What is better: water based or oil based finish?

Q: We just bought a house and are having the floors professionally done. What is better: water based or oil based polyurethane finish?

A: I still believe an omu will out perform a water borne finish, but it depends on the situation. There are circumstances where a water borne is superior. I don’t know your situation…

Similar Q: We`re just about to have previously waxed hardwood floors professionally sanded and refinished with a sealed finish. We have had 2 estimates done, but both use very different products. One is oil-based, the other waterbourne. I`m finding it very confusing. I`ve checked out various sites comparing both but there seems to be as many opinions as sites. Could you help please?

A: Each type of finish carries with it certain advantages over the other. I’m still more convinced that oil or solvent finishes tend to have better long term durability because they take longer to set up and dry, therefore they actually penetrate better into the floor surface. Some of the higher end water borne finishes are very tough. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily very safe and environmentally friendly as they almost all use a cross linker containing Iso-cyanate. They tend to also be quite expensive compared to the solvent type counter parts. One distinct advantage a water borne may have with an old floor that has been waxed is that it won’t activate wax that is lodged between the boards, causing wax bleed out. If there are no personal issues with finish odour and slower cure times, I would tend to still go with the oil based finish.

Please tell me all you know about Waterlox

Q: Please tell me all you know about Waterlox. Will it work on 10′ wide pine planks (not reclaimed) and look good? Do you need to sand between coats? Can I stain first and then apply or should I just put the waterlox down?

A: Waterlox is amazing on pine, especially if staining. Mix he stain with WL 4-1 and apply. No adhesion issues. No need to buff between coats. Easy to apply another coat. What more can I say?


Q: I bought some antique maple beech flooring 3/4 unfinished and put Duraseal on it. I think I made a mistake. I wanted the patina to come through. Can I apply an oil based sealer? With screening or not?

A: I think you will need to sand over, but if you are intent on now applying an oil based (polyurethane) sealer to the finish coat, absolutely screen. I don’t see what applying this way will accomplish however. The polyurethane sealer is meant to penetrate the wood, which it cannot do now that you have applied a poly finish coat.

Choosing a finish

Q: After applying the stain to the hardwood tread what do you suggest should be applied next? Any suggestions on types, brands, etc.?

A: It depends the look you want. You really only have a few choices. Oil modified which can be a tough finish but will darken with age to some degree. Water borne which is clear and won’t change as much. A product like Waterlox which is a penetrating oil which has more of a natural look. I prefer Poloplaz coatings. Great finishes. Great company. Their Primero is the best finish I’ve used in 35 years.

Amateur friendly finish?

Q: I have spent an excessive amount of time preparing my hardwood floors in my home for refinish. I have come to the conclusion (through reading in forums) that oil based polyurethanes are the most durable, therefore, that is what I want to use. My question is, what are your thoughts, as a professional floor refinisher, of M***** Super Fast Drying Polyurethane for floors? Have you ever used it? Is it a long lasting finish? Is it user friendly for amateurs as myself? Would you recommend it? Thank you very much for your opinion.

A: I have not had great feedback on that finish. So, no I would not consider it user friendly. Professionals go through a lot of stress with finishes. For an amateur, I would suggest Circa1850, and though I had used that finish for a number of years, it won’t stand up to what I now use. This is not do it yourself work. You are trying to do this work as cheap as you can with the cheapest products. In the end, you will be lucky to get satisfactory results.

Stain and polyurethane compatible? And pricing…

Q: Is there a way to tell if the stain and polyurethane are compatible? I have heard that sometimes using ones that are not compatible will cause it to flake? I had a quote from a gentleman to lay about 1200sf and finish a total of 1500sf for $3700 with H**** brand stain or poly– I am not sure. Is this a good or bad price? How do I know if the job he does is good? What are the proper steps in finishing the floor; including sanding, buffing, how many coats, etc., so that I can supervise him?

