applied to the flooring. What’s left, after the solvent evaporates in the process, is the resin, which hardens to form the coating. Thus, when you touch a surface-sealed hardwood floor, you’re actually touching the surface sealer, not the wood. Of course, eventually the finish wears away, so occasionally it must be reapplied. Performed properly, a surface-sealed hardwood floor remains water resistant and durable with a minimum of maintenance or cleaning.

  • Shellac: One of the oldest finishes available, in spite of its recent decline in popularity, shellac remains a particular favorite of some woodworkers. It’s easy to understand why. Shellac not only provides a pleasing gloss to the floor, it’s versatile and natural.

Shellac is made from the droppings of the Lac bug, which feeds on trees in Thailand and India. Lac bugs then secrete the resin, called lac, in cocoon tunnels, in which it lays thousands of eggs. Workers scrape these encrusted branches and dry the lac into chips. When mixed with denatured alcohol, shellac is formed. Thus, shellac is a “green,” sustainable product as well.

Shellac comes in several formulas. It can be tinted with custom color or used in its natural state, which is slightly orange. A bleached formula is clear, and another formula removes the naturally occurring wax content to allow shellac to be used in combination with other products.

One of the cheapest finish products, shellac dries quickly, doesn’t re-wet stain, doesn’t require sanding between coats and doesn’t yellow like oil-based varnish or polyurethanes. The fast drying time does demand confident application, however. Additionally, shellac isn’t as hard as other surface sealers and is vulnerable to ammonia, alcohol and water spotting. Take care to avoid cleaning products that contain these ingredients.

  • Varnish: If the hardwood floor was installed or last finished before the 1960s, chances are good the finish applied was either shellac or varnish. The first varnishes were vegetable oil-based, but today’s varnish uses synthetic resins (vinyl-alkyds) instead.

Tougher to wear or penetrate than shellac, varnish is unfortunately still not as durable as polyurethanes. In fact, even though it’s fairly inexpensive, it’s rarely used on hardwood floors today, largely replaced by urethane-based finishes. Those who choose varnish typically appreciate the fact that varnish can be tinted a variety of colors. Varnish can also be thinned slightly with an oil to make application easier. Thinning with oil is a double-edged sword, however – it also makes the finish softer.

Varnish is considered fairly high in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) due to the solvent content. Thus, varnish isn’t the environmentally friendly choice. Another disadvantage with varnish is the difficulty in application. Similar to shellac, it takes something of a talent to apply..Unlike shellac, it dries slower, making dust and other contaminants a complication. Also, a varnish finish requires wet sanding between layers.

Don’t let products labeled varnish confuse you. There are products called wiping varnishes and others called oil-varnish blends. Wiping varnish is thinned with paint thinner. This makes it somewhat easier to apply and allows some of the varnish to sink into the wood like a penetrating finish, while creating a buildup like a surface finish. An oil-varnish blend, in contrast, mixes varnish with tung or linseed oil. The result is a penetrating surface that acts – and is applied – like an oil, with no buildup on the floor surface. See more information on this product below, under penetrating sealers.

  • Lacquer: Not to be confused with shellac, lacquer is a fast-drying wood finish typically applied with a sprayer. It dries extremely fast, making dust and contaminants less of a problem, although slower-drying brushing lacquers are also available.

In general, you will rarely see a lacquer finish on modern hardwood floors. Not because of the finish quality, which is glossy and fairly hard, but because the fumes are hazardous to your health and the dust is combustible. In addition, lacquer is high in VOCs. The exception is some water-based lacquers currently on the market, which are more environmentally friendly, but at a higher cost.

  • Polyurethanes: For the highest gloss possible in a hard, durable finish, use a polyurethane product – also called urethane. This, along with the variety of urethane types, can become somewhat confusing, so it’s important to pay attention to labels when purchasing any poly-urethane finish product to ensure you know what you are getting.

Of all the surface finishes used for hardwood floors, urethane formulas are the most common today. Oil-modified urethane is particularly popular as it is fairly inexpensive and easy to apply, although it dries fairly slowly. Because it is solvent based, it will of course contain VOCs as well. It also has a tendency to turn an amber color with age, especially when exposed to bright sunlight.

A water-based urethane formula dries quicker than oil-based and is non-yellowing, but isn’t nearly as hard as other urethanes, so it may not be suitable for floors with high traffic or small children and pets. Non-yellowing and low in odor, a water-based formula is also thinner than an oil-based finish, so it takes an additional coat or two to cover the hardwood floor well. It’s also the most expensive of the urethane finish products. Since any water-based finish is more environmentally friendly, it remains a popular hardwood finish choice.

