Polyurethane vs Varnish: How to Choose the Best Hardwood Floor Finish

Polyurethane vs Varnish: How to Choose the Best Hardwood Floor Finish

Gleaming hardwood floors can make a house feel like home. As you eye that tired oak or maple flooring dreaming of an updated, classic look, a big choice looms about what protective finish to apply. Should you coat the refreshed planks with long-lasting polyurethane or flexible, forgiving varnish?

Don't panic. Even floor finishing pros wrestle between poly vs varnish. While budget and personal taste matter, focusing first on how you'll actually live on these floors brings key differences between these clear sealers into focus. Let's explore what sets polyurethane and varnish finishes apart so you can make an informed decision for your needs and lifestyle.

A quick look sheet:

Feature Polyurethane Varnish
Durability Extremely durable, lasts 5-10 years Good durability, lasts 2-4 years
Scratch Resistance High resistance to scratches, stains, gouges Less scratch-resistant than polyurethane
Drying Time Longer drying time (oil-based) Faster drying time
Application Can be difficult; prone to bubbles and uneven coat Self-levels to minimize imperfections; easier application
Aesthetics Minimizes color change; can add glossiness Enhances wood grain; creates a satin luster that fades to an even matte
VOC Emissions & Odor Higher VOCs for oil-based; lower for water-based Lower VOCs especially for water-based options
Cost Less frequent reapplication means lower long-term cost May require more frequent renewal, slightly higher cost over time
Lifestyle Suitability Ideal for high traffic and heavy wear areas Better for quick turnarounds and lower-traffic areas
Types Available Oil-based and water-based Oil-based, water-based, marine spar, floor wax

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a tough, protective clear finish commonly used to seal and protect wood floors. It contains resins that cure into a plastic-like coating over the boards that resists scratches, stains, gouges, and heavy foot traffic.

There are two main types of polyurethane floor finish:

  • Oil-based polyurethane: Made from resins suspended in petroleum solvents, oil-based polys form a hard, durable finish coat and tend to enhance the natural color of wood. However, they are higher in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Water-based polyurethane: Resins are suspended in water rather than petroleum. Water-based polys still provide durability and scratch resistance, but they don't enhance wood color as much as oil-based and may raise the wood grain slightly. They also dry much faster with less odor and cleaner application.


  • Extremely durable for a long-lasting finish
  • Withstands heavy foot traffic
  • Typically lasts 5-10 years before needing a renewal coat


  • Oil-based emits strong fumes during application
  • Slower drying time than varnishes
  • Bubbles and an uneven coat if improperly applied
Polyurethane is a tough, protective clear finish commonly used to seal and protect wood floors.

What is Varnish?

Varnish is another clear protective finish used on wood floors, also made from resins suspended in a solvent that cures into a hard, protective plastic-like coating. Types of floor varnish include:

  • Oil-based varnish: Suspended in petroleum solvents like oil-based polyurethane. Forms a slightly more flexible finish than poly and brings out a warm wood tone. Still emits some VOCs.
  • Water-based varnish: Uses water as the solvent. Lower in VOCs but still forms an impressively durable finish. Minimizes color changes to wood.
  • Marine spar varnish: Made to withstand sun/water exposure. It has a flexible finish and is water-resistant. Great scratch protection.
  • Floor wax: A softer liquid compound that self-levels as it dries. Protects with a thin coat but requires frequent reapplication.


  • Enhances wood grain well while allowing the surface to breathe
  • Forgiving finish that self-levels to minimize imperfections
  • Faster drying time than polyurethane


  • Not as inherently durable or scratch-resistant as polyurethane
  • Needs reapplication every 2-4 years
  • Can still bubble/drip if brushed poorly

Key Considerations When Choosing Between Finishes

Durability and Longevity

Polyurethane forms an exceptionally hardy protective barrier that withstands heavy foot traffic over time. Expect to recoat polyurethane finishes approximately every 5-10 years under normal use. Poly can better withstand pet claws, dropped dishes, moving furniture, and kid or party mishaps with less denting or scratching compared to varnish.

Varnish finishes do lend good durability and longevity to wood floors, but not to the same level as polyurethane. On average, varnish finishes last 2-4 years before needing a renewal coat. The resins don't cure quite as hard, so varnish may show light scratching, scuffs, and dents sooner. The flexibility can be a plus though when it comes to resisting cracks.

Assess your lifestyle - will children or pets be toddling about? Do you plan to rearrange furnishings frequently or have large gatherings? Opt for the true workhorse polyurethane finish if heavy daily wear-and-tear is expected.

