Finishing Hardwood Floors with Polyurethane

Imagine walking into a room, and the first thing that catches your eye is the gleaming hardwood floor, reflecting the soft glow of the overhead lights. That’s the magic of a well-finished hardwood floor. It’s not just about aesthetics, though.

Finishing your hardwood floors is crucial in preserving their beauty and durability. And when it comes to hardwood floor finishes, polyurethane stands out as a popular choice. But why is that? What makes polyurethane a go-to option for many homeowners and professionals alike? Let’s dive in and find out.

Why Polyurethane?

So, why polyurethane? What’s the big deal about it? Well, polyurethane acts as a shield for your hardwood floors. It provides a protective layer that guards against daily wear and tear, scratches, and spills. It’s like a superhero cape for your floors, giving them the power to withstand the rigors of a busy household or commercial space.

But the benefits of polyurethane extend beyond just protection. It enhances the natural beauty of the wood, giving it a rich, glossy finish that can range from high-gloss to matte, depending on your preference. It’s also resistant to heat and chemicals, making it a durable choice for kitchens and other high-traffic areas. So, is polyurethane a good floor finish? Absolutely! It offers a blend of beauty and durability that’s hard to beat.

Types of Polyurethane

Now that we’ve established polyurethane’s benefits, let’s delve into the available types. The two main types of polyurethane used for hardwood floors are water-based and oil-based. Each has its own set of advantages and considerations.

Water-based polyurethane is known for its low odor and quick drying time. It’s also crystal clear so that it won’t add color to your floor. This can be a plus if you want to preserve the natural color of your wood. However, it tends to be less durable than its oil-based counterpart.

On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane offers superior durability and longevity. It imparts a warm, amber hue to the wood, which can enhance the grain and character of your floor. However, it takes longer to dry and has a stronger odor during application.

So, when it comes to “floor polyurethane vs regular polyurethane” or “water-based polyurethane for floors vs oil-based polyurethane for floors”, the choice largely depends on your specific needs and preferences. Both types have merits and can provide a beautiful and durable finish for your hardwood floors.

Application Process and Best Practices

Applying polyurethane to your hardwood floors may seem like a daunting task. Still, with the right tools and patience, you can achieve a professional-looking finish. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  1. Preparation: Start by cleaning your floors thoroughly. Any dust or debris can get trapped in the finish, so make sure your floors are as clean as possible.
  2. Sanding: Lightly sand the floors using a fine-grit sandpaper. This will help the polyurethane adhere better to the wood.
  3. Applying the Polyurethane: Pour some polyurethane into a paint tray. Applying the polyurethane in long, even strokes along the wood grain using a high-quality, natural-bristle brush or a lambswool roller. Avoid overloading your brush or roller to prevent drips.
  4. Drying: Allow the polyurethane to dry completely. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a full day, depending on the type of polyurethane you’re using and the conditions in your home.
  5. Sanding Between Coats: Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the floors using fine-grit sandpaper. This will help the next coat adhere better.
  6. Applying Additional Coats: Repeat the application and sanding process for at least two more coats. Remember always to allow each coat to dry completely before moving on to the next.
  7. Final Drying: After applying the final coat, let the floors dry for several days before moving furniture back into the room.

Regarding the “best applicator for polyurethane on hardwood floors”, a natural-bristle brush or a lambswool roller are both excellent choices. They can help you achieve a smooth, even finish without bubbles or streaks.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Applying polyurethane to hardwood floors is a relatively straightforward process. Still, there are a few common mistakes to watch out for:

  1. Skipping the Prep Work: As tempting as it may be to dive right in, don’t skip the prep work. Cleaning and sanding your floors properly can greatly affect the final result.
  2. Applying Too Much Polyurethane: More is not always better. Applying too much polyurethane can lead to an uneven finish that takes longer to dry. It’s better to apply several thin coats rather than one thick one.
  3. Not Allowing Enough Drying Time: Patience is key when applying polyurethane. Rushing the drying process can lead to a finish that’s not as durable or shiny as it could be.
  4. Skipping Sanding Between Coats: Sanding between coats may seem unnecessary, but it’s crucial for achieving a smooth, even finish. It helps the next coat adhere better and removes any dust or debris that may have settled on the floor while the previous coat was drying.


Once you’ve invested the time and effort into finishing your hardwood floors with polyurethane, you’ll want to ensure they stay looking their best for as long as possible. So, how do you maintain and care for your polyurethane-finished floors?

