In the movie “Annie,” Miss Hannigan demands floors “that shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.” But do you really want your floors to have such a dazzling surface? Polyurethane is a popular finish for hardwood floors because it seals them and adds waterproofing. The clear finish also brings out the rich nuances in the wood’s tone. 

But all polyurethane isn’t created equal. In addition to choosing between oil and water-based polyurethane, you’ll need to choose the level of gloss. Two of the most popular are satin and semi-gloss. Learn more about these two sheen options to select the product that makes your floors shine exactly the way you want them to.

Satin vs Semi Gloss Polyurethane Finish on Floors

Most polyurethane for hardwood flooring comes in the following sheen levels:

  • Matte
  • Satin
  • Semi gloss
  • High gloss

Matte and high gloss are not the most popular because they are on the extreme ends of the spectrum. People usually choose matte finishes when they want a completely natural or rustic look. They want to seal the hardwood without changing its appearance. High gloss is often used to make a unique statement. 

Satin and semi gloss finishes fall in the middle, offering more balance. Therefore, they’re also the most common polyurethane finishes.

Satin Polyurethane Finish

Satin is not completely matte. It adds a muted sheen to the hardwood beneath without producing any glare. Think about the way that satin fabric reflects light—it offers a glowing, diffuse luster. Polyurethane with a satin finish has a similar effect. A satin finish has about 40% luster.

It contains a significant amount of flattening paste, which absorbs light and minimizes reflections. However, satin polyurethane doesn’t have as much flattening paste as a matte product. Therefore, it doesn’t look dull.

Semi Gloss Polyurethane Finish

Semi gloss has even less flattening paste than satin polyurethane. Therefore, it offers more of a brilliant sheen. It doesn’t have the liquid look of a high gloss, but it definitely glistens in certain light. 

A high gloss polyurethane has about 70% luster. Semi gloss sits at about 55% luster. It’s not as slick or shiny as a bowling alley lane, which has a high gloss finish. 

What’s the Biggest Difference Between Satin vs Semi Gloss Polyurethane Finish on Floors?

Besides the level of gloss, the biggest difference between satin and semi gloss polyurethane is their ability to hide imperfections and dirt on the floor. Because semi gloss reflects light so well, it creates bright spots that contrast with dark shadows. On a bright day, you may see every speck of soil that your dog tracks into your house. Plus, scratches and inherent imperfections in the wood may look more noticeable.

Satin finishes have a lower level of contrast when it comes to light reflections and shadows. Therefore, satin polyurethane blurs the particles and scratches that mar the surface. You won’t notice them so much, especially in bright light.

Is a Satin Finish Easier to Clean?

Both satin and semi gloss polyurethane dry to a smooth, seamless finish. Therefore, they’re both resilient and easy to clean. 

But you might need to clean a semi gloss floor more often than satin. If you hate seeing dust and dirt, you might hate the way that semi gloss finishes highlight every particle that settles on the floor. Moreover, scuffs, footprints and other damage will be noticeable because they’ll disrupt the continuous reflective surface. 

Still, the best way to maintain floors finished with satin or semi gloss polyurethane is to keep them free of debris. Sweeping with a broom, dry mop or microfiber towel every day or so prevents abrasive particles from scratching and scraping the surface. Even if you don’t see this happening, the wear and tear can erode the finish, diminishing its ability to protect the hardwood.

Is Satin or Semi Gloss Polyurethane More Durable?

Some people believe that semi gloss is harder and more durable than satin polyurethane. It resists scratches and dents better. However, both are extremely protective when they’re applied correctly. 

To ensure that you get the best, most resilient results when applying polyurethane finish to your floors, take these guidelines into account:

  • Choose a high-quality product.
  • Make sure that the polyurethane is cleared for use on your type of flooring.
  • Prepare the wood properly; the finish will only end up as smooth as the wood beneath it.
  • Sand each coat of polyurethane before applying another one.
  • Completely remove sanding dust to prevent the polyurethane finish from becoming cloudy.
  • Avoid shaking the can of polyurethane to prevent bubbles in the finish.
  • Control dust and flying insects in the space until the polyurethane has completely dried.
  • Apply several thin coats instead of a few thick ones.
  • Check your work by shining a light across the surface. Fix blemishes and discoloration while the finish is still wet.
  • Don’t apply water-based finish over oil-based finish.

Oil-Based vs Water-Based Polyurethane

When it comes to durability, the ingredients in the polyurethane may matter more than the sheen. This product comes in oil and water-based formulas. 

Oil-based polyurethane requires fewer coats than water-based finish. Whereas you may only need to apply two or three coats of oil-based polyurethane, the same project might require at least four coats of water-based polyurethane.

Therefore, if you want to simplify the job and add extra protection to your floors, you might want to go with an oil-based product. But oil-based polyurethane is stinkier and dries slower than water-based polyurethane. 

Many DIY renovators use water-based polyurethane for its ease of cleanup, minimal odor and fast drying time. This is often preferable for a busy household. But oil-based polyurethane contains more solids and dries to a harder finish.

Oil-based polyurethane also brings out the warm glow of the natural wood better than water-based products. That may be preferable, but you also might want to avoid using it on cool-toned woods, such as birch. It’s also important to note that water-based polyurethane looks milky in the can but dries clear. 

Whether you choose oil or water-based polyurethane, you can still opt for the sheen preference that you desire. Make sure that you care for your floor according to the manufacturer’s recommendations to prevent white film on your hardwood floors and maintain the sheen for as long as possible.

Satin vs Semi Gloss Polyurethane Finish at a Glance

If you’re still not sure which finish to apply to your hardwood floors, read through the lists below that highlight the characteristics of satin vs semi gloss polyurethane finish. 


  • Better for casual settings
  • Requires less maintenance
  • Less slippery than semi gloss
  • Hides imperfections but is more vulnerable to scratches
  • No footprints when you walk across it

Semi Gloss:

  • Ideal for formal environments
  • Highlights imperfections and therefore requires more cleaning
  • Has