Modern chemistry has done us all a favor by bringing back these traditional, hand-rubbed oil finishes in a format that requires far less maintenance. Hard-wax oils are a hybrid of oil and wax, with a chemical catalyst that triggers a hardening action. The result is a durable, low-maintenance protective finish with all the aesthetic qualities of linseed or tung oil.

Rather than building a film of resins or plastics on top of the wood surface like a polyurethane, hard-wax oils work by saturating and bonding to wood cells, then hardening. Excess oil is wiped off, resulting in a lustrous, velvet-like texture that sits level with the floor surface rather than on top.

In addition to the aesthetic benefits, hard-wax oils offer three major benefits:

  • Non-toxic. Most finishes contain strong chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. A typical oil-modified polyurethane will have 400 to 500 grams of VOCs per liter. A next-generation waterborne polyurethane will come in at a mild 150 g/l. But due to their alternative chemistry, hard-wax oils come in at an unbelievable 5 grams or less.
  • Fast-curing. Whereas oil polyurethanes can take up to 14 days to fully cure, and waterborne versions take 5-7 days, hard-wax oils are ready to walk on in 4-8 hours, and have achieved their maximum hardness in 12-24 hours, depending on the color used.
  • Permanent. Traditional polyurethanes will fade and turn yellow over time. Hard-wax oil, by contrast, will only deepen and intensify with age. As long as it is periodically refreshed with maintenance coats, there is a real possibility you will never have to pay for a full refinish.

All that being said, are there any downsides? Just a couple:

  • Wear. While quite durable, hard-wax oils do not approach the abrasion-resistance capabilities of a high end waterborne finish. If you anticipate having a lot of grit tracked onto your floors, or if you have large dogs with untrimmed nails, hard-wax oil may not be the best choice for your home. 
  • Sheen level. This isn't really a downside, but just something to be aware of. Because it is a penetrating finish, hard-wax oil has a very matte luster. Most homeowners who choose hard-wax oil do so for this reason, but if you are looking for a glossy, mirror-like finish, you're better off with a polyurethane.

Oil-modified urethanes

Oil-modified urethanes (OMUs) have been the industry standard for at least fifty years, and not without reason. They're inexpensive, easy to use, relatively long-lasting, and attractive. While our recommended option is waterborne polyurethane, we're happy to offer oil-modified urethane as a lower-cost option. Our preferred brands are Poloplaz Primero or Bona Woodline.

We believe there's still a place for OMU finish, but it does come with a few caveats:

  • It stinks! If you're sensitive to strong smells, you'll want to make plans to be elsewhere while your floors are being coated.
  • Drying time: it can take up to 14 days to reach its final hardened and cured state. You should make plans to stay off your floors for 24 hours after the final coat, and if possible avoid moving furniture back in for 48 hours.

Hard-wax oils are a next-generation take on an old-fashioned recipe. In decades past, natural, penetrating finishes such as linseed oil and tung oil were used to give color, luster, and sheen to hardwood floors.

But because they held up poorly to foot traffic, they required a protective coating of wax that needed frequent maintenance and polishing. With the advent of polyurethanes, these finishes were no longer viable.

    Premium Installation and Refinishing    

We mentioned a non-plastic appearance as one of our criteria. It's an unfortunate truth that many of the most durable waterborne finishes out there can look pretty plasticky, and even get hazy with age.

Our experience with Pallmann is that it's a crystal-clear finish with a gorgeous sheen, something like you would see in a clear-coat on top of high quality automotive paint job.

Antique oak boards finished with "Magic Oil," a leading hard-wax oil product

Pall-X 96 in a satin sheen

OMU finish naturally turns wood a rich amber color--something waterborne finishes have to replicate synthetically.

Finish Systems

Finishing is the final step of a flooring project, and perhaps the most critical. Finish both protects your freshly sanded floors and enhances the aesthetic qualities of the wood.

What makes a good quality finish? We've put in considerable time and experimentation to identify products that would meet three criteria:

  • have an attractive, non-plastic surface that enhances the natural beauty of the wood
  • offer long-term, heavy-duty protection against traffic wear and scratching
  • have a non-offensive odor and low toxicity

Waterborne Polyurethane

Current industry consensus says the best all-around finish that accomplish these objectives is a high-end waterborne polyurethane.  We've tested multiple lines (including perennial standouts such as Bona Traffic) and the one we've been the happiest with to date is made by Pallmann, a German company on the cutting edge of finish chemistry. Our standard offering from Pallmann is called Pall-X 96, a single-component finish that rates as highly as many two-component, commercial finishes from other companies for wear and abrasion resistance.

Best of all, it has an extremely low VOC rating and zero solvents. For the few hours that it spends drying, you will notice a mild odor, no stronger than a freshly painted room. With normal ventilation, even that will disappear in about 12 hours.

Pallmann also makes an even more durable, catalyzed finish called Pall-X 98that is recommended for commercial applications. If you anticipate high-traffic situations in your home, you may want to consider this upgrade. The extra cost may be well worth the value you will get from it.

Hard-Wax Oil Finishes