A Guide to Hardwood Floor Finishes

Installing hardwood floors in your home makes sense on a number of levels. They look beautiful, are durable and add resale value. Before you choose which hardwood to use, you need to thoroughly research your options. Some floors are more family-friendly than others, while other woods are easier on your budget.

Once you have chosen your hardwood, your job is not done. You will also need to choose which finish you want. This choice will help determine color, scratch-resistance and maintenance needs. Finding the right finish will make your hardwood floors an even better choice.


A recent article from houselogic.com lists the most common finishes for your wood floors. They include wax, polyurethanes, acid-cured, oil sealer and aluminum oxide.


Your grandparents’ floors may have been finished with wax since it was the go-to finish until around 50 years ago. Wax is making a comeback with some homeowners who like the low-gloss look it delivers. Also, anyone can apply wax as long as they are willing to put in the long application hours. If a wax finish becomes marred, you can easily reapply the wax yourself. This finish does require frequent maintenance, so be prepared to wax on and wax off regularly. The cost depends on which brand you choose and whether you use hard or liquid wax. You should be able to wax around 500 square feet of flooring for under $20.

After you have waxed your floor numerous times, you may need to have the old wax build-up stripped off and new wax applied. This process will cost approximately $200 for 300 square feet of flooring.


Polyurethanes have been around for decades, now, and remain the most popular choice for hardwood floors. They come in both water-based and oil-based formulas. Both types give you a tough protection, but water-based polyurethanes are easier on the environment and give you a clear finish. The oil-based varieties add a slightly yellow tint to the wood. Polyurethanes are naturally a high gloss finish, but you can also choose satin or semi-gloss varieties if you want less shine.

If you have any do-it-yourself skill, you should be able to apply the needed three or four coats of polyurethane yourself. The water-based poly will dry in a few hours, while the oil-based will take about twice as long. It will also have a stronger odor, meaning you’ll need to leave home while it dries. Polyurethanes last much longer than wax, but after a decade or two, your floor may need refinishing. You can get both finish types for around $50 per 500 square feet, but some water-based polys will run slightly higher.

Acid-Cured Finish

Homebuilders love the acid-cured finish because it dries so quickly that they can apply two coats in one day. The floors can take a full two months to fully cure; however, so furniture and rugs can’t be placed on them for weeks. Also known as a Swedish finish, this process provides a nice shine and excellent protection for all hardwoods but is particularly indicated for high-end hardwoods. An acid-finish does give off heavy odors, so you won’t be able to live in the house for several days after application. Professionals warn that amateurs should not attempt this finish. It will cost you approximately $3.75 – $5 per square foot.

Penetrating Oil Sealer

Using an oil sealer to protect your floors is nothing new. The process has been around for centuries and offers several distinct advantages. It helps repel moisture while enhancing the grain pattern in your floor. It also changes the color of the wood, making it darker. You should apply three coats of this oil, but you’ll have to wait a day or two between coats to allow the floor to properly dry. Amateurs can easily do this work. Experts particularly recommend this sealer for antique floors. You will need to reapply the oil sealer every few years. This treatment is slightly more expensive than some other methods — costing around $60 for enough oil to cover 500 square feet.

Aluminum Oxide

Many prefinished wood boards are coated with aluminum oxide. If you install this type of flooring, the finish should last around 25 years. It can withstand the toughest family use, protecting the boards from child and pet damage. Refinishing aluminum oxide coated boards can seem impossibly difficult. It can be done, but you’ll probably need professional help with the sanding. Prefinished boards will cost approximately $2 more per square foot than unfinished boards, but the cost of finishing the “bare” boards may make the prefinished wood a better bargain.

Even if you plan to finish your hardwood floor yourself, consulting with a flooring professional is an excellent idea. They can help guide you to the best finish for your wood and your lifestyle. If you want low maintenance, wax and penetrating oil may not be for you. Polyurethane or aluminum oxide may be a better choice. On the other hand, if you don’t mind putting in the time, you can get a lovely look from those hand-applied finishes. The point is to protect and enhance the look of the beautiful natural wood in your home.

Need help caring for your hardwood floors? Check out this post: How to Care for Hardwood Floors

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  • It will also have a stronger odor, meaning you’ll need to leave home while it dries.

  • Well written and to the point. I appreciate the detail in this article!