A: I know prices may vary from one area to another. Let me understand this… He is installing 1200 sq. ft. and then sanding, staining and finishing 1500 sq. ft., for $3700?

If I was doing this job, my price would be $7725. This is to install, sand, stain, and finish; but not to supply the flooring nor any trim needed. I would get several quotes to see where this price is compared to others. It sounds far too low to me, and that throws up red flags, if your main goal is to have a good job done.

Most stains are compatible with polyurethane provided they are properly applied and allowed to dry before coating.

Follow-up Q: That is correct. I would be providing the flooring. There is about 300sf of existing flooring that needs to be refinished. There are no doors, and no baseboard installed anywhere in the house. I saw a house he did and it looked “good,” but I have no idea how to tell if it specifically is a good or bad job.

A: This is how I look at this work. I’ve been doing it more than 34 years. I’m not getting rich. Price break down is: $3.35 sq. ft. to sand, stain and finish with 3 coats. I use Poloplaz finishes which are second to none. I am not an “installer” per se. Generally, a floor installer is someone who is really fast. I have yet to see one of these guys pay any attention to detail. Their entire objective is to get the floor down fast and cheap. I do a good install, but I’m not fast. Certain issues with installing take time and attention. $2.25 sq. ft. to install… If someone is doing this work for half what I charge, and I am not making a killing, then the only way they can make a dime is to get in, get out fast and get paid. It makes me wonder.

Refinishing floors by hand, using shellac?

Ralph’s step by step instructions:

01) Remove molding

02) Vacuum all cracks

03) Wipe floor down with damp rag & let dry

04) Sand lightly with ridig sander (finishing paper) or by hand

05) Vacuum floor

06) Repeat steps 2-4, 3 times

07) Wipe floor down with alcohol, let dry

08) Mix 1 qt: 1/2 5 lb. shellac & 1/2 alcohol

09) Using 1″ fine brush — paint on slowly in direction of grain, board by board, no bubbles

10) Clean brush

11) Repeat step 9-10, 2 times

12) Using 1″ fine brush – paint on (1) coat un cut 5 lb. shellac in direction of grain, board by board

13) Let dry for 1 week

14) Sand and shellac molding using the same process. replace molding

15) Clean brush

16) Apply 1 even coat of spar varnish on floor & molding — let dry for 1 week

17) TAKE PICTURES — Floor will be like a mirror AND LAST

I understand I do an overkill, but the quality of the results are worth it, to me. I only use shellac/brush.

I have wood I did in this manner 45 years ago. I looks like I did it last week. If you want a quality job you have to put in the time and effort. This may not be for everybody. I hate the words “cost effective” — to me this means a cheap/quick schlep job.

I have gone through 8 pen knives scraping corners.

For a few pennies more you go first class.

(Ralph Fry)

Craig’s suggestions: I would question using “shellac” as a seal coat. It contains a natural wax which will not allow adhesion of other top coats. There are de-waxed shellac products that offer better results. Zinsser universal sealer or Dura Seal Universal Sealer are good choices. Good adhesion on both sides of the shellac.

The main advantage of de-waxed shellac is it’s adhesion properties on certain old floors that contain “contaminants”. Current floor finishes far exceed such finishes generally. Everything has its place and time. With de-waxed shellac, you can coat in about 45 minutes.

I think wasting 8 pen knives, scraping corners, was unnecessary. You could have bought a hand scraper and fine edge file, and done the job a lot better and faster, not even coming close to using up the one blade.

I would consider your methods out of touch with modern technology.
(But to each his own cup of tea, eh?)

Go with Duraseal’s liquid wax products

Q: I have newly installed wormy red oak floors, installed over felt paper, over a 3/4″ plywood sub-floor, over a structural concrete slab, which was covered with plastic cement and plastic sheeting (calcium chloride tests were performed and results were well within acceptable limits).

