If you’ve just spent lots of time and money on laying down a lovely wooden floor, you want it to look its best. One of the ways that people can dress up their hardwood floor, or most other types of wooden surface for that matter, is to put a finish over it.
Finishes both protect and beautify the surfaces they’re put on, giving them a visually appealing sheen. However, a glossy surface is not always going to be what’s wanted.
Many people use polyurethane to finish (and finish off!) their floors, which is an impressive type of finish that makes the floor look better, as well as keeping dirt and scratches off it.
However, polyurethane comes in lots of varieties. Satin and semi-gloss are the most popular, but you can also get matte and high gloss. What are the differences you ask?
Well, we’ve got the answers for you! In the guide below, we’ll be looking at all of these polyurethane finishes, particularly satin and semi-gloss, and comparing the benefits and qualities of each. By the end, you’ll be able to find the polyurethane that’s best for you!
What Is Satin Polyurethane?
Let’s begin by laying out what the different types of polyurethane are. Satin polyurethane is a finish that will give you a medium or low sheen, which is a moderate amount of shininess.
Interestingly, it is better at hiding smudges and dirt better than high-gloss finishes do, whose shininess apparently doesn’t distract enough from the unwanted marks.
This makes satin polyurethane a lot easier to upkeep than wood that you’ve put high gloss polyurethane on.
But why does satin polyurethane give such an in-between sheen? Well, it’s because there’s a lot of flattening paste put into them.
This is a matting agent that reduces the amount of gloss in products. As a result, the satin polyurethane gives off less sheen than semi-gloss or high gloss finishes.
Pros And Cons Of Using Satin Polyurethane
As with all types of polyurethane, using it will have a lot of benefits - but also a few downsides. It’s really about picking which one has the benefits that will help you the most, and the flaws that will hinder you the least.
- Hides smudges and dirt better than high gloss polyurethane
- Low maintenance - you don’t have to do much to keep it in good condition
- Less slippery - less risk of hurting yourself
- Reflects more light than matte polyurethane
- Less bold than a semi-gloss polyurethane
- May show more scratches than a matte polyurethane would (but less than high gloss!)
Recommended Satin Polyurethane
If you’re liking the sound of a satin polyurethane, be sure to read on and make certain that it’s the one for you. If it is?
We recommend this satin polyurethane from General Finishes. You get a pint with each tin, which will be more than enough for a few coats. On top of that, each coat should take only 1 or 2 hours to dry.
This is the most durable polyurethane top coat that you’re going to be able to get, and should protect and sheen your floors - or whatever wooden surface you use.
Make sure to only use it inside, though. It’s also worth noting that you need to be careful which colors you apply it over - whites or light colors might get stained yellow from the polyurethane.
What Is Semi-Gloss Polyurethane?
You can probably tell from the name of this what it looks like! This polyurethane will give your wooden surfaces and floors more of a sheen than other polyurethanes, like matte and satin.
It is, understandably, less shiny than a high gloss polyurethane - as well as giving off less luster too.
That isn’t to say it isn’t shiny, obviously. This has a good, moderate sheen and also reflects light well - even more than satin polyurethane, and definitely more than matte.
The luster that it does have will highlight your wood, bringing out its qualities and subtle colors, rather than overwhelming with shine.
It isn’t all visual, either. Semi-gloss polyurethane acts as a good protective barrier for your wooden surfaces and hardwood floors, keeping dirt and marks away from your material.
Pros And Cons Of Using Semi-Gloss Polyurethane
As with the satin polyurethane, there are many benefits to choosing semi-gloss polyurethane. However, there are a few flaws too, which may or may not affect you.
- Easy to clean
- Good resistance to moisture and liquids
- Visually appealing, with a moderate luster and sheen
- Gives protection to your floor
- Needs more maintenance than satin and matte polyurethane, since muck and grime is more noticeable on such a reflective surface
- The same goes for scratches and dents - so if you have children or pets, you may want to steer clear!
