OIL, HARD WAX OIL or POLYURETHANE?

The finish you select for your timber flooring or wall panelling depends on the intended use of the space and the aesthetics. Traditional oils and hard waxes are the most natural choice – in terms of aroma and look – and protect the timber by soaking into it, strengthening it and repelling water. Polyurethane, on the other hand, is a synthetic resin and provides a protective plastic-like barrier over the surface of the wood. Polyurethane is considered the most durable, but oils and waxes have seen a big renaissance in the last decade for their natural look and green credentials. We review each of these options below, and look at some of their pros and cons.

TRADITIONAL
OIL

 

 

 

 

Floor oil is a natural product that penetrates the timber to seal and protect it. It darkens the colour and has a very natural look. The oils cure slowly and harden as they dry, and require multiple coats until the wood is saturated and can’t take any more. Extra oil can be applied to create a surface build. Oil has been used for centuries to make timber moisture resistant and more durable. It is seen as a natural finish, revealing and highlighting the true qualities of the wood. The trend towards more rustic and natural finishes has seen its resurgence after the dominance of polyurethane for so long.

Benefits of wood oil:
  • Non-toxic and low odour during application.
  • Low sheen and depth of colour reinforces the character and grain of timber.
  • Easy to apply and maintain, even for non-professionals.
  • Easier to repair areas of damage than polyurethane. Spot touch-ups of scratches are easy to buff and blend
  • easily with the surrounding floor.
  • When well-maintained, it looks good over time.
  • Regular oil applications nourish the wood.
  • An open and breathable finish.
Downsides of wood oil:
  • Not as hard or long-lasting as a polyurethane.
  • The finish wears down with use and requires recoating every two to three years in busy traffic areas.
  • Long drying times between coats means finishing a floor can take a number of days.
  • Oiled floors require more frequent cleaning with special soaps.

HARD WAX
OIL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard wax oil is similar to traditional oil, but with a wax component to increase its water resistance and sheen. The pores of the timber are saturated with the oil/wax blend, which then hardens to add strength and durability to the timber. Its natural ingredients make it a popular environmental and health choice. Suitable for DIY application as much as professional, it is applied by hand in either a paste or a liquid in small areas at a time.

Benefits of hard wax oil:
  • Non-toxic and low odour during application.
  • The warm sheen and depth of colour reinforces the character and grain of timber.
  • The wax has the added benefit of stain-resistance compared with oil only.
  • Hard-wearing, with excellent water resistance.
  • The flexible surface doesn’t crack or lift like polyurethane can.
  • Easy to apply and maintain, even for non-professionals.
  • Easier to repair areas of damage than polyurethane. Spot touch-ups of scratches are easy to buff and blend easily with the surrounding floor.
  • Easy to clean.
  • Quick-drying clear hard wax oil dries in as little as three to four hours and can be recoated in five hours, enabling two coats to be added in one day.
  • Suits floors with under-floor heating.
  • When well-maintained, it looks good over time.
  • Regular wax applications nourish the wood and make the surface even stronger over time.
  • An open and breathable finish.Water-repellent and dirt-resistant.
Downsides of hard wax oil:
  • Its higher viscosity means it is more labour-intensive to apply than oil or polyurethane, although some brands require only one or two coats.
  • Not as hard or long-lasting as a polyurethane.
  • The finish wears down with use and requires recoating every two to three years in busy traffic areas. Hard wax oiled floors require more frequent cleaning with special soaps.

POLYURETHANE

Polyurethane has been used since the 1970s, when it took over in popularity from the natural finishes of oil and wax. The oil-based versions are a mix of a wood oil and a synthetic resin such as polyurethane.
The water-based versions – water mixed with a resin – are more environmentally friendly as they don’t require the same solvents. Water-based polyurethane is not quite as durable as its oil-based counterpart, but it often wins out based on its low VOCs. While oil and wax finishes sink into the body of the timber to seal it, a polyurethane solution is a three- to four-layer protective coating over the top of the wood.

Benefits of polyurethane:
  • It is easy to apply.
  • The water-based version is fast-drying, so the overall time to coat a floor is about half that of an oil-based polyurethane and traditional oil or wax finishes.
  • It is considered the most durable floor finish on the market.
  • Easy to clean and maintain. No reapplication required (or possible) between recoats.
Downsides of polyurethane:
  • The synthetic resins (and solvents in oil-based poly) release some harmful vapours during application.
  • It is recommended that homeowners (and their pets) move out while the floor is being applied and cured. Even then, the smell can take some weeks to abate.
  • Solvent-based polyurethane releases high VOCs during application.
  • Solvent-based polyurethane will darken in time with a slight yellow hue.
  • You can’t apply an oil-based over a water-based polyurethane.
  • As the coating is a thin layer of resin, it can crack or lift up to expose the raw timber below.
  • Touching up an area of damage is difficult and often requires a large area to be redone. Patches are not easily blended with the surrounding floor.
  • The timber doesn’t breathe as it does with an oil or hard wax solution, as the polyurethane puts a plastic-like coating over the raw timber.
  • Over time, polyurethane gets scuffed and scratched. The only way to fix it is via a recoat, which is required every decade or so, depending on the level of use.

Make your choice based on the use of the room (a hotel lobby will have different requirements to a residential kitchen), the desired aesthetics (natural or high gloss), any health concerns of the applicator or residents, and the maintenance capability of the building owner (regular re-oiling versus finish and forget). These factors will all influence the weighting of the pros and cons of each product. In the end, however, all three options will provide an excellent finish to the timber and protect its natural beauty, enhancing your enjoyment of the space.

DISCLAIMER
VidaSpace Ltd accepts no responsibility for any problems with building work done by anyone using this information. This publication is a guide only and is not a substitute for advice from design and industry professionals. It is recommended you get in contact with one of our team to discuss project-specific requirements.

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