The wood has not yet been sanded or finished. We would like a wax finish on these floors, and we also want to stain them. Do you recommend a paste wax initially, or can we go with Duraseal’s liquid wax products, which can be maintained with their Renovator? Can paste wax floors be maintained with the Duraseal product?

I have personally used the Duraseal liquid wax and renovator products on the previously waxed floors, on the second floor of our home, and the products seem to work well. If you recommend the Duraseal over paste wax, can we just add the stain to the Duraseal liquid wax?

A: I would stick with the Dura Finish. You have used it and had good success. Why switch? It is a lot easier to apply than paste wax. I would stain the floor as a separate process and let it dry well before waxing. I think they also have colored wax. The problem with it is you tend to pick up the colour on your socks.

An optional finish to wax you might consider is Waterlox Tung oil based finish. Easy to apply and maintain/refresh. And if you can achieve the desired colour, can add stain to it on the first and second coats at 4:1 mix or less and simply apply. Stained and coated in one step! www.waterlox.com

Seal Coat uses, concerning wax

Follow-up Q: I understand that once wax is put on polyurethane floors they have to be stripped to bare wood, if they have to be refinished, but is there any other disadvantage? I like the rich look of wax more than polyurethane. We have had to refinish our 200 year old wide board pumpkin pine polyurethaned kitchen floors every 4 or 5 years because of the volume of traffic.

Would it not make more sense to protect them with wax from the very beginning so that this won’t be necessary, as often? Also, you mentioned Zinsser Seal Coat that can seal wax so that polyurethane can be reapplied… Did I understand you correctly? Have you actually used the Seal Coat and has it stood up?

A: First, regarding Seal Coat: I didn’t mean to imply that if a floor is finished with wax that Seal Coat will adhere. Where it does come in handy is for old strip floors which, over the years had been waxed, and that wax has gotten between boards and cannot be removed. Applying your typical omu finishes with mineral spirit solvents will likely activate/soften that wax and cause what I would describe as “wax bleed” along the edges of each board.

The idea with a top coat type of finish is that it will give good wear ability and when it comes time to brighten it up, it can be buffed and re coated. However, there is another product I have used on several jobs over the past year which I am quite impressed with. Waterlox. www.waterlox.com

It is a tung oil based penetrating finish that is extremely easy to apply and touch up. It is also #1 if you want to stain your floor. Simply mix 4 parts Waterlox to 1 part stain and apply. No wiping off. Then apply the number of coats of Waterlox after that has dried. I would say their satin is somewhat of a wax look alike. this finish offers decent durability, and excellent moisture resistance. It is also very easy to apply another coat to refresh the finish and take care of the assortment of scratches that will happen with daily use. Buffing is not required for adhesion purposes. I suspect this product may be the perfect solution for you. I totally agree with you that we don’t want to be sanding the floor every so many years.

What is the very best finish for hardwood floors?

Q: What is the very best finish for hardwood floors that you can get? One that resists traffic flow wear, scratches, pet markings, etc.?

A: There are a lot of excellent finishes on the market. I was recently sent 4 gallons of one product to sample recently and was so impressed with it, I had 120 gallons shipped from Arkansas! The company is Poloplaz. The product is Primero. It is oil modified. High solids. Very tough when cured. Excellent drying, even under poor conditions. Applies like velvet. Absolutely the best finish in every way that I have ever worked with. And I have been applying coatings for more than 34 years.

Related Q: What is the best finish to use on hardwood (no stain) floors? Oil based polyurethane or shellac?

A: Oil or solvent based polyurethane is better. Much more durable and safer to apply. Shellac has a low flash point which presents a significant explosion risk when using over a large area.

Different finishing styles

Q: I am in the process of having my wood floors redone. I am getting different opinions about finishes from each refinisher that I have questioned. Some have recommended 2 coats of gloss for durability, and finish with a 3rd coat of semi-gloss. Another refinisher said there is no difference in durability between gloss and semi-gloss. He insists that 3 coats of semi-gloss will be just as durable as 2 gloss, 1 semi. Who is right?

