The Pro’s and Con’s of Different Finish Options

There’s an age-old dilemma homeowners face when it comes to finishing hardwood floors: oil-based poly, water-based poly or a natural oil?  The truth is, there are pros and cons to all of them. Polyurethane finishes tend to be less expensive than natural oil finishes.  Many polyurethane finishes contain high volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are harmful if inhaled.  However, there are some natural oil finishes that contain high VOCs, as well.  Many manufacturers have lowered the VOC content of their finishes over the past few years to conform to new Federal VOC content standards.  Although, if you are looking for an environmentally friendly finish, there are a few natural oil and poly finishes available with little to no VOC content.  Let’s take a look at the differences so you can make up your own mind based on the facts.

We’ll compare oil-based and water-based wood finishes using three key considerations:

  • Overall appearance
  • Durability
  • Ease of application

In general, oil-based and water-based poly finishes offer similar characteristics and performance when compared to natural oil stains made from linseed, tung and other natural oils.

Overall Appearance Generally, an oil based finish will change the color slightly and bring out more of the natural wood grain in a floor when compared to a water based finish. When dealing with the reclaimed flooring this is Bingham Lumber’s finish of choice. The oil finishes will also give most wood floors a more amber color than a water based finish. A water based finish is least likely to change the unfinished color of the wood and is better over lighter stain colors when trying to stay away from a yellow or amber tone.

Durability Both polyurethane finishes and natural oil finishes perform differently over time. The polyurethanes, because of that compound, provide protection from scratch-and-dent damage to the wood. However, sooner or later, the poly coating will show signs of wear such as scuffs, stains and scratches. As a result the entire floor with need to be sanded to the bare wood, before refinishing.

Ease of Application Here’s where real differences emerge between the finishes. Let’s start with the basics about the polyurethanes: Oil based poly’s have a typical dry and re-coat time of approximately 24 hours.  Water based poly’s tend to dry within 2-4 hours and can be re-coated following the dry time.  Typically you can coat 2-3 coats of a water based poly in a single day.

Repairing poly finishes of both oil based and water based involves sanding to the bare wood and started from the beginning. One of the benefits of the natural oil finishes is that it is spot-reparable. As previously stated, oil based poly’s typically need 24 hours between coats because they set up and dry slower than water based poly’s.

Oil-based polyurethane finish needs a solvent such as mineral spirits or paint thinner for cleaning. Water-based finishes clean up easily with just soap and warm water.

Natural oil finishes are the most forgiving type of finish.  They are applied with a rag, lambs-wool applicator or a buffer and some require one coat, whereas others require 3-4 coats.

Currently, we offer pre-finishing in Waterlox Tung Oil, Rubio Monocoat, Bona and Vermont Natural Coatings products.

For more information about hardwoods and hardwood flooring, contact the wood specialists at Bingham Lumber. You can find our contact information on the Contact Us page of our website.