A third urethane finish formula is the moisture-cure urethane. Available in either satin or gloss, in a non-yellowing formula or the regular amber-tinted finish typical of most penetrating sealers, moisture-cure is usually a little more expensive than other sealers such as shellac or varnish. The term moisture-cure refers to the fact that the humidity in the air helps this formula dry faster.

The last type of urethane finish, acid-cured, is called a Swedish finish due to its country of origin. Also known as a conversion varnish, a Swedish finish is a clear formula that won’t turn yellow and dries extremely quickly. It’s also flammable, like all urethanes except for the water-based finish. High in fumes and extremely difficult to apply, it’s generally best applied by a professional, making it even more expensive than other urethanes.

  • Wax: It’s been around forever, and it’s likely not going anywhere soon. A wax finish soaks into the pores of the wood and hardens, like a penetrating finish, but leaves a layer on top like a surface finish. Often used in combination with a stain (and working with most stains easily) the result is a hardwood floor of the color you desire with a low-luster, slightly amber-tinted finish.

Most waxes are applied as a paste and buffed to cure and shine. Low in odor and fairly durable, wax is vulnerable to water and some solvents along with environmental damage such as scrapes and scratches. Since it’s fairly inexpensive, it’s the easiest to reapply as needed – if you overlook the elbow grease that goes into applying it.

Penetrating Sealers

Unlike surface finishes, a penetrating sealant soaks into the wood and fills the pores to protect it. A favored method of treating wood in the past (along with wax, varnish and shellac), it has largely fallen out of favor with the advent of the wide variety of polyurethane finishes. One reason is likely that penetrating finishes don’t produce the gloss of surface finishes. Another reason could be that the wood isn’t coated as much, so the surface itself experiences more wear and tear. Also, many homeowners aren’t as familiar with it as other finishes. Most of all, a floor treated with a penetrating sealer must be oiled consistently or coated with wax. Like so many finishes, you can’t simply add a layer of a different product when it’s time to refinish a floor – you must sand down the wood to remove wax, penetrating sealers and surface sealers to remove every trace of the finish before applying a new product. Penetrating sealers are favored for showing the wood to its best advantage.

  • Tung Oil: Probably the most popular penetrating sealer used on hardwood floors, tung oil comes from tung tree nuts. Used for centuries by the Chinese, tung oil is easy to apply, has an amber hue, and doesn’t darken the wood as much as linseed oil.

Tung oil does have drawbacks. It dries slowly and requires several coats – with sanding in between – to achieve a durable surface. It also tends to turn a whitish color if any layer is applied too thickly. However, as a natural product, it’s sustainable and environmentally friendly. In fact, it’s even food safe – just in case you ever decide to eat off your floors.

  • Linseed Oil: Together with tung oil, linseed is known not only as a finish and sealer but also a “drying oil.” This is because, unlike solvent oils in surface sealers, the oil in tung or linseed absorbs air and hardens as it cures, unlike surface sealers that cure when the oils evaporate.

Made from seeds taken from the flax plant, linseed is another natural product and also low in VOCs like tung oil. Sometimes, either linseed or tung oil is boiled or mixed with solvents to speed the drying time.

There are, however, slight differences in these two oils. For one, linseed oil isn’t quite as water resistant as tung oil. In addition, linseed is slightly darker, so it will affect the hardwood floorboards differently.

Applied similarly, linseed and tung oils are not difficult to use as long as you can wait for the floor to dry afterward. Touch ups, to cover scratches, also work better than with most other finish products.

  • Danish Oil: As if it wasn’t confusing enough to keep urethane finishes straight, Danish oil is neither Danish nor a “true” oil – it’s a mixture of tung oil with varnish. And although varnish is classified as surface sealer, Danish oil penetrates instead. The result, however, is slightly different than either product would suggest. More durable than oil, more environmentally friendly than varnish and offering a satin sheen, Danish oil dries fairly quickly and is considered food safe as well. It also requires fewer coats than drying oils, but the same reapplication and touch ups in between are required as needed.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff September 28, 2014 at 10:36 pm

I put in natural oak hardwood flooring about seven years ago, stained it then applied a couple of coats of polyurethane. Since then it has a dull look to it and has turned yellow. The color is quite unattractive! I am in the process of removing the polyurethane and am planning on staining the wood again. If I don’t want to use polyurethane after the staining process would you recommend I use Danish oil, shellac or wax. It is in a low traffic area. I would like to have it shiney!
Thanks for any info

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Rachel August 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm

I have a parquet floor in a high traffic dancing room in a restaurant, I have to sand it
and cover with the most durable, traffic sustainable finish. What would you recommend?

