Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Choosing the right finish for your floor is often as important as choosing the type of floor itself. Hardwood flooring finishes not only serve as protection against daily use, but they often alter the overall look of the wood.
But with so many options to choose from, how do you choose the right finish for your new flooring?
What is a Floor Finish?
Like any flooring, hardwood floors are susceptible to being damaged by daily use. From spills in the kitchen to children running through the house with dirty feet, floors of all types often take a beating. Your hardwood floor finish is your defense against long-term damage to your floors as a result of use.
Essentially, a hardwood floor finish creates a protective barrier between you and your floor. While many hardwood floors are hardwearing and can handle a certain degree of rough-handling, applying the right finish can save you money when it comes to maintaining your floors since it minimizes the number of time you need to resand and refinish them.
What's more, floor finishes can also form part of your aesthetic. Depending on the finish you choose, the timber may change colour, look and feel.
So, let's take a look at your options.
The two main types of 'polys' are water-based polyurethane and oil-based polyurethane.
Best For: Floors needing a clear finish
Pros: Easy application, no yellowing, low odor, low VOCs
Cons: Magnifies every scrap and scratch due to high gloss finish
Popular with DIYers, water-based polyurethane finishes have a quick drying time and have low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). They dry clear and so do not change the colour of the timber. Something that puts many people off this option is the fact that Water-based polyurethane finishes are not made with natural, sustainable materials, nor are they hardwearing.
Although water-based polyurethane resists water relatively well, they don't deal with the humidity Australian climate as well as their oil-based sisters.
Best For: high traffic areas, commercial spaces
Pros: durable, moisture resistant, durable
Cons: Can yellow over time, slow-drying, releases VOCs
Oil-based polyurethane finishes are more durable and provide a more professional finish, but they have a longer drying time and are more expensive. They also yellow with age.
Given the fact that it is strong and durable, this is a popular finish in commercial spaces and homes with high traffic.
Best For: a low-shine look that enhances the timber's natural grain
Pros: relatively easy to apply, natural product, works with the wood's natural beauty
Cons: low durability
Wood oils penetrate the timber and work to naturally enhance the natural look of the timber. There are a number of different wood oils that you can use, including linseed oil and tung oil, and their hard-wearing qualities vary. Most oils are low odour and non, or minimally, toxic.
Best For: floors requiring extremely durable finishes
Cons: difficult to apply, very high VOCs
This option is one of the most expensive timber floor finishes but it is also one of the most hardwearing. For that reason, it is often used in high-traffic areas.
This finish was originally created for bowling alleys and delivers a really high shine. It resists moisture (great for use in Australia), scratches and general wear. This makes it, for example, great for a hardwood floor in a Sydney bar or hotel entrance, but not necessarily something you'd have in your home as it has a very commercial feel.
Furthermore, the application process is tricky and depending on the humidity of the day, it may dry unevenly, which is not great if you live in humid areas such as Cairns, Brisbane or any of the Top End!
Best For: a low-sheen look
Pros: easy to apply, easy to touch up, low VOC, low odor, penetrates the wood.
Cons: labour-intensive application, not very durable
Before the 'poly' finishes came to market in the 1960s, waxes had been the number one hardwood floor finish for centuries. Hardwood floors from Melbourne to Milan were finished with wax.
Now, it is still a popular choice in Australian homes since it provides a natural, low-sheen look and works with the natural beauty of the timber. It dries quickly, has minimal VOCs and is easy to touch up.
It is not the most durable finish and it doesn't love water but touch-ups are quite quick and simple. It can also be mixed with a stain to achieve another colour.
Best For: oily tropical woods
Pros: dries quickly, low VOCs, natural, sustainable
Cons: very flammable, can dry unevenly, not very durable
Shellac is a resin that comes from the secretions of female lac bugs, mixed with alcohol and is another finish that has been used as a hardwood floor finish for hundreds of years.
Generally, it dries with a high-sheen but it can be mixed with denatured alcohol for a more matte finish. It usually dries with an orange tint but it can be bleached or tinted. For this reason, it's not great if you want to keep the natural look of the timber. For example, you wouldn't want to use it on natural French Oak Flooring.
Hard Wax oils
Best For: a balance between natural beauty and good protection
Pros: Easy application, no-flaking, generally no resanding needed to reapply, moisture resistant, non-toxic, easy to clean
Cons: Not as hard or long-lasting as a polyurethane
Hardwax oils are the newest innovation in hardwood floor finishes. They are a combination of wax and oil and benefit from the pros of both of these finishes: they provide a natural, beautiful look that works with the timber's natural qualities whilst also providing a great level of protection too.
At Chêneoak, we're excited to have specially developed hard wax oil finishes in our arsenal.
Our incredible hard wax oil finishes have been exclusively developed by Chêneoak to enhance our French Oak’s natural character, bringing out the beauty of the grain. These specially crafted oils have been designed to specifically work with our products, providing a complementary formula that works with the high tannin content which comes with genuine French Oak.
Unlike some other finishes, these oils are do not coat the timber, instead they soak into them, giving them a level of protection whilst still maintaining a natural oak feel underfoot. Hardwax oils can be tinted and when done right, these tints simply react with the timber to achieve a natural-looking finish that you don't generally get from tints.
Hardwax oils are also easy to touch up, which makes them a great choice for homes, high-traffic areas and even kitchens and bathrooms.
Pre-Finished vs Natural
So, the final question remains, will you choose to have your boards pre-finished, or will you finish them on-site?
Prefinished boards are finished are generally finished in a factory and most commonly use a poly finish (unless you come to Chêneoak where we can provide French Oak floorboards to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane etc prefinished with our specially developed hard wax oils). The huge benefit of prefinished boards is that once they're installed, that's it - you're good to walk on them.
Natural, unfinished boards are finished on-site and although this lengthens the installation process, it does allow you a little more control and gives you the satisfaction of experiencing the real, genuine wood boards in all their glory.