Oil or Lacquer Finish: What is Best for Wood Floors?

Jan 14, 2024

One of the most important things you’ll have to decide when installing or refinishing hardwood floors is what finish to use. The finish protects the wood, makes it look better, and changes how often the floor needs to be cleaned. Oil and lacquer are the most common ways to finish wood floors. Which one is best for your house?

Each oil and lacquer finish has its own pros and cons. Durability, upkeep, and repair, as well as looks like color and shine, should all be thought about. Whether oil or lacquer is best for your wood floors will depend on how you live and what you value.

This guide has everything you need to know about oil and lacquer finishes to help you choose the right one for your home. Each has pros and cons, and there are detailed comparisons based on cost, appearance, durability, and other factors. There will also be answers to frequently asked questions about how to finish wood floors. First, you should talk about oil and lacquer finishes.

What is Oil finish?

An oil finish is a protective coating made by saturating wood with natural oils, most commonly from plants and vegetables. Some of the most popular oil finishes include tung oil, linseed oil, and Danish oil.

Oil finishes penetrate deep into the wood grain to create a smooth, natural appearance while protecting the wood from within. The oils oxidize and polymerize inside the wood, bonding to the cell structure. This allows the beauty of the grain and texture to show through the finish.Oil Your Wood Floor

Benefits of oil finish for wood floors

Enhances natural wood tones – Oil brings out the depth of color and beauty of the grain without an artificial plastic-like appearance. It leaves a rich, warm patina.

Easy to touch up and repair – Light sanding and reapplication of oil lets you spot treat worn areas without having to refinish the entire floor.

Non-toxic and low odor – Most plant-based oils used for finishing wood give off little to no smell or volatile organic compounds. This makes oil a good option for the health-conscious.

Long-lasting protection – Modern oil finish formulas provide durable protection for wood when properly maintained. High traffic areas may need more frequent reapplication.

Moisture resistant – Oil finishes aren’t impervious to moisture like lacquer. But modern oil formulas provide good resistance to surface water and spills when recoated over time.

Drawbacks of oil finish for wood floors

Requires more regular maintenance – While extremely durable, oil finishes do require maintenance every 6 months to 2 years. This usually involves cleaning the floors thoroughly and applying a rejuvenating oil.

Not as stain resistant – The porous nature of oil allows spills to penetrate more easily into the wood, potentially leaving a stain if not cleaned up promptly. Annual recoating can improve stain resistance.

Can darken slightly over time – Natural oxidation of oil finishes leads to gradual, subtle darkening. This gives floors an antique amber glow but some mistake the change for a flaw.

Long curing time – Plant-based oils cure slowly through oxidation and polymerization. This means the floor may take 1-2 weeks to achieve full hardness and durability, requiring gentle treatment during that time.

Not a filled finish – Oil saturates wood grain but does not fill cracks, holes or gaps in flooring surface. Items may catch on uneven spots more easily.

What is Lacquer Finish?

Lacquer is an artificial synthetic finish made from a solvent, polymers, and either nitrocellulose or acrylic resins. Flooring lacquer comes in either an oil-based or water-based formula. Oil-modified lacquers combine plasticized lacquer with tung oil for added protection.

As a surface coating, lacquer adheres to the wood to provide a protective plastic barrier rather than penetrating the fibers like oil. Multiple coats are applied to build up layers of durable acrylic or nitrocellulose resin.

Lacquer Finish

Benefits of lacquer finish for wood floors

Extremely durable and long-lasting – Modern water-based and oil-modified lacquers provide exceptional scratch, dent, and wear resistance under heavy residential traffic. They retain high gloss brilliance over their lifespan.

Stain resistant – The thick impermeable surface of lacquer prevents most spills from penetrating into the wood, making it one of the most stain-resistant finishes.

Quick drying and curing – Newer water-based lacquers can dry in under 2 hours between coats. Light foot traffic may be possible the next day. Full curing takes about two weeks.

Filled finish – Lacquer is thicker than oil and can fill small cracks and crevices for a smooth flawless appearance. This allows lacquer to hide imperfections.

Consistent appearance – The upper plastic layer creates uniform gloss brilliance and prevents natural darkening over time like oil. This retention of color keeps floors looking new longer.

Drawbacks of lacquer finish for wood floors

Challenging spot repairs – Fixing heavy scratches or worn areas requires sanding and recoating the entire floor to blend patches seamlessly. No mixing of new and old lacquer.

Toxic fumes – Oil-based lacquers give off strong solvent vapors during application that necessitate good ventilation. Modern water-based formulas are low odor.

Can yellow over time – Exposure of older water and solvent-based lacquers to UV light and heat causes yellowing. Modern formulations have mostly prevented premature ambering.