A: If you are talking about oil modified compared to water borne finishes, I always apply gloss first. It does seem to be a bit tougher. I say this because it is harder to buff down between coats than satin or semi. Besides that, gloss does not contain silica, which is used as a flattening agent. This flattening agent can cause grief to the coater at times, with streaking and mop stops. Gloss is harmless on that front.

Using tongue oil as the conditioner

Q: We have 8 wooden chairs with rush seating. They were left on a covered porch in the rain and a serious mildew(ing) occurred. I have cleared the problem with a 15% bleach/85% water solution and they are looking very good. My next move will be to soak them with a mildew-resistant sealer, but first I would like to apply some type of conditioner/moisturizer. Do you have any suggestions? The actual rush seems to be a natural fabric. Someone suggested using tongue oil as the conditioner before the sealer is applied. What do you think?

A: With a tung oil based product such as Waterlox, you would get excellent penetration and moisture protection. www.waterlox.com


As for Waterlox, the top 5 ingredients in each can are:

Mineral Spirits
Specially Processed tung oil
Ester gum
Phenolic resin
Specially Processed Linseed Oil

It is not a pure tung oil finish. However, cooking the oil does not make tung oil “impure”. When it is heated it is called polymerized tung oil. this process helps the oil dry. They have to add mineral spirits to it at this point or it would be unworkable. It would be amazing if I could use pure tung oil on a floor. However, speaking with tech people, I have learned it won’t work. It would take at least 2 days per coat to dry. You would need at least 10 coats. This would have to be repeated every few months.

The Waterlox finish doesn’t bother me. However, it does bother others. My wife said she doesn’t know how I work with it. It gives her a head ache. So, it is probably best to vacate for a few days during staining/finishing.

Hardwax oil finish

Q: Are you familiar with O*** P**** oil? How does it compare to Waterlox? I really like the look and benefits (easily repairable) of a hardwax oil finish. It seems technology has made even this type of floor low maintenance.

A: I have a friend in England who uses Osmo oil and says it is a nice finish, but takes 28 days to cure. I’ve not used their products but have used Waterlox. This tung oil based finish is very easy to apply and re coat when the time is needed. No buffing needed to gain adhesion. It is a grainy look compared to a hard polyurethane coating but offers excellent resistance to spills. It’s strongest point, in my view, is it’s ease of use. They say full cure in 7 days, during which time it is subject to scuffing…which isn’t the end of the world.

Tung oil on pine floors?

Q: I have recently looked at a pine floor in a new house and the home owner asked if I could put tung oil on pine floors instead of poly. She told me that she had read it in a magazine, and that it said to wipe the tung oil on then wipe it off. Then, wait for a while and repeat it again. Three times. I told her that I have never done this before and that I would get some input on this matter and get back with her. Can you just put tung oil on a pine floor with out any protection on the top off the oil, and if so is this the correct procedure to do it?

A: I went through this process 6 months ago when a customer with nearly 4000 sq. ft. of new pine wanted it stained and finished, but did not want a polyurethane type product. All my emails and discussions with tech people etc. has given me this: Pure tung oil as a finish won’t work. It is very expensive and very slow drying. You would need at least 10 coats, each taking at least 2 days to dry, which would have to be repeated every 3 months. It doesn’t work! The better choice from this is the polymerized tung oil which basically is cooked and then has mineral spirits added so you can work with it and it will dry. More expensive than the pure tung oil and not a good choice.

I discovered Waterlox which has tung oil as one of the main 5 ingredients. It also contains mineral spirits, linseed oil and resins. This product is fantastic. Easy to apply. No wiping off of the finish. You just apply it with a lamby and go home. No buffing needed to gain adhesion between coats. So, easy to care for. www.waterlox.com

If you have a customer that wants that type of finish, this is the only way to go. None of the other so called “penetrating oils” do a thing.