Recommended Semi-Gloss Polyurethane
Another one from General Finishes, this is a great semi-gloss polyurethane. It’s very durable, like the satin one, and you get a whole pint of the stuff.
As with the other one, it also takes just 2 hours - maximum! - for a single coat to dry, meaning that you can apply your next coat without waiting too long.
However, the same warnings come as before. You should only use this on interior surfaces.
On top of that, it might stain light shades of painted wood a yellow color. So if your wood has been painted white or other light colors, like soft blue, it may give it a yellow tint.
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: The Big Comparison
So, it’s time to compare these two types of polyurethane. We’re going to look at a number of areas to determine which is best at what. Those areas are: durability, level of sheen, practicality, maintenance, scratch resistance, and VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) levels.
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: Durability
When it comes to durability, satin polyurethane and semi-gloss polyurethane are practically equals - they both last well and will put up with certain damage.
With that being said, it all depends on the type of them you get. But aren’t satin and semi-gloss already types? Well, you can get different types of them! It’s types of types.
Basically, the key variations of how polyurethanes are made is whether they’re oil-based or water-based. You can get satin and semi-gloss in either of these, but they carry a difference.
If your polyurethane is oil-based, then it will very likely last longer than if it was water-based. Therefore, if you’re getting satin or semi-gloss then you’ll want to make sure that you get an oil-based variety.
Whichever you choose, satin or semi-gloss, they’ll be the same amount of durability. Just make sure that you get oil-based, so that the durability is the best it can be!
Outcome: A tie
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: Level Of Sheen
There are noticeable differences between the sheen levels of all these types of polyurethane.
As you can guess, a high gloss polyurethane would have the best sheen, with semi-gloss beneath it, and then satin and matte below that - with matte polyurethane having the least sheen.
But what do we really define sheen as? Well, it’s a term for the amount of light that the surface is going to reflect. So, think of its reflectiveness.
A semi-gloss polyurethane will give you about 55 percent luster (which means a soft sheen). For some context, a high gloss polyurethane would give off about 70 percent luster, which means it’s 15 percent more reflective.
However, high gloss has the downside that it also becomes slippery because of that high luster.
Semi-gloss polyurethane would be a perfect choice, then, for anyone who wants the shine but doesn't want to slip all over it.
That’s why high gloss is kept for places like bowling alleys, where people aren’t really going to be walking up and down that floor - it’s the ball that’ll be going over it, and that needs to slip, because then it’ll roll better!
But how does a satin polyurethane fare? Not as good as semi-gloss, but not too much worse. Satin should have about 40 percent luster to it, which makes it relatively reflective, but not too much.
However, despite offering less of a sheen than semi-gloss, people actually use satin more at home.
This is because its sheen isn’t overly reflective, so it gives off some sheen, but complements the wood beneath it - they mix well into something that doesn’t overwhelm the eyes.
Outcome: Semi-gloss has more sheen, but people like to use satin for its moderation
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: Practicality
Now we need to look at how practical these different types of polyurethane are.
As we’ve just mentioned in the previous section, too much glossiness and sheen can become slippery. That’s why using a high gloss polyurethane at home isn’t going to be practical at all, because you’ll be slipping all over it while you just try to walk around your home.
That’s why semi-gloss is more popular for home use, because it is slightly less slippery than high gloss.
However, satin polyurethane is much more preferred for home use, because they are even more practical. They offer barely any slipperiness for a start, meaning that you can walk all over your wooden floor with ease.
On top of that, its moderate level of sheen emboldens the hardwood floor, but doesn’t overwhelm its look and color. It will also help to cover up scratches and dents on your wood, making it look a lot nicer at the same time.
For these reasons, it’s just more practical and popular for home usage.
Outcome: Satin polyurethane
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: Maintenance
With great sheen comes great responsibility! Though you may enjoy having more light and reflectiveness from your polyurethane, it can have a big downside, and that’s the amount of muck that it shows. If a surface is more shiny, it’s going to highlight any dirt that’s on the floor more.
