How to Apply Polyurethane for Floors
Your beautiful solid hardwood or engineered wood floor deserves the best possible finish. Polyurethane is a good floor finish that's easy to apply and cures rapidly. Also called poly floors, this finish offers rock-hard, waterproof, long-lasting protection for flooring, plus they let the beauty of the natural wood show through.
What Polyurethane Finish Is
Polyurethane finish is a liquid resin used to coat wood flooring and other wood surfaces, such as cabinets and furniture. As a synthetic floor finish, polyurethane is made from raw materials that are derived from crude oil.
There is no specific floor polyurethane versus regular polyurethane. However, the floor finish comes in either water-based or oil-based versions. Water-based polyurethane is easier to work with and quicker to dry but wears down faster than the oil-based finish. Oil-based polyurethane finish, while hard and durable, is noxious when applied and takes at least twice as long to dry.
Polyurethane finish is transparent. It comes in a range of sheens, from flat to glossy. It resists fungus, mold, and mildew well. One feature that makes it particularly good for flooring is that it is waterproof. Because polyurethane dries to a hard finish, it's especially good at resisting scratches and scuffs.
Basics of Polyurethane Floor Finishes
Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Finishes
Slow drying time
Cleans with mineral spirits or paint thinner
Extremely hard surface
500 to 600 square feet of coverage per gallon
Best for all areas, including high-impact areas
Transparent, but with a slight amber tint
Fast drying time
Cleans with water
Hard surface, but not as hard as with oil-based finishes
260 to 320 square feet of coverage per gallon
Best for moderate or light-use areas
Number of Coats
Most manufacturers of polyurethane finishes recommend a minimum of two coats to achieve the desired level of durability and sheen.
Water-based polyurethane floor finishes generally dry to the touch in about two hours and can be recoated in about four hours. For oil-based finishes, double the drying time. For either finish, the floor should be safe to walk on after about 48 hours (but refer to the manufacturer's instructions to be sure). Allow one week for the surface to fully cure.
Temperature, humidity, and ventilation affect drying times. Keep the room between 55 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit and maintain a relative humidity of around 50 percent. If necessary, increase humidity with a humidifier or decrease it with a dehumidifier. Ventilating the room with a fan on a low setting will expedite drying.
Alternatives to Polyurethane
Though polyurethane is the most popular type of on-site floor finish, some alternatives offer other advantages and disadvantages:
- Penetrating Oil: Penetrating oil soaks into the wood and requires several coats. It sheds water but isn't good at resisting scratches.
- Varnish: Made from wood sap and alcohol, varnish predates polyurethane as a floor finish. Varnish has more solids than polyurethane, producing a thicker coating.
- Wax: Wax is spread in multiple thin coats after the stains have been applied. Then, it is buffed to the desired level of gloss. Though wax is inexpensive, it does require frequent reapplication.
- Aluminum Oxide (Pre-Finish): Aluminum oxide is an extremely hard finish that rivals even oil-based polyurethane's durability. The downside is that it cannot be reapplied on-site; it can only be applied in the factory when the floor is being manufactured.
Sanding, scraping, or removing old paint on floors can be hazardous if that paint contains lead. Lead is toxic and can cause illness and even brain damage in children. Always wear a NIOSH-approved respirator. Clean up with a HEPA vacuum and a damp mop. Adhesives may contain asbestos. If you believe that the surface may contain asbestos, have it tested before sanding it.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Floor sander
- Floor finish applicator (lambswool) with pole
- Clean old rags
- Breathing and eye protection
- Shoe covers or old pair of socks
- Tape measure
- Painter's tape
- Paint tray and liners
- 2 gallons polyurethane floor finish
- Mineral spirits
How to Apply Polyurethane for Floors
Calculate the area of the space by measuring the length of the room and the width of the room, then multiply the two numbers. Subtract any large obstructions, such as fireplaces. Add 15 percent to the square footage for wastage. Purchase the polyurethane finish based on this number, making sure to account for multiple coatings.
Remove furniture and all other objects on the floor such as rugs. Move these items into another room. Broom-clean the wood floor to remove large debris.
Use an oscillating floor sander or a drum floor sander to remove the existing finish if it is in poor condition. Avoid using steel wool, as this may cause rust to develop under the finish. Floors in especially poor condition should be sanded with the drum sander with sandpaper in the #100 to #150 grit range, working up to a #220 grit paper.
If your floor is an engineered wood floor, its top veneer surface is extremely thin and likely cannot be sanded with a drum sander or with any coarse grit paper below #220 grit. If the floor has been sanded once or twice before, you may not be able to sand it again.
Use a HEPA-grade vacuum to remove all of the dust from sanding. Wearing latex gloves, dampen old rags with mineral spirits and use them, by hand, to remove the rest of the dust. From this point forward, keep your feet clean when walking on the sanded floor by using shoe covers or socks.
Tape Walls and Trim
Apply painter's tape to walls, trim, and other large items that cannot be removed. Apply the tape tightly to prevent the polyurethane from seeping below the tape.
Cut in Edges and Corners
Stir the polyurethane gently. Do not shake. Dip the brush in the finish and apply the finish to the edges and corners, up to the painter's tape.
Finish Floor With Applicator
Pour the polyurethane finish into a lined paint tray. Fit the applicator pad on the applicator. Dip the applicator in the polyurethane. Brush the polyurethane onto the floor in a W-pattern until complete. Make sure that you are using only an applicator intended for floor finishes. Cotton, lambswool, and other types of applicators may leave lint behind, which can become sealed under the finish.
Sand Before Recoating
Let the finish dry until it is dry to the touch and hard. If the previous coat is more than three days old, lightly sand the floor with #220 grit sandpaper and thoroughly clean.
Recoat the flooring, repeating the previous steps. Be sure to cut in the finish before applying the finish to the main section of the floor.
What kind of applicator should I use to put polyurethane on floors?
Many manufacturers recommend applying polyurethane to floors with lambswool applicators because it offers a smooth finish. Synthetic lambswool works with water-based poly but not with oil-based poly. Check the manufacturer's instructions for the best applicator pad options to use with your chosen poly finish.
How much does it cost to poly floors?
If you refinish your floors yourself, you will spend significantly less to poly finish your floors, to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars for supplies. Professionals can charge a few hundred dollars up to $1,000 for one room, depending on the size of the room and the type of floor. It can cost several thousand dollars to professionally apply poly finish to floors throughout your home.
How long does polyurethane on a floor last?
Depending on how much traffic the floor gets, the poly coating can last between three and 10 years.
How do you clean polyurethane floors?
Take gentle care of cleaning polyurethane floors by consistently sweeping, dust mopping, vacuuming (without the beater bar), and damp mopping so there's a minimum of moisture on the floor. Run a soft mop slightly dampened with a solution of water and a few drops of liquid dish detergent. Dry the floor completely with a microfiber cloth or microfiber mop. It is not always advisable to use a steam cleaner on hardwood floors unless they are finished with polyurethane. If you choose to use steam, use it carefully and infrequently.
Asbestos. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.