Types of finishes

Q: I have just finished installing my oak strip flooring and am looking into the types of finishes. So far it’s between Waterlox or Minwax Polyurethane. The thing is that I am looking for a finish that will allow my floor to keep its light, natural hue, rather then giving it a golden/tan/yellow coloring that would take effect with these types of finishes. What would you recommend as to using to allow my oak flooring to keep its natural, white color?

A: In that case, you are best to use a good quality water borne finish. I can name a few: Bona Kemi Traffic, Mega. Basic Coatings Street Shoe, Hydroline, Dura Seal 2000, or X-Terra. Personally, I don’t like waterborne finishes. I don’t like the look. They can be risky to deal with and difficult to apply. Make sure you read the MSDS. I would go with the Waterlox, but that is just me.

Polyurethane vs oil finish (Brazilian walnut)

Q: We are planning to lay down a Brazilian Walnut floor in a renovation. I’m wondering if you can compare the pros and cons of a polyurethane vs oil finish?

A: I haven’t had to deal with one of these floors yet….thankfully.:) This wood is very hard and dense. Some of these exotics can be problematic because of the resins they contain. In cases like this, sometimes a water borne urethane is the answer because it doesn’t react with these resins as an solvent based finish would. I know a young contractor who had good success with tung oil with this type of wood. An excellent product which is not pure tung oil, but has it as a main ingredient is Waterlox. Excellent penetration into the wood. It does build a film that offers good durability and is a snap to care for and refresh. That is the route I would go, but first I would speak with the manufacturers of this excellent product to get their feedback. www.waterlox.com

I may add that if you find this product doesn’t work for you, then you can always apply a top coating over it later. I know of some workers in the U.S. who like to apply 2 coats of Waterlox, and then 2 coats of either solvent based or waterborne on top of that. Main thing is to ask questions and test before proceeding. They will likely get a small can to you so you can test it out.

I would appreciate it if you let me know how this proceeds.

Large dogs and wood floors… best wood species, finishes / coatings

Q: I just obtained some pre-finished samples to help me choose the species, color and finish of my new floor. I have a dog. I tried to see how resilient the flooring would be by scratching the samples with my thumbnail. None of the samples seem very resilient, but what really seems to scratch is the finish, not the wood, and this uses the aluminum oxide.

A: First, I am not a big fan of factory finished floors for most situations. It is true that the aluminium oxide coating is tough and abrasion resistant. This becomes quite a problem down the road when it gets covered in surface scratches and needs to be re coated. Remember this finish is abrasion resistant, and we must abrade it to create a mechanic bond.

Being a dog lover as myself, of course, you won’t want to become a slave to your floor. Keep his nails trimmed and filed. The tendency is to get nail impressions in the wood without compromising the finish right away. This holds true even with my site finished jobs where I use polyurethane coatings. However, at least my coating can be buffed and freshened up later if need be.

With a large dog, I would tend to recommend a wood with heavy grain. This will help hide scratches. On the reverse, a floor such as maple, though harder than oak, has very tight veining and these nail impressions will really stand out. In a short time, that is really all you will see. Hundreds of claw impressions in the floor surface itself.

I have recently been working with a different kind of finish which I really like and am recommending. It is a Tung oil based penetrating oil called Waterlox. www.waterlox.com. This product is so easy to apply and care for, touching up an area is as simple as making sure the floor is clean and either wiping a small amount over the area with a cloth or brush. It offers good durability and excellent water repulsion.

Similar Q: What is the best poly to use on floors we are finishing, with large dogs in mind? I found a lot of people are asking questions about large dogs and wood floors, but I can’t find the answer. Thank you.

A: I’ve been using Poloplaz Primero for a number of years. Excellent coating. Easy to apply with a roller and quite a tough finish also. The best I’ve used in this class of floor finish. There are harder finishes of the types moisture cured and acid cured. But believe me, you don’t want to even consider those. They are truly nasty and not easy to work with. I can recommend Primero: www.poloplaz.com.