How to Apply Polyurethane to Wood Floors

Floorcritics – So you’ve finished installing those hardwood floors, awesome job! But wait, you aren’t done – do you know how to apply a polyurethane finish?  You wouldn’t want all your hard work to go to waste. Would you?

Polyurethane acts as a shield for your wood floors. It protects the wood from the scratches and spills that come with everyday life. Urethane is available in two varieties and several sheen levels, ranging from glossy to matte.

The application process can be tricky, so you’ll need to brush up on your skills. Here’s what you should know before attempting a polyurethane finish.

Should You Use Water-based or Oil-based?

To start with, you must decide whether to use an oil-based or water-based product. Both will protect your floors, whether you have traditional or engineered hardwood – but there are notable differences.

Waterborne polyurethane goes on clear and will not alter the color of the wood. It’s thinner than other solutions and dries quickly. You can walk on your floors within 8-12 hours of application.

Water-based finishes are less flammable and don’t contain harmful VOC’s. They won’t emit strong odors or fumes. When it comes time to clean-up, all you’ll need is soap and water.

This type of polyurethane is the most expensive and least durable. Because these urethanes are comprised of fewer solids, you’ll need to apply several coats for maximum protection.

Oil-based polyurethane enhances the coloring of the wood and gives it a soft glow. Due to their composition, oil-based products are thicker and take longer to dry. They do emit fumes, so prepare to don

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There is an upside to this type of urethane. Oil-based products fortify the wood with a solid layer of armor. They take fewer coats than water-based poly, and cost half the price.

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What Materials Do You Need?

It’s time to whip out your pen and paper (the list is longer than you’d think). But, don’t worry – most of the products are inexpensive and can be found locally.

Once you’ve decided on which polyurethane you’ll use, it’s time to research brands. It’s important to choose a brand that’s upfront about the chemicals and storage requirements. Look for a company that offers telephone support, in case you need advice.

Unless you have one on hand, you’ll need to rent an orbital sander from your local improvement store. Be sure to buy sandpaper in varying levels. The pros recommend you purchase 36, 60 and 120 grit to start.

Don’t forget to grab 220 grit sandpaper and a pole sander for between coats. If you don’t want to buy a pole sander, you can make one out of a broom handle and a sanding block.

You’ll also need urethane rated brushes and a lambswool or synthetic applicator. You can use a T-bar for getting into corners & doorjambs. T-bars work best with water-based formulas, so you may want to buy a roller instead.

This project requires a shop vac – borrow one if you need to (or check out our review of the 6 best Shop Vacs). Remember to pick up a respirator and some gloves. Masking tape and mineral spirits will come in handy during prep, make sure you buy them.

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