Hardwood Flooring Finishes: What’s up with them?

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Finishes protect and enhance the beauty of your hardwood floors. They can be applied before delivery (pre-finished) or upon installation in your home (site-finished).

With pre-finished flooring, the manufacturer applies a finish at the factory — typically at least four coats of ultraviolet-cured urethane resin. Manufacturers say these finishes are more consistent and durable because they are applied under strict controls. Factory-finished floors can be installed straight out of the box, which can make the job easier when you are replacing floors in a house you live in. Manufacturers offer a wide variety of stain colors and finishes. Several finish options are available in pre-finished products, including water- and oil-based urethane and wax.

If you are building a new home or trying to match a new floor with an old one, you might prefer to finish your floor on site. You’ll have more color choices, but you’ll also have to live with the sanding process and wait for each coat to dry.

The principal choices are surface or penetrating finishes.

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes are absorbed into the wood fibers. These oils, most often with wax applied on the surface, have a matte or satin appearance. If you can feel the wood grain when you run your hand across the surface, it is most likely a penetrating finish.

With their unique physical properties, maple and cherry do not absorb stains as evenly as other U.S. hardwood species. If you prefer a penetrating finish for your maple or cherry floor, use the natural, non-coloring type.

Hardwood Finish PenetrateOils and waxes penetrate the
surface of the floor protecting
the wood from within.

Surface Finishes

Surface finishes shield floors by forming a protective layer that looks like clear plastic on top of the wood. Predominantly polyurethane, surface finishes are found on all pre-finished floors and are today’s most popular choice.

Hardwood Finish SurfaceSurface finishes shield floors
from harm by forming a protective
layer on top of the wood.

Oil Based Urethane

Oil based urethane is the most common floor finish. It ambers with age and comes in gloss, satin and semi-gloss sheens. Two to three coats are typically called for. Each coat takes about eight hours to dry. A solvent like paint thinner must be used for clean up. This type of finish emits fumes as it dries so windows and doors should be left open to provide good ventilation. If it’s too cold outside for that, a water-based finish is best.

Water Based Urethane

Water based urethane has fewer odors, dries in two to three hours and is crystal clear. Brushes can be cleaned with soap and water. Some manufacturers sell “cross-linkers,” additives that can be mixed into water-based finishes to make them tougher.

Moisture Cured Urethane

Moisture cured urethane is a solvent-base polyurethane that is more durable and more moisture resistant than other surface finishes. It is mostly used in commercial, high-traffic settings like stores or offices. It can be clear or amber with age and is available in satin or gloss. This type of finish has a strong odor. Its application is best left to the professional.

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