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Hardwood Floor Articles:

Wood Floor Finishes and Sheen Levels

Applying finish is the last step in the finishing process. Finishes affect the appearance of the floor and give it protection. Usually, 2-3 coats are needed for adequate floor protection. Manufacturers spend a lot of money developing finishes that have excellent durability without sacrificing the floor’s appearance. This has led to thousands of finish products being introduced to the market, making it difficult to know which finish is right for you.

Bona Traffic HD floor finish

Here are some terms you will see describing finishes:

  1. Oil-modified urethane
  2. Water-based urethane
  3. Acid-cured
  4. Moisture-cured
  5. UV-cured
  6. Oxygen cross-linked
  7. Two-part catalyzed
  8. Penetrating oil
  9. Swedish
  10. Conversion varnish

There is just way too much information to give detailed accounts of each type of finish. So instead, let’s focus on what information matters to you.

Oil-Modified Urethane (OMU)

OMUs are easy to apply, give a warm, amber color and are moderately priced.

OMU finishes smell, take longer to dry and can turn orange over time

They also offer a fair amount of durability but have strong odors and can turn yellow or orange over time. The longer dry time makes it easier for a novice to apply, but it can delay a professional applying multiple coats in a day. This leads to longer project timelines.

Although quality OMUs have a beautiful look, they are becoming less popular with the growing advantages of water-based products. In addition, OMUs typically cost less than water-based products, but that cost can be offset because of the additional time it takes for installers to apply it.

Bottom line: OMUs are ideal for the do-it-yourselfer because of their low cost and slow dry time.

Yellow OMU finish
Old orange OME floors about to be sanded and refinished
Water-Based Urethane (WBU)

WBUs are fast drying, non-yellowing, have very little odor, offer great durability and can give your floor an excellent look. Their fast dry-time makes them very difficult to apply without prior experience, but allows them to be easily coated twice in a day by a professional.

Water-based finishes dry fast, have little odor, and have great durability... but are challenging to apply

Several finish manufacturers offer two-part catalyzed WBUs that are extremely durable while maintaining a great appearance. These finishes are often used as only the top-coat to keep the cost down and still provide durability. Although they are often marketed as a “commercial finish,” they are becoming very popular for use in residential homes.

Compared to OMUs, you can expect to see a higher price per square foot for WBUs and an even higher price for the two-part catalyzed (commercial) versions.

Bottom line: WBUs are ideal for professionals. They cost more but are more efficient to apply.

Waterbased wood floor finish
A restored oak floor with a fresh coat of waterbased finish applied
Penetrating Oils (Buffing and Hardwax Oil)

Penetrating oils, Hardwax Oils, or Buffing Oils, such as Rubio Monocoat and Pallmann Magic Oil, are becoming very popular. They offer a unique, natural look with various color options while maintaining excellent durability. When it comes to their durability, they have some distinct advantages over normal urethanes but also some drawbacks.

UV Cured

Although UV Cured Finishes have been on the market for quite a while, they have been notoriously difficult to apply and quite expensive, even for professionals. However, a few companies, such as ProCoat and Loba, have developed great UV finishes that have a great appearance and surpass the durability of even commercial waterborne products.

Most flooring companies don't offer UV due to the expense of the lights and equipment, for those companies that do offer it, expect the price to be quite a bit higher for this service compared to normal urethanes.

UV Cured finishes
UV Cured finishes are incredibly durable and instant drying
Moisture Cure

Moisture cure is an "old school" finish with fantastic durability. Many of the floors done 20 years ago with MC still look great today, with one big drawback. This finish tends to yellow quite a bit, especially with natural light. The other significant drawback that has caused most finish companies to quit using this finish is that it was very toxic. Homeowners were required to leave the house during the process, and airing the house afterward was a must.

The 4 Sheen Levels

Think of sheen in terms of “shininess.” Sheen will have an impact on the appearance of your floor. Be sure you know what you’re getting.

Here are your four options...

  1. Gloss
  2. Semi-Gloss
  3. Satin
  4. Matte

Gloss is the shiniest sheen and has a “wet” look. It is often thought of as having a very high-end appearance (think French Polish). However, it can be very difficult to achieve satisfactory results with gloss when finishing on-site due to its high amount of reflection. Gloss is harder to maintain because it shows dust, scratches and scuffs more easily. As a result, it is seldom used in a residential setting. Gloss is usually only recommended in unique circumstances.


Although semi-gloss is less shiny than gloss, it still maintains a fair amount of shine. As a result, many homeowners with site-finished floors choose semi-gloss for its compromise of shine and maintainability.


Satin has the least shine of the three and gives floors a matte appearance. This is a popular choice for homeowners. It has a silky appearance and is the easiest to maintain out of all three finishes. In addition, satin has a wonderful ability to "hide" minor surface scratches and scuffs. This is the most common sheen for site-finished floors.

Satin wood floor sheen
Satin wood floor finish sheen is the most popular here in Fargo

Matte finishes have become much more popular as people desire a more natural look combined with an easy finish to take care of. Matte finishes are extremely low sheen and would include buffing oils such as Rubio Monocoat and commercial urethanes such as Traffic HD Matte, DuraClear Max Flat, and Loba Invisible.

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