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Chuck Lavine June 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

I recently put a white pine floor and coated it with an oil based urethane. If you sand the already dried oil based urethane, can you go over it with a water based instead? I much prefer the luster it gives the floors.

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Victoria June 2, 2014 at 11:40 am

I have just had a new Oak herring bone floor installed downstairs . The final polyurethane solvent was done 4 days ago & we have just moved back in. How long does it take to be fully hard/dry? I want to know when is it safe to start putting the heavy furniture back on the floors? Thanks.

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Noel brown May 15, 2014 at 9:26 am

I am installing douglas fir flooring and was going to stain it with minwax and seal it with spar varnish. could you comment on this idea?

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jean April 7, 2014 at 8:11 pm

I have a beautiful engineered maple floor in my living room.. The family room is adjacent with a wall separating it. I want to rip up the carpet in this family room and put in engineered hardwood. Since this will be visible- with the living room- I want it to kinda/sorta match in color (that I love ) but the Maple in the living room is soft — with very very light traffic — while we live in the family room.. lots of traffic.
With engineered wood do you even have a choice of finish..and sealing?. Is it not finished and sealed?
What kind of wood would you suggest for my family room. Is there a real hard maple- or should I look for a different, more resilient wood. How thick a veneer should I look for for a quality floor.? thanks….

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Karen Drewery March 21, 2014 at 7:58 am

I have installed a red and white oak mixture with saw marks in it. I want to use Tung Oil on it as my friend did hers to retain all of the markings and character but it seems to give it a yellow hue. Is there anything that wouldn’t give that coloring that is available? Thanks.

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Karie Fay March 22, 2014 at 12:25 am

Hi Karen,

I did a little looking into the matter. Here’s a little information to help you select a new finish.

Both pure tung and linseed oils will have a tendency to yellow with age. However, oak will tend to yellow with age as well — especially white oak. If you wish to stay with a pure oil finish, you can look into various specialty oils such as lemon, soy and walnut.

However, you might try a Danish oil (see the article). A mixture of tung oil and varnish, it will yellow less. Another suggestion is a “European natural oil finish.” Apparently a few companies have their own version of this product. Among them are WOCA of Denmark (imported and retailed by some dealers in the US) and Rubio Monocoat natural oil finish. These plant-based oils are typically buffed into the floor and penetrate as well as harden (unlike tung oil). Maintenance coats don’t build up but soak deeper into the wood.

I would, personally, look into the natural oils. Armed with a little information, I am confident you will find a product you will like.

Hope this helps,
Karie Fay

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Judith Noble March 20, 2014 at 7:37 am

I am looking into getting my 100 year old oak floors refinished by a professional. They have a chocolate brown inlay around the perimeter. I think they have been done before, I’m guessing 1960′s or before.
There are 2 adults and 2 cats with claws in the house. I am looking for something very durable because of the cats. Could you recommend what type(s) of finish I should consider? My neighbor had her floors (which are identical to mine) done with a shellac & they look great. She said they chose shellac because if an area gets scratched up or damaged, that area can be redone. Whereas with polyurethane, the entire floor would have to be redone. Is this true? I am a real amateur in this area. Any advice/information you can provide will be really helpful.
Thank you.

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Karie Fay March 22, 2014 at 12:37 am

Hi Judith,

Thanks for the question. Gosh, people and fur-babies all over your hardwood floors can be rough on them. I agree with your neighbor that maintenance is easier with shellac. Polyurethane requires the floor to be stripped completely to repair or refinish it.

On the downside, shellac isn’t as hard as polyurethane. Does your neighbor have pets? I am curious if the use levels are similar. That’s the only reservation that I have about using shellac.

Hope this helps,
Karie Fay

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Barbara Kolpin March 17, 2014 at 11:41 am

We have purchased unfinished Select Red Oak flooring from an Amish lumberyard and are now requesting quotes for professional installation and finishing in a new house. What should we include in the quote request? The flooring will be installed on the first floor including the both the family and guest entrances, dining room, living room,closets (but not the kitchen or bath). Do you have any recommendations for the best finish to specify for durability — solvent or water-based polyurethanes – knowing that the installer will probably be someone who installs/maintains/refinishes gym floors also. By the way – great primer on floor finishes – it’s bookmarked on my computer!!!!!!! Thanks

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Karie Fay March 22, 2014 at 1:03 am

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for the question. When requesting quotes, I would expect to find listed exactly what is to be done, the payment terms, the quality level per item and possibly the contract length/ work estimate.