More costly – Having a pro sand and recoat your floors whenever heavy spot repairs arise is typically more expensive than simple do-it-yourself oil rejuvenation treatments every few years.

Less penetrating to wood – Lacquer forms a distinct plastic layer on wood rather than soaking into the cellular structure. This gives floors a less natural, more artificial appearance to some.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Finish

Now that you understand what oil and lacquer finishes are along with their respective pros and cons, let’s go over the key factors to consider when deciding:

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Finish

Durability

For maximum long-term protection for your wood floors, especially in busy households, lacquer is the most durable choice. Nitrocellulose lacquer formulated for floors stands up to heavy foot traffic for up to 25 years before needing resand and refinish. Polyurethane versions provide similar life spans. That durability comes at the cost of difficult spot repairs.

High-quality modern oil finishes are also extremely durable, lasting up to 10 years before full refinishing is needed in residential settings. But oil requires maintenance coats every 1-2 years in heavy traffic areas. The benefit is low cost and ease of refresh treatments vs refinishing.

Maintenance requirements

One of the biggest differentiators is long-term maintenance needs. Both oil and lacquer finishes eventually show visible wear with abrasions, scratches and loss of shine in high traffic paths and pivot points. Since oil soaks into the wood, light wear can be remedied by applying another layer of protective oil every couple years. Heavily worn areas may need a light sand first.

With lacquer you must sand and refinish the entire floor whenever heavy wear or damage occurs. Dull areas and scratches stand out against crisp glossy spots. Touch up sticks are ineffective and lead to blotchiness in appearance. This full refinishing process is time consuming and expensive compared to simple oil rejuvenation.

Appearance and aesthetics

Oil finishes beautifully showcase the depth, clarity, and color nuances of natural wood grain. The slight amber glow from polymerized oils also lends a rich warmth. Lacquer produces more of a plastic-like sheen: uniform gloss levels without depth. But lacquer excels at smoothing over imperfections in floor boards for a seamless polished effect.

Consider whether you want a natural oil patina or flawless man-made plastic-coated look. Your choice can simply come down to which appearance aligns with your personal taste. Both can generate an equally beautiful floor overall.

Pros and Cons Comparison: Oil vs. Lacquer Finish

FinishProsCons
OilEnhances natural wood tones. Easy to spot repair. Non-toxic and low odor. Provides good moisture resistanceRequires more frequent maintenance. Less stain resistant. Can darken slightly over time. Long curing time. Doesn’t fill the grain like lacquer
LacquerExtremely durable and long-lasting. Very stain resistant. Quick drying and curing. Fills small cracks and gaps. Retains consistent color/appearanceChallenging repairs.Oil-based has toxic fumes . Can yellow over time. More costly maintenance. Less natural, penetrating waterproof protection

FAQs

What’s the difference between water-based and oil-based lacquer?

Water-based lacquers use water as the solvent while oil-based varieties use a petroleum solvent. Water-based options are lower odor, go on clear, and clean up with soap and water. Oil-based penetrates slightly deeper and provides a more moisture-resistant barrier.

Does lacquer or oil finish better resist pet accidents?

Lacquer is more impervious overall. The thick plastic coating prevents most pet urine and feces stains from absorbing into the wood. Oil finishes can still stain if not promptly cleaned. However, both require immediate cleanup followed by a thorough wood cleaner application to limit damage.

Which finish looks more natural – oil or lacquer?

Oil finishes excel at showcasing the beauty of real wood. The finish permeates deep below the surface to reveal depth, clarity and variation in the grain. Lacquer produces a more artificial plastic coating on top with consistent gloss uniformity.

How long does an oil finish floor last compared to lacquer?

Both are extremely durable options capable of lasting 10-25 years with proper prep and application. Lacquer lasts longest under extreme traffic but requires overall refinishing for repairs. Oiled floors show wear sooner but are easily maintained for years with coats of rejuvenating oil to worn areas.

Conclusion

Think about the pros and cons of both oil and lacquer when picking the best finish for your wood floor. Key factors include your budget, how you live, how much traffic there is, how you want the house to look, and how much maintenance you can afford. An oil finish is usually the best choice for homeowners who want the warmth and depth of natural wood with only a few maintenance treatments needed. A lacquer coating can help busy homes that want floors that are very hard to scratch or stain and keep their shine over time, even though it will cost more to refinish them in the future.

By knowing the differences between these two popular finishes, you can choose the one that will protect your beautiful hardwood floors the best and keep their good looks. If you’re still not sure whether oil or lacquer is best for your next wood floor project, talk to professional floor refinishers. For the full benefits of each durable finish, they must be applied correctly by a skilled contractor.