Application and Drying Time

Oil-based polyurethanes have a significantly longer drying time than varnishes - sometimes 24-48 hours between coats. This makes the refinishing process longer. Water-based polys dry faster, but humidity can still retard curing. Cool climates are not ideal for poly.

Meanwhile, varnishes typically dry to the touch in just 8-24 hours before recoating. This means you can complete the application process faster, which is a perk for heavily used spaces like kitchens.

If you lack the patience for a slower process spanning several days or need to return a room to light service quickly, varnish may better suit your temperament.

Key Considerations When Choosing Between Finishes

Aesthetic Qualities

Polyurethane finishes excel at protecting wood floors while allowing the natural richness of the grain and tone to take center stage. In most cases, they minimize amber changes to the color. But poly can add a glossier sheen that lightens over time.

Varnish enhances wood floors with subtle warmth yet maintains more of the original color tones. It creates a satin luster - slightly glossy when first applied but fades to an even matte. The self-leveling nature of varnish also masks minor imperfections.

While both finishes yield beautiful results, analyze the floors to determine if you want to emphasize or downplay certain markings and undertones.

VOC Emissions and Odor

Oil-based polyurethanes and varnishes emit stronger fumes during application due to higher volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritations, as well as exacerbate asthma and allergies.

Water-based polyurethane and varnish options significantly reduce potential VOC exposure. Most water-based finishes still protect beautifully with under 150 grams per liter emissions once cured.

If you have small children, elderly family members, or those with respiratory issues in the home, low-VOC water-based finishes greatly minimize the risks of aggravating health conditions. Open windows and ventilate well regardless of finish.

Ease of Use

Applying polyurethane takes a steady hand. It's thicker than water-based varnish and dries slower, so can drip or run if you brush too heavily. Pouring a smaller amount into a paint tray to work from can allow better control. Stir thoroughly between coats too.

Varnish levels out brush strokes and drips more effectively since it dries faster. Going with the wood grain in thin, even strokes avoids leaving visible mark lines. Still don't overload the brush but varnish still yields a smoother, more forgiving finish for amateurs.

If your DIY skills feel shaky, varnish eases novice angst. Or you can hire an expert floor refinisher for a flawless polyurethane coat instead.

Cost Analysis

Oil-based varnish costs more per gallon than polyurethane. But the coverage area per coat is similar and varnish usually only requires 2-3 thin applications versus 3-5 coats of poly. That evens out product costs, though varnish still runs slightly pricier.

The big savings with polyurethane comes from not needing to reapply it nearly as often. Spread over 5-10 years between recoats, the price per year of floor protection becomes quite affordable.

Whichever finish you select, prep materials like protective masks, gloves, stir sticks, and tackcloths do add expenses. Creating a pleasant work area and preventing accidents drives up the budget fast. Plan accordingly!

Planning for Post-Finishing Temporary Floor Protection

Once you choose and apply a protective finish to hardwood floors, taking steps to safeguard the curing finish ensures it reaches maximum durability. Two prime scenarios may call for temporary floor protection post-refinishing:

During Renovations: If further construction like interior painting or countertop installations will happen in the same room, shield the floors from dust, debris, and working footsteps by laying down heavy construction paper or plastic sheets. Cover high-traffic pathways with old carpets or plywood boards too.

Special Events: When hosting large gatherings before the floor fully cures, put out slip-resistant runners on busy routes to limit scuffs and stains. In dining areas, use tablecloths or placemats under dishes during meals.

While polyurethane and varnish differ in inherent durability, both need tender loving care while the resins are set fully. Planning ahead for post-finishing protection preserves your floors' renewed luster. Factor any associated costs of drop cloths, mats, or plywood into your total budget as well.

Planning for Post-Finishing Temporary Floor Protection

Which Finish Should You Choose: Polyurethane or Varnish?

When deciding between polyurethane vs. varnish for your hardwood floor finishing needs, there's no universally superior option. Poly forms an extremely durable, long-lasting protective barrier that stands up to heavy wear and tear. But varnish offers a more forgiving application, faster drying times, and flexibility to endure shifts without cracking.

Ultimately, weigh your priorities and lifestyle factors to determine the right finish:

  • If durability trumps all, polyurethane gets the job done.
  • If you want to spotlight the wood's natural color and grain, varnish puts a subtle spin on your surface.
  • When quick turnarounds matter, varnish accelerates the timetable.
  • For low-VOC and easy DIY application, water-based varieties simplify the process.

Trust your goals and taste buds – with the right protective finish chosen purposefully, your floors can stay beautiful for years while matching how you live. Once cured, care for them properly and buff out minor scuffs promptly to maximize durability. Reach out to flooring specialists if still unsure whether polyurethane or varnish fits the bill.

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