As far as the finish, water-based polyurethane applies easily and produces a crystal-clear finish that doesn’t yellow. The layers (often four coats) dry quickly — in a matter of a couple hours, typically. You can also add a hardener to water-based poly to create a very durable surface (harder than oil-based poly even). However, water-based raises the grain with the first coat, so it must be sanded before applying the second layer. Also, it requires another layer every couple of years, which makes it grow more expensive than oil-based. It also lacks the golden glow provided by oil-based.

Oil-based poly applies easily but drys very, very slowly in comparison (days instead of hours). It is also very flammable. However, purists enjoy the glow that only the oil-based can provide. In the end, it’s a matter of which fits your needs best.

Hope this helps!
Karie Fay

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Jane Fleetwood March 11, 2014 at 7:27 am

When we put down new wide plank pine flooring in a new addition adjoining an area with 100-year-old pumpkin pine floors, we sanded and put tung oil all over. 7 years later with two dogs scrambling around has left dog nail gouges all over the most visible areas, which we have been covering with rugs. Have decided to “touch up” the floors with tung oil, which we were promised would be “easier” with tung oil, but since the scratches seem pretty deep, we are rethinking the use of tung oil as a sealer/protector. Should we switch to polyurethane, to better protect and if we do, is it necessary to sand tung oil off. Should we sand scratches out even if we stick to Tung Oil? Thanks for any advice.

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Karie Fay March 15, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Hi Jane,

Ouch! Love the dogs, but they can be hard on wood floors for sure. The good news is, yes you can coat the tung-treated floor with polyurethane. It will protect the wood much better than tung oil, which is a soft finish since it soaks into the wood rather than coating it. However, I think you really should sand out the scratches. Otherwise I am afraid you will see them through the finish.

Hope that helps,
Karie Fay

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Raelene March 9, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Hi there, I am renovating a house which I am turning into a jewellery studio and I want to lay-down prefinished Canadian oak hardwood throughout, but I’m worried that in between the boards the fine dust that is created by the Goldsmiths polishing and sanding will get between the boards and be difficult to clean. Is there a way to seal the joints inbetween the boards so fine dust doesn’t accumulate?
thank you

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Karie Fay March 15, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Hi Raelene,

What a pretty name! And what a neat project! I bet you make beautiful jewelry.

As for your floors. I am not sure what type of board or installation you are wanting. However, I can tell you a couple of solutions. No matter what, you will have small gaps between the boards, you are correct. And depending on the season, your boards will expand or contract. A putty won’t hold up to this. However, you can either fill gaps with a mixture of sawdust and a binding agent such as white glue, shellac or varnish OR try a latex filler. Apply several coats, as necessary, to fill the gaps. If you don’t want to refinish the wood, keep the filler off the surface and immediately wipe away with a wet rag and then a dry cloth. Use a filler a bit darker than the floor. Leave the top surface slightly below the floor boards if you want to cover the filled gaps with polyurethane. Dry thoroughly between coats.

Hope this helps!
Karie Fay

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John Hucklesby February 27, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Hello Karie , we are considering resurfacing our old Village Hall floor which is in herring bone blocks possibly chestnut or cherry. The Hall is extensively used and we have a number of retired groups doing keep fit and also line dancing. So the finish needs to be hard wearing and have some ‘slip’ in it but not as much as a ballroom dance floor. Have you any advice you could give us.

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Karie Fay March 15, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Hi John,

Good question. I hesitate to make an outright suggestion as dance floors are not my specialty. That said, I can make some general remarks.

The finish is what will make it slippery. Highly waxed floors will be very slippery. Anything with a high gloss will tend to be as well. You can even increase the slipperiness of any flooring with products such as dance wax beads, corn meal or such. So don’t worry about the floor not being slippery enough.

The least slippery finishes are matte or low-gloss products. Most all-purpose dance floors (think night clubs and bars) use a general-purpose water-based polyurethane. A “premium sport coat finish” is best as it gives a little more slip resistance.

I also suspect a penetrating sealer may work. Michigan State University Extension has a page online entitled “Wood Floors and Finishing.” You can learn about these products there.

Hope that helps!
Karie Fay

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Tifani Burton January 29, 2014 at 10:31 am

I have Australian cypris hard wood. The finish is ruined and it scratches super easy. I am debating tearing it out and putting laminate, or sanding it, staining it darker and trying to find a finish that would make it more durable in a house with many children. If I refinish it what finish would you suggest?