For this reason, semi-gloss polyurethane is going to need more upkeep and maintenance than if you used satin polyurethane on your hardwood floor.
Semi-gloss, as we’ve said before, gives off more of a sheen than satin. Therefore, if you have a semi-gloss floor then it’s going to show up any dirt much more than if you used satin.
With that being said, polyurethanes are more than easy to clean. It’ll barely set you back, you’ll just have to do it more regularly if you’ve used semi-gloss!
If you get out your vacuum cleaner, you can easily hoover any dirt and grime. If that doesn’t do the trick though, and the stains are more sticky and entrenched, then you may need to use a rag or a mop. Just dampen whichever you pick, and wipe it over the hardwood floor.
If you get any polyurethane on your skin, don’t fear! Just get some mineral spirit and rub the affected area in it.
It’s worth noting, however, that you don’t want to soak the floor. As much protection as a polyurethane offers, water can still get through. If it does, then your wood could start to warp, which would be very difficult to fix. If there’s too much water in your cleaning, try to clean it up.
Outcome: Satin polyurethane will need less maintenance
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: Scratch Resistance
This is an interesting one, which of these two types of polyurethane will reisst getting scratched better?
Well, strictly speaking, semi-gloss polyurethane will resist getting scratched more than satin polyurethane will.
However the irony here is that if there are any dents or scratches, then the higher-sheen semi-gloss polyurethane will show them up more. So, it’s a blessing and a curse!
Satin polyurethane will hide dirt and dents better, but at the same time it will be more prone to getting scratched. It’s not quite as tough as semi-gloss, despite hiding its scratches much better.
Outcome: Semi-gloss polyurethane, though it shows them more
Satin VS Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: VOC Levels
VOC Levels stands for the amounts of volatile organic compounds that are in the polyurethane. Thankfully, since polyurethanes all have the same scientific formula, despite their differences, it means that they all have the same levels of VOCs.
With that being said, do you remember the water-based and oil-based variations that we mentioned earlier? You can buy satin and semi-gloss polyurethane in either base.
However, these bases differ in their VOC levels. Oil-based polyurethanes will have a higher amount of VOC in them than if you choose a water-based one.
On top of that, if you get a solvent-based polyurethane, it will probably have even more VOC levels than the oil-based ones.
Outcome: A tie, but watch out for oil-based vs water-based
Will Polyurethane Affect The Color Of Your Hardwood Floor?
We’ve already mentioned briefly that some types of polyurethane can cause staining to the color of your floor, or the color of the paint you’ve got on your floor.
This all comes down to whether it’s oil-based or water-based, though. We’ve just discussed these bases, when talking about how they affect the VOC levels.
We found that oil-based polyurethanes had more VOC levels and (guess what!) they’re also worse for staining too. If you use one, your floor might be stained amber or yellow, which is not desirable.
If you don’t want the stained appearance, though, you’d be much better off going for a water-based polyurethane. It’ll even have less VOC levels as a bonus! It shouldn’t stain your wood, instead leaving it the color it already was, and not disrupting any paint.
Looking At Other Types Of Polyurethane
With the big comparison behind us, you should have an idea of which of those polyurethanes will work best for you. Whether it’s the satin polyurethane or the semi-gloss, pick the one that has the most benefits to what you’re trying to do - in design, functionality, and appearance.
However, there are other types of polyurethane to look at. We’ve already touched on some a little, but here we’ll go into more depth.
What Is Gloss And High-Gloss Polyurethane?
As you can tell by now, high gloss polyurethane is the shiniest polyurethane available, with an immense sheen and reflectivity. These have about 70 percent luster, meaning that they’re very shiny and bright.
It’s hardly used in homes, or even on most floors, because the high amount of gloss makes it very slippery to walk on. With that being said, you can see it in bowling alleys, particularly in the lanes where people don’t traditionally walk. You may also see it in gyms.
