Pros & Cons of Popular Brands’ Finish Options

When installing a new hardwood floor or refinishing an existing one, choosing the right protective finish is crucial for bringing out the wood’s natural beauty while protecting it from wear and tear. With different levels of durability, ease of application, and appearance, navigating the options can be confusing.

This comprehensive guide examines the most popular finish choices on the market – oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane, oil finishes, wax finishes, and aluminum oxide finishes. Weighing the pros and cons of each, it provides homeowners with expert advice on selecting the best finish for their needs and lifestyle.

Oil-Based Polyurethane Finishes

Oil-based polyurethane has been the go-to choice for hardwood floor finishes for decades thanks to its durability and rich, warm glow that enhances wood’s natural color variations.


  • Extremely durable and long-lasting protection for heavy traffic areas
  • Highlights wood grain due to amber tone
  • Less prone to water damage than other finishes
  • Resists scratches, scuffs, and dents better than most finishes


  • Requires sanding between coats
  • Long dry time between coats (up to 24 hours)
  • Off-gasses strong fumes during application and drying
  • Prone to yellowing over time with UV exposure
  • Requires refinishing every 3-5 years in high traffic areas
  • Difficult to touch up without refinishing whole floor

Tips for Application

When using oil-based polyurethane:

  • Allow proper dry time between coats
  • Lightly sand between coats with 220 grit sandpaper
  • Maintain proper ventilation during application and drying
  • Work in sections to prevent lap marks
  • Use a natural bristle brush for best finish results
  • Apply thin, even coats and avoid over-brushing
  • Follow all safety precautions on product labeling

Water-Based Polyurethane Finishes

As a low-odor, non-flammable alternative to oil-based polyurethane, water-based finishes are growing in popularity thanks to easier application and faster dry times.


  • Low odor and non-flammable for safer indoor use
  • Excellent clarity to showcase wood’s natural color
  • Dries quickly between coats (1-2 hours)
  • Easier cleanup with soap and water
  • Lower VOCs than oil-based formula


  • Less moisture resistance than oil-based
  • More prone to scratching, scuffing and dents
  • Requires more frequent recoating (every 2-3 years)
  • Not as durable for heavy traffic situations
  • Prone to bubbling if over-brushed

Tips for Application

When choosing water-based polyurethane:

  • Do not shake or over-mix to avoid bubbling
  • Use a foam brush applicator for smooth results
  • Maintain ideal room temperature and ventilation
  • Apply thin coats and avoid over-brushing
  • Allow proper drying time between coats
  • Prepare floor by lightly sanding and cleaning
  • Follow all manufacturer’s instructions

Hardwood Floor Oil Finishes

Penetrating oil finishes have been used for centuries to protect and preserve wood surfaces with a warm, low sheen patina. They continue to grow in popularity as a non-toxic, easy-to-apply floor finish option.


  • Enhance natural wood grain and color
  • Allow surface to breathe unlike film-building finishes
  • Easy application without overlap marks
  • Low odor and zero VOCs
  • Easily spot repaired and reapplied


  • Require more frequent recoating (yearly)
  • Less moisture and scratch resistance
  • Long curing time (up to 4 weeks)
  • Not ideal for heavy traffic situations
  • Food and liquid spills require immediate cleanup

Tips for Application

When applying an oil-based wood floor finish:

  • Properly clean and prepare floor first
  • Apply thin coats with a natural bristle brush
  • Allow 12-24 hours of dry time between coats
  • Buff surface with extra fine (0000) steel wool between coats
  • Allow to cure for 1-4 weeks after final coat
  • Perform regular cleaning and spot touch-ups

Hardwood Floor Wax Finishes

Used for centuries to protect wood surfaces, wax finishes have fallen out of favor due to high maintenance. However, they are regaining popularity thanks to improved formulations and natural appeal.


  • Enhance and warm natural wood tones
  • Allow surface to properly breathe
  • Easy to spot repair and reapply
  • Non-toxic with very low VOCs


  • Frequent recoating needed (every 3-6 months)
  • Labor intensive application and upkeep
  • Not for heavy traffic situations
  • Water and moisture sensitivity
  • Prone to showing scratches and scuffs

Tips for Application

When choosing a wax wood floor finish:

  • Ensure floor is properly prepared first
  • Apply thin, even coats with a natural bristle brush
  • Allow proper drying time between coats
  • Perform regular cleaning and recoating
  • Spot repair scratches and scuffs with extra wax
  • Consider combining with other finishes for added protection

Aluminum Oxide-Infused Finishes

Aluminum oxide infusion technology has revolutionized wood floor finishes in recent years. Extremely fine aluminum oxide particles are embedded within the finish to create a ceramic-hard surface highly resistant to wear and tear.


  • Unparalleled durability and abrasion resistance
  • Ideal for heavy residential and commercial traffic
  • Resists scratching, scuffing and indentations
  • Maintains new wood look with less recoats needed


  • More expensive upfront cost
  • Difficult for DIY application
  • Can appear hazy or opaque in certain lighting
  • Not easily spot repaired like traditional finishes

Tips for Application

When selecting an aluminum oxide-infused finish:

  • Have it professionally installed for best results
  • Specify mix ratio for expected traffic levels
  • Prepare floor using recommended methods
  • Realize swirl marks are more visible requiring professional sanding/recoating
  • Be aware color change is not easily achieved requiring complete resanding

Frequently Asked Questions

What finish is the most durable and scratch-resistant?

Aluminum oxide-infused finishes offer by far the best scratch, scuff, and wear resistance thanks to the extremely hard aluminum oxide particles embedded in the finish.

What finish option brings out the wood’s natural color best?

Water-based polyurethanes offer excellent clarity and transparency to showcase the wood’s natural grain and color with the least amber tone effect.

Which finish stands up to heavy traffic the best?

Oil-based polyurethane is the most durable and long-wearing finish for heavy residential and commercial traffic areas. Aluminum oxide finishes also provide extremely heavy wear resistance.

What finish is the easiest to touch up and spot repair?

Oil finishes and wax finishes both allow for easy spot application of additional coats of finish to repair scratches and scuffs as needed. This makes them more DIY-friendly finishes to maintain.

Which wood floor finish application is the least toxic?

Pure tung and linseed oil finishes contain zero VOCs or off-gassing fumes making them the least toxic and most environmentally friendly finish options.

What’s the best finish for pets like dogs?

Aluminum oxide’s extreme scratch resistance helps minimize the appearance of scratches from pets’ nails. Oil finishes also resist visible scratching better than polyurethanes. Their ability to spot repair is helpful for high pet traffic homes.

Can you change a finish or stain without fully sanding floors?

It is extremely difficult to change a wood floor finish color without sanding the floors completely bare first. The new finish or stain will not adhere properly or appear uniform otherwise.

In Conclusion

There are pros and cons to every hardwood floor finish option on the market today. Consider your lifestyle, traffic levels, environmental priorities and appearance preferences when deciding on oil based, water based or alternative finishes.

And be sure to properly prepare floors first and apply finishes carefully according to manufacturer guidelines for long-lasting protection and beauty. With the right information, you can select the perfect finish to showcase your wood floors for years to come.

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