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Timber Floor Finish: Should You Go Water or Solvent Based?

Deciding what type of finish to choose for your timber floors can be confusing. Afterall, it’s not very likely you’ve ever even thought about the choice until your flooring or floor sanding contractor asked you which one you want to go with. Here we take a look at the options and help you decide which is right for your floors.

Oil vs. Water Based Treatments: Does it Really Matter to Hardwood Floors?

While oil-based is easier to apply, water based offers better protection without discoloring. A problem called "ghosting" in the industry, creates a hazy look leaving the finish very dull and odd looking. Using either finish creates the need to learn about nozzle sizes, sprayer atomization, and bonding coats of finish together. Some of the best advice from experts is to take a class on finishing or to do a lot of research before attempting to finish hardwood floors. Others say that this process is best left to an expert who has the experience and skills to do a good job with a warranty.

Pros and cons of oil-based finishes

There are some definite advantages to using oil-based finishes. Oil finishes offer a beautiful lustre to floors, and as for durability, oil-based polyurethane finishing treatments offer a very high standard, especially for high-traffic areas. 

However, oil-based finishes take a long time to cure; the Swedish finish takes the longest with up to 90 days of cure time. Furniture must stay off the finish until it is completely dry. Over time oil-based floor finishes also tend to yellow, causing a dingy colour to appear on the floor surface. This means the floor has to be refinished more often

Pros and cons of water-based finishes

One of the biggest advantages to using water-based floor finishes is that they are much more environmentally friendly and safer for your family and pets. They are ideal for asthmatics and people with respiratory problems, and because they do not contain oil, they are less harmful in home and business fires. Some experts also maintain that water-based finishes last longer, and they give the timber a more natural appearance.

A few disadvantages make water-based finishes less desirable. If you want your floor to have a high-shine finish rather than a natural look then you will need to steer clear of water-based finishes. As the treatment is lighter it also makes the floors less smooth than an oil-based solution would, and doesn’t provide the same level of durability.

When to use a professional

When working with chemical treatments and your family or your staff it is always more advisable to call in the professionals, particularly if you’re working with large floored area. A professional knows the best brands and types of finishes to choose, and will be skilled at applying an even coat to the whole floor. They will also be able to buff the floors after applying the finish and leave your floors with that top quality shine you want after spending a considerable amount on installing timber floors.

Talk with potential installers about the products they use, why they use them, and the differences between the types of floor finishes and name brands of products. Work with the expert to choose the product and technique that suits both the installer and the homeowner or business owner.

The dos and dont's of floor finishings


  • Ventilate well and use fans
  • Research products in-depth making sure to look at curing time, number of applications needed, after-care instructions, and durability
  • Pick a sturdy product for high traffic areas
  • Be environmentally responsible
  • Choose the product that is best for each individual floor.


  • Apply finishes on rainy or humid days
  • Slop down a coat or two and expect to get an even finish
  • Leave windows closed, ventilation is very important in the drying process.

Chris Webb is the Director of Webb Floor Finishing, a leading provider of Floor Sanding, Polishing, Renovation and Repair services in Perth, Western Australia. Connect with Chris on Google+