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Karie Fay February 23, 2014 at 1:12 am

Hi Tifani,

Thanks for the question. Have you tackled your floors yet? I hope I caught you in time — personally, I think it would be a shame to tear it out, especially to put in something that isn’t real wood. I love the look of wood, and Australian Cypress is particularly warm and homey looking. It’s also a fairly durable wood, so the finish is the problem.

Personally, I would strip it completely and put on a new finish. Go darker — if you must — I favor the natural look but that’s up to you and a wide variety of stains are available. Just sand your floor carefully, changing the sandpaper frequently to prevent spreading the resins that this wood emits. I would consider applying an oil-based sealer after sanding, and finish with a water-based acrylic polyurethane finish. Apply three even coats, over the course of two days and drying between each layer. Create a smoother finish by lightly sanding with mesh sanding screens between each if you prefer.
I have another article about finishing wood floors as well. Look for my name on the right side of this page and click it. Scroll through to find the article (I can’t supply links here.)

Hope this helps!
Karie Fay

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Susan January 17, 2014 at 7:11 pm

My Daughter just purchased an older home, we pulled up the worn carpet and discovered hardwood floors and fairly decent condition, we would like to refinish them in a very light tone (almost a white wash look) but we are not sure what type of wood the floor is. The house is approx. 60 yrs old. Any suggestions?

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Karie Fay January 23, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Hi Susan,

How neat! So many older homes painted and carpeted over wood, and I so enjoy the look of natural wood that I think it’s a shame. Your daughter now has the opportunity to do virtually anything she wants with her floors. Lucky her!

How dark is the wood you have uncovered? When you mentioned whitewash, my mind jumped to a recent article I posted here, “How To Bleach Hardwood Floors.” (If you want to find it, scroll up a little and locate my name on the right side of the page click it, and scroll down my author page to find the article.)

Applying a two-part bleach to the floor will lighten the wood, or you can pickle or whitewash the floor alone or after bleaching. You can make your own whitewash or find a pickling or whitewashing product in your hardware/ home improvement store. You can allow the wood to show through while lightening it tremendously with either method. Is that what you had in mind?

Would love to see how it turns out!
Karie Fay

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Gerry Broughman December 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I have a 1950″s house with an exposed cedar ceiling inside and out. Some was finished with varnish that came off easily with a soy based stripper. Some was shellaced and has become so dry and hard with age that only sanding seems to remove it and the rest had polyurithane that is not removed easily with the soy stripper. When I get it done I don’t know what to finish it with. It is not a hardwood floor with traffic and is not in direct sunlight anywhere. What would you recomend?

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louise January 14, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Nothing. A ceiling without a finish looks beautiful and is easier to dust. A ceiling doesn’t need protection from elements or traffic. If the color is uneven, you can always use a light stain for
Color.

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jon November 25, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I just refinished my floors, someone told us to put boiled linseed oil down before staining the floor. Now the stain does not want to stick or absorb into the wood. Was this the wrong thing to do, the stain is also oil base.

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Karie Fay December 7, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Hi Jon,

Oh No! Linseed oil is am oil and will prevent either an oil- or water-based stain from absorbing into your wood. Now, many people like the look of linseed oil, but it’s a natural color as I am sure you noticed. Since it absorbs into the wood, if you still want a stain, you’re looking at stripping the wood and starting over. I am sorry about your situation – feel free to let me know what you decide and how it turns out.

Happy Holidays,
Karie Fay

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Karie Fay October 20, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Hi Barbara,

Bet your oak floor is beautiful.

Could you put (paste) wax over top of a polyurethane finish? Sure, you could. But personally, I wouldn’t.

I understand your concerns with the big dogs and a busy household. Sometimes, on furniture, they will put wax over polyurethane since it makes such a beautiful gloss. But on a floor, I have a few concerns.

First of all, wax melts at a very low temperature. And in truth, it doesn’t so much protect your oak from damage as it conceals it. That wax fills in scratches and such, rather than preventing them. Your polyurethane is actually much harder than the wax ever could be.

The biggest thing is that eventually you will want to refinish your floor. If you have just polyurethane, you can simply add another coat of poly in perhaps 5 to 7 years (or sooner if your floor is looking bad). If you have wax on top, however, you’ll have to strip the floor completely. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to get another product to adhere to the floor. Once you wax it, that’s kinda it.

Hope this information helps,
Karie Fay

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Barbara Preszler October 14, 2013 at 9:01 am

I’ve recently refinished my oak floor, and applied several coats of water-based polyurethane. In a high traffic area, with big dogs, should I also wax the floor? And is it safe to use a steam cleaner?

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