Firstly, regular cleaning is key. Use a soft, dry mop or vacuum to remove dust and debris. Avoid using water or steam mops as they can damage the finish. Use a damp cloth and a mild, pH-neutral cleaner for stubborn stains.

Secondly, protect your floors from scratches. Use felt pads under furniture legs and avoid wearing high heels or cleats on your hardwood floors. If you have pets, keep their nails trimmed to prevent scratches.

Finally, consider reapplying a coat of polyurethane every few years to refresh the finish. This can help maintain the shine and durability of your floors.

So, how long will polyurethane last on hardwood floors? A polyurethane finish can last many years with proper care and maintenance. However, the exact lifespan can vary depending on factors such as the amount of foot traffic and the specific conditions in your home.


Can you put polyurethane on hardwood floors without sanding?

While it’s technically possible to apply polyurethane without sanding, it’s not recommended. Sanding helps the polyurethane adhere to the wood, creating a smoother, more even finish. Without sanding, the polyurethane may not stick properly, leading to a less durable finish and may peel over time.

Should you polyurethane hardwood floors?

Absolutely! Applying polyurethane to your hardwood floors can enhance their natural beauty and protect them from wear and tear. It’s a worthwhile investment that can prolong the life of your floors and keep them looking their best.

How many coats of polyurethane should you put on hardwood floors?

Typically, two to three coats of polyurethane are recommended for hardwood floors. However, the exact number can depend on the type of polyurethane you’re using and the specific conditions of your floors. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the best results.

How long does it take for polyurethane to dry on hardwood floors?

The drying time for polyurethane can vary depending on factors such as the type of polyurethane, the temperature and humidity in your home, and the thickness of the application. However, as a general rule, you should allow at least 24 hours for each coat to dry before applying the next one.

Product Reviews

When choosing the right polyurethane for your hardwood floors, several top-rated products stand out for their quality and performance. Here are a few options to consider:

  1. ZAR® 36212 Ultra Max Waterborne Oil Modified Polyurethane, Satin Sheen, 1 Qt: This product combines the advantages of both oil-based and water-based polyurethane. It offers the durability and rich finish of oil-based polyurethane, while being low-odor and quick-drying like a water-based product. Priced at $31.80, it’s a versatile choice for various hardwood floors.
  2. Polyvine – Heavy Duty Wood Varnish, Satin Clear: This heavy-duty varnish is designed to withstand the rigors of high-traffic areas. It provides a clear, satin finish that enhances the natural beauty of the wood. Available for $11.99, it’s a budget-friendly option that doesn’t compromise quality.
  3. Woodoc 25 Polyurethane Wooden Floor Sealer: This product is designed to seal and protect wooden floors. It offers excellent durability and a beautiful finish. Priced at £23.72, it’s a solid investment in the longevity of your floors.
  4. Floor Fast Varnish: This varnish is designed to dry quickly, making it a convenient choice for busy households. It provides a durable finish that can withstand daily wear and tear. Available for £54.95, it’s a high-quality option for those who need a quick-drying solution.
  5. PolyWhey Floor Finish: This innovative product uses whey protein to create a durable, eco-friendly finish. It’s easy to apply and provides a beautiful, low-sheen finish. Priced at $10.00, it’s an affordable and environmentally friendly choice.

Safety Precautions

Working with polyurethane requires certain safety precautions to protect yourself and your surroundings. Here are some safety measures to keep in mind:

  1. Ventilation: Polyurethane can release harmful fumes if inhaled. Ensure you’re working in a well-ventilated area, and consider using a fan to help circulate the air.
  2. Protective Gear: Wear protective gear such as gloves and safety glasses to protect your skin and eyes from contact with the polyurethane. If the area is not well-ventilated, consider wearing a respirator or mask.
  3. Clothing: Wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting stained. Polyurethane can be difficult to remove from fabric.
  4. Fire Safety: Polyurethane is flammable. Please keep it away from open flames, and don’t smoke while working with it. Dispose of used rags properly, as they can spontaneously combust if not handled correctly.
  5. Clean Up: Clean up any spills immediately with a cloth dampened with mineral spirits. Once the polyurethane has dried, it can be very difficult to remove.

