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Different Wood Floor Finishes Explained

There are a few considerations when deciding whether to use a surface (lacquer) or oil/wax finish for your floor. The application, appearance and maintenance of the finish will all vary depending on your choice.
Surface (Lacquer) Finishes

These are synthetic resins (urethanes / polyurethanes) that resist water well and require little maintenance. As the name suggests, a surface finish does not really penetrate the wood; instead it consists of a protective layer or seal on the surface of the floor. A surface finish can consist of up to five different applications or layers of the lacquer. There are four main types:
Water based

These are clear once dry, and will usually remain that way as they age rather than yellowing. Because they have a mild smell when applied and will dry in a few hours, good ventilation is less important for their use. They are reasonably long-lasting.
Oil based

These not only take longer to dry (around eight hours usually) but will give off more fumes, so ventilation is more important. They are amber-coloured and will affect the colour of the wood. They are generally longer lasting than water based finishes.
Acid cured

These vary in colour from clear to pale yellow. They are quick drying (two/three hours typically) but will give off strong fumes, so proper ventilation is essential. They are very long lasting.
Moisture cured

These are similar in all regards to acid cured finishes, but have two advantages: they will dry even in humid conditions and will resist moisture better than other types of lacquer finishes.
Oil Wax Finishes

These soak into the wood to protect the interior of each plank; once dry; the top layer of the finish is then buffed to a gentle shine. Drying times vary according to the wood species, the type of finish used, the number of applications and the conditions on site. They generally give off less fumes when drying.
Maintaining an Oil Wax Finish

As long as the floor is clean and does not need another application of the oil wax, then buffing should restore its shine. Rather than complete replacement every five to ten years, refinishing / polishing is needed once (perhaps twice) a year as the surface finish gradually wears away and gets dirty. When cleaning, always use a solvent (not water-based) cleaner specifically recommended for oil wax finishes, wipe clean and then allow at least twenty minutes drying time. Then apply another layer of the oil wax and allow that to dry before buffing.
Pros and Cons
Surface (Lacquer) Finishes

sapele floor panels and stairs finished with gloss lacquerA lacquer floor coating will appear more lustrous when new, and will require less care, but does have a finite lifespan – typically five to ten years. Although some scuffs and scratches can be fixed, the coating will gradually lose its shine (even when clean) and gather more wear and tear. Eventually it will need to be completely removed with a floor sander and a new coating applied.

Left: sapele floor panels and stairs finished with gloss lacquer (click to view enlargement).
Oil / Wax Finishes

chevron oak floor, finished with ‘natural’ oil waxMore work is involved on application, and each application of the finish is less longer lasting and more vulnerable to moisture. However, because the finish soaks into the wood as needed, individual areas can be repaired or re-treated, so the floor’s finish as a whole will generally last longer and the floor will also age beautifully and take on a new character throughout its lifetime.

Left: chevron oak floor, finished with ‘natural’ oil wax (click to view enlargement).