How to Choose the Perfect Hardwood Floor Varnish

There are many types of hardwood floor varnish out there but that doesn't mean they're all right for your floor. Here's how to choose the best one.

Why did you choose hardwood flooring for your home?

If the house you bought didn’t have hardwood floors, you know that installing them is expensive. Some homebuyers don’t mind the price, though, because they know that hardwood flooring is durable and doesn’t need a lot of upkeep. You only need to sweep or vacuum them and use a wood floor cleaner sometimes.

Homes with hardwood floors are also easier to sell than wall-to-wall carpeting. Plus, they’re versatile–they work with all decorating styles.

Of course, with wood floors, you can’t forget about hardwood floor varnish or a protective coating. Here, we’ll talk about your options for refinishing your wood flooring and tips for keeping your floors in tip-top shape.

Hardwood Floor Varnish

Some people use the term “varnish” when referring to “topcoat,” but if you ask flooring experts, the former is a specific type of finish that uses a polyurethane binder.

Hardwood varnish is chip-resistant and can last for many years. Since it contains a higher ratio of solids, it’s harder to apply than other hardwood floor finishes. Consider hiring professionals if you opt for this type of protective coating.

Even if you check out online tutorials for “how to apply varnish to hardwood floors,” you need experience and skills to make sure the result is free of brush marks and other ugly mistakes. Another thing to keep in mind is how fast varnish dries. If you don’t work fast, you’ll get discolored areas that can be challenging and costly to correct.

Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Finishes

Speaking of polyurethane, you have two options: water-based and oil-based. The former uses water as a binder and is best for wood floors that require a clear finish. Water-based finishes are also the best choice for environmentally conscious homeowners since these are low odor and release fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Like hardwood floor varnish, water-based polyurethane finish dries quickly, which means working fast is a must. If you hire the right contractor, your wood flooring will have a smooth and shiny finish with no yellowing.

Oil-based finishes, on the other hand, are ideal for high-traffic areas. Compared to water-based finishes, this hardwood varnish isn’t too expensive. It’s also moisture-resistant and easy to maintain; however, flooring finished with oil-based polyurethane can yellow over time.

If you plan to refinish your flooring, wear a powered air purifying respirator papr. Oil-based finishes have a strong odor and release a high level of VOCs. Wait at least eight hours before applying the second coat for best results.

Moisture-Cure Urethane

When you want to learn how to stain and varnish hardwood floors for commercial settings, you can’t forget about moisture-cure urethane. Used for bowling alleys, dance halls, restaurants, and so on, this type of finish is highly durable.

If you want to use this moisture-cure urethane for your home, you can, especially if you have kids and pets. However, the downside is it’s difficult to apply, more so than hardwood varnish and oil- or water-based polyurethane.

It also releases VOCs that can linger in the air for weeks. You may have to move out of your home for as long as two weeks before you can safely go back.


Synthetic materials have replaced shellac as an option for staining hardwood floors, but it’s becoming popular again, thanks to its eco-friendly properties.

Besides having zero VOCs, shellac is easy to apply, which makes it perfect for DIYers. Durability-wise, it cannot make your floors resistant to stains and scratches.

Shellac is also not compatible with synthetic finishes. You can only use it with wax. Should you want to switch to a more durable hardwood finish, you’ll need to remove shellac first.


Another not-so durable option, wax, gives a low-sheen finish that’s best for low-traffic areas. Other cons include yellowing or darkening over time and complex application.

Despite its disadvantages, some homeowners prefer it because it’s easy to apply and touch up. It combines well with stains, and it’s almost odor-free. For older homes, wax finishes provide a beautiful finish as they give wood floors a softer look.

Aluminum Oxide

An alternative to moisture-cure urethane hardwood finish, aluminum oxide is the most resistant to wear and tear. It can last more than two decades, is low maintenance, and doesn’t hide or change your wood flooring’s color or grain.

The only downside with this type of finish has to do with touching up. Once aluminum oxide is applied, removing or restoring it is impossible without the help of professionals. Some homeowners even replace the floorboards when they want to switch from aluminum oxide to a different type of finish.

Other Hardwood Finishes to Consider (Plus Bonus Tips)

Penetrating oil sealer, acid-cure or Swedish finish, and gel stains are other good options for refinishing hardwood floors. You can consult an experienced contractor to understand each one’s pros and cons.

Now, if you don’t know any flooring contractors, try asking family and friends for recommendations. You can also research online, but check online reviews and don’t forget to ask for references.

To save money, refinish multiple rooms instead of doing one small area at a time. You’ll also want to see samples before your chosen contractor starts the job.

Last but not least, go for quality, even if you have to spend more. You won’t save money if you opt for cheap hardwood floor varnish since you’ll be refinishing it soon enough. With the right contractor and the best wood finish, you can enjoy floors that look stunning for a very long time.

Wood You Love It?

Your choice of hardwood floor varnish will dictate how long you get to enjoy beautiful-looking floors. If you don’t want to spend a lot on refinishing your flooring, opt for a durable topcoat that will last for years to come.

For more tips and advice on taking care of your hardwood floors, don’t forget to check out our other posts. We also have other home improvement articles that might interest you.

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