Alternatives to Polyurethane

While polyurethane is a popular choice for finishing hardwood floors, it’s not the only option. Here are some alternatives to consider:

  1. Shellac: This natural finish is made from secretions of the lac bug. It’s non-toxic, dries quickly, and gives a warm, rich finish. However, it’s not as durable as polyurethane and is susceptible to water damage.
  2. Varnish: Varnish is a durable finish that protects against water and heat. However, it takes longer to dry than polyurethane and can darken.
  3. Lacquer: Lacquer dries quickly and provides a hard, durable finish. However, it’s more difficult to apply than polyurethane and requires a sprayer.
  4. Oil Finishes: Oil finishes such as tung oil and linseed oil penetrate the wood and enhance its natural beauty. They’re easy to apply and repair but don’t provide as much protection as polyurethane.
  5. Wax: Wax is easy to apply and gives a soft, matte finish. However, it’s not as durable as other finishes and requires regular reapplication.

Cost Considerations

When planning to finish your hardwood floors with polyurethane, it’s essential to consider both the cost of the product and the labor involved. The average cost of installing hardwood floors is between $3-$10 per square foot for materials and $3-$8 per square foot for labor, totaling $6-$18 per square foot.

If you’re refinishing existing floors, the price can range between $1,098 and $2,652, with an average cost of $1,868. These costs can vary based on several factors, including the type of hardwood flooring, the type of polyurethane you choose, and the size of your home.

Expert Opinions

Experts agree that polyurethane is a good choice for hardwood floors. A well-maintained polyurethane finish can last for decades. It’s also versatile, with different finishes available, including semi-gloss, satin, and gloss.

Many experts consider water-based polyurethane to be the best choice for hardwood floors. High-level water-based polyurethane is as durable as oil, easier to apply, and better for you, your family, your pets, and the environment.

Your beautiful solid hardwood or engineered wood floor deserves the best possible finish, and polyurethane is a good floor finish that’s easy to apply and cures rapidly.

DIY vs. Hiring Professionals

When applying polyurethane on hardwood floors, you have two options: doing it yourself (DIY) or hiring professionals. Each option has its pros and cons.

DIY Pros:

  • Cost Savings: Doing it yourself can save you money on labor costs.
  • Control: You have complete control over the process and can ensure it’s done to your satisfaction.

DIY Cons:

  • Time-Consuming: The process can be time-consuming, especially if you’re new to it.
  • Risk of Mistakes: Without professional experience, you might make mistakes that could affect the final result.

Hiring Professionals Pros:

  • Expertise: Professionals have the experience and knowledge to do the job correctly and efficiently.
  • Time-Saving: Hiring professionals can save you a lot of time and effort.

Hiring Professionals Cons:

  • Cost: Hiring professionals can be more expensive than doing it yourself.
  • Availability: You’ll need to schedule the work according to the professionals’ availability, which might not always align with your schedule.


Applying polyurethane to hardwood floors can sometimes lead to issues. Here are some common problems and their solutions:

  1. Bubbles in the Finish: This can occur if the polyurethane is shaken before application or applied too quickly. To avoid this, stir the polyurethane gently before use and apply it slowly and evenly.
  2. Uneven Finish: This can happen if the polyurethane is not applied evenly or the room temperature is too high or low. Ensure you apply the polyurethane in a thin, even coat and keep the room at a moderate temperature.
  3. Dust in the Finish: Dust can settle on the wet polyurethane and create a rough texture. To prevent this, clean the room thoroughly before applying the polyurethane and avoid any dusty activities until the polyurethane has dried.
  4. Yellowing: Oil-based polyurethane can yellow over time, especially in rooms with a lot of sunlight. If you want to avoid yellowing, consider using a water-based polyurethane.

Environmental Impact and Future Trends

The use of polyurethane on hardwood floors has both environmental implications and future trends worth noting.

Polyurethane, both water-based and oil-based, protects natural wood floors, leaving behind a shiny coating. However, the environmental impact of these two types differs. Water-based polyurethane is generally considered more environmentally friendly as it has lower volatile organic compound (VOC) levels and doesn’t yellow over time. On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane, while providing a durable finish, can release more VOCs into the environment and may yellow over time1.

Looking ahead, hardwood floor trends combine traditional styles with many new styles, designs, and colors. As technology improves, wood competitors like laminate flooring, vinyl flooring, and tile are upping their game. Wood manufacturers must keep things interesting, trendy, and up-to-date to stay in the game. This could mean the development of more environmentally friendly finishes or innovative application techniques.


Finishing hardwood floors with polyurethane is a task that requires careful consideration and preparation. From understanding the benefits of polyurethane to learning about its application process, common mistakes, and maintenance, it’s clear that this finish can significantly enhance the durability and aesthetic appeal of your hardwood floors. Whether you decide to DIY or hire professionals, remember to consider the environmental impact and stay updated with future trends in hardwood floor finishing.