It is also popular with the more expensive and refined types of wooden flooring, like exotic hardwood or even accent borders, which are the pronounced edges of floors.
As you’ve seen, it’s a polarizing polyurethane, so it naturally has pros and cons:
- Resistant to moisture and liquid
- Very easy to clean dirt off
- High sheen and luster, very bright
- Resistant to stains
- Very durable, good at avoiding dents and scratches
- Very slippery, not at all ideal for home use
- High glossiness highlights dirt, so dust and muck will be more obvious - scratches too!
What Is Matte Polyurethane?
One of the other types of polyurethane that we’ve mentioned a few times already in this article is matte polyurethane.
How does this differ from the others? Well, it’s the polyurethane with the least amount of gloss of all of them.
While high gloss has the most, matte has almost no sheen to it. It has a flat appearance to it, without shininess, and very little reflection of any surrounding light.
As a result, it isn’t one of the most popular polyurethane finishes. Most people like the shininess of others, because they want a floor that is visual and bright.
However, some people do swear by it. Why? It has a great habit for hiding scratches and dents, as well as obscuring muck and grime. This is because it holds such a flat level of light, practically just being the wood below, although with any imperfections being well covered up.
So, as you can tell, there are pros and cons to it:
- Hides scratches and dents very well, as well as well as dirt and grime
- The least slippery, because there’s so little gloss
- Very low upkeep, because it stays so clean
- No light reflection, so it’s good for those with sensitivity to light
- Very little shine, if that’s what you want
- Not as resistant to moisture, so avoid spillages
- Easier to stain than other polyurethanes
Comparing The Polyurethanes: Matte, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and High Gloss
Now that we’ve laid out what those other two types of polyurethane are, we can get a bigger picture of how the four main types all compare to each other. What are their benefits? What do some do better than others? Let’s have a comparison.
Satin Polyurethane VS Matte Polyurethane
These are the two lower ends of polyurethane, in terms of their sheen and reflectiveness. However, they do have differences. For one, satin polyurethane does have a little more of a sheen than matte.
Both keep their gloss levels down by having flattening paste added to their chemical formula, which does exactly as it suggests - it flattens it out, visually. Matte comes out as much flatter than satin, though.
As a result of a lack of gloss, they both obscure dirt and scratches well. However, satin proves the most popular. Why is that? Well, it offers a middle ground between matte and semi-gloss.
See, it has some gloss and light reflectivity to it, while matte has almost none. At the same time, it still does well at hiding imperfections, like muck and dents.
So, overall, it offers the best of both worlds - some shininess and some imperfection-hiding.
Outcome: Satin polyurethane
Satin Polyurethane VS High Gloss polyurethane
As you know, high gloss polyurethane has the highest level of sheen to it. Satin polyurethane, on the other hand, has the second lowest, just above matte. Satin reflects about half the light that high gloss polyurethane does.
High gloss polyurethane has the highest luster, meaning that it reflects the most light. As a result, it’s really bright!
However, the downside is that it also becomes very slippery too, because it’s too glossy. This doesn’t make it an ideal finish for home flooring, rather more commercial stuff. It also has the benefit of being very durable.
Satin polyurethane, on the other hand, isn’t as slippery. This is because it has gloss, which has been achieved because flattening paste has been added to it, making the material less reflective and shiny.
With that being said, it still has some sheen to it, while also keeping a modest appearance. Like high gloss, it’s very durable.
Outcome: High gloss is shinier but more slippery
Semi-Gloss Polyurethane VS High Gloss Polyurethane
These are the top two levels of polyurethane sheen. High gloss is clearly the most reflective of light, offering about 15 percent more gloss than the semi-gloss.
They’re both very good, though, and will give you a very bright floor. However, given that high gloss is more slippery, people may want to choose semi-gloss instead.
Though it can still be slippery, it is nowhere near as slippery as high gloss. Plus, you won’t be taken aback by the shininess - as in, if you’re sensitive to light, it won’t overwhelm you.
Outcome: Semi-gloss is less slippery, but it still has good sheen to it
Choosing A Polyurethane For Your Hardwood Floor
Now that we’ve gone through all those comparisons, you’re probably nearing a decision on what type of polyurethane you want to use.
However, just before you make that choice, have a think about a few more factors to do with whether it’s oil-based or water-based - we’ll go into them now.
Luster And Sheen
When picking oil-based polyurethane or water-based, they can have different effects on the sheen and luster of your finish. You can get water-based in all the varieties you’d expect: high gloss, semi-gloss, satin, and matte.
However, the water-based originality of it can make them all lose some of their resistance to scratching. You won’t want this, especially if it’s a high gloss polyurethane and its sheen is going to highlight any imperfections.
Oil-based, on the other hand, can also be got in all the varieties. All the finishes look beautiful, and their resistance will be better than if you were using water-based.
Color is going to be an important part in your choice, because you want your floors to appear as you want them to appear. Some polyurethanes will come in certain colors, while others will be limited.
However, a big factor is the fact that oil-based polyurethane will stain your floor after a while, giving it a yellow or amber shade to it.
This will be a big problem if you want your floor to be a certain color! Water-based polyurethane, on the other hand, doesn’t stain it at all, keeping the color it already has.
Despite the setbacks of oil-based, though, you still can use it. If your wood is already a dark shade, then you can use oil-based polyurethane, because the yellow stain will barely show up on the wood.
If you’ve got a lightly colored wood, though, it most definitely will visibly stain. This isn’t absolutely always the case, since light wood types like Maple will resist the staining, but it is generally the case.
This is a big one, because you’ll want to get on with things. You will want your polyurethane to dry and cure quickly (cure means to fully harden) so that you can continue and perhaps even add more coats.
Water-based polyurethane will be your best choice for speed, because it can dry in just 2 hours, allowing you to add more coats. On top of that, it only takes anywhere from 1 to 3 days to cure afterwards.
Oil-based, on the other hand, takes at least 24 hours to dry alone. There are 4 hour dry-time ones available, but they cost more. On top of that, they will take around 14 days to properly cure.
Cost and budget can be a big factor, and depends on what you have. Water-based polyurethanes are, on the whole, more expensive than if you were to buy oil based polyurethanes.
You can understand why - they don’t stain and they have lower VOC levels. With that being said, if you haven’t got the money for them, you shouldn’t have to go for oil-based and suffer yellow staining on your wood.
It is probably worth saving up for the water-based, simply because the cost will be worth it and your floors will benefit.
Smell is also going to be a deciding factor for you. You may not have thought about it before! It goes hand in hand with what we’ve been saying so far, in that water-based tends to be a lot healthier and better than oil-based polyurethane.
By that we mean that oil-based polyurethane can stink…It can be risky to use, especially because of the volatile organic compounds it releases, so make sure to wear a face mask to protect yourself.
Water-based, on the other hand, barely has a smell, and releases far fewer VOCs.
Easiness When Applying
On the whole, water-based polyurethane is easier to apply to your floor. This is because you don’t have to sand in between your coats, which you usually do to get rid of imperfections before they’re sealed under the polyurethane.
However, water-based does begin to add grains, so you need to apply more coats overall to get it smooth, needing as many as 7.
On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane does need sanding between coats. It also takes longer to dry between them.
However, you won’t need as many coats in total to smooth it, needing only about 3.
And there you have it! There are a load of varieties of polyurethane for your wooden floors, and all have their benefits.
Whether you’re picking high gloss or satin, low-gloss or matte, make sure to follow our guide carefully so that you know what you’re going to get from each - and what types of floors they’ll work best for.
On top of that, you’ll need to decide whether water-based or oil-based is going to suit your finish - we recommend water-based!