Guide to Wood Floor Finishes for Design Inspiration

Sometimes an afterthought or left to the decision of the flooring contractor, a custom hardwood floor’s finish can greatly contribute to the look of the floor. The type of floor finish will affect the overall sheen, color tone, and texture of the finished floor. In this article we’ll look at how to achieve some specific looks or appearances, using finish options available today.

Light, Low Sheen, Raw or Nearly Untreated Look

While working on sanding down lighter wood floors for homeowners, I can remember more than a few instances of being asked: “Can the floors look like they have no finish? We love how they look right now!” In the past this was not an easy thing to achieve. At that time, waterborne finishes could get you close, but were not quite as durable, not available in a matte sheen, and would often require some type of whitewash treatment to keep the appearance light enough to pass as “nearly untreated”.

Today, floor finish manufacturers have this dialed in with more than a few options of low VOC, extremely durable, low maintenance, water-based poly finishes that are designed to keep the wood light with no sheen:

  • Loba 2K InvisibleProtect A.T. This finish is self-sealing and offers additive options to reduce color change from UV light (recommended for maple floors) and allows for adding a whitener for an even lighter, brighter look
  • Bona NaturalSeal + Traffic Naturale This combination can be used to keep the wood light and low sheen. Alternatively, Bona’s NordicSeal can be used for a lighter appearance
  • Pallmann Pall-X NatureSeal + Pall-X Pure Its appearance is described as “ultra-matte”, Pall-X Pure includes some white pigment to keep the wood looking light
Loba 2k InvisibleProtect on maple

European Oil for No Sheen and No Plastic Film

While not for everyone, the European oil finishes continue to improve through technology. Penetrating oil finishes are a great choice for reclaimed antique flooring. This allows the darker, warm color tones to really pop and allows the texture of the distressed wood to be felt. You can imagine how a thick layer of plastic film can kind of ruin this look. There are a number of manufacturers that offer oil finishes & complementary maintenance products that are specifically designed for wood floors. Oil finishes can give a wood floor a sufficient amount of protection if maintained.

Name# coatsPre-tone colorsBase colors
Loba 2k ImpactOil2518
Pallmann Magic Oil 2k2* 7
Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus 2C12455
WOCA Diamond Active1 or 29
* Magic Oil 2k can be applied over most stains

Since the finish product can include a pigment load and the wood can be treated with a pre-tone color or an aging treatment, there’s an exponential number of color options. Also, because contrasting colors for pre-tone and base colors can be selected this allows for a cerused look.

The Classic Oil-Based Polyurethane Look

To get a more traditional look you could go with a classic oil-based polyurethane finish. When applied clear (no stain) it brings out the colors of the wood and usually adds quite a bit of warmth. This type of finish also adds a bit of warmth to a stained floor. There are downsides to using the old-school oil polyurethanes. These include: Higher VOCs, strong odor before curing, and slow cure time. The slow cure time presents a challenge in new construction and remodeling projects: Generally after finishing the floors you’ll want to cover them to protect while other trades complete the project. The problem is the freshly finished floor should not be covered until fully cured. A typical cure time for oil-based/oil modified urethane is about 30 days.

A solution I’ve found is to use a finish system that cures quickly while also giving you a traditional look. Once again, finish technology gives us an assist and we have some excellent water-based finish options:

  • Berger-Seidle AquaChoice ExoBloc + AquaChoice Greenstar 2k The Exobloc sealer is recommended for sealing exotic woods and when wood grain and color intensity is desired. The 2 Component Greenstar finish features hazard-free labeling and some beautiful gloss level options with ultramatte & satin.
  • Pallmann Pall-X Color + Pall-X Power The Color sealer adds the warm color tones without the use of oil and the single component Power finish is very durable.
  • Bona IntenseSeal or AmberSeal + Mega One or Traffic/HD Bona offers more than a few excellent options here. In addition to the water-based sealer options, their DriFast sealer can be topcoated with their water-based finishes.
  • Loba Hybrid is a water based finish that’s fortified with oil which does help bring out the warm tones and will even amber with age. This finish can be applied directly to most wood species (the exception being white oak). For even more color warmth, first apply Loba 2K Intensive sealer.
Pallmann Pall-X Color, topcoated with Pallmann water-based finish

Color Tones and Compatible Finish Types

The underlying color tone of the wood and/or color treatment for the wood floor should also be considered when choosing a finish. For example, if the floor gets a white or gray stain, a non-yellowing water-based finish with UV protection is a recommended choice. On the other hand, if staining the wood a dark color or if the wood species is dark on its own like walnut or cherry, you may want an oil-based sealer then top coat with a product like Loba Hybrid. Alternatively a penetrating oil could be a great fit to bring out the warmth when working with dark colors.

“What about this finish?”

Have a finish you’re considering for your flooring project, but it’s not mentioned here? Feel free to contact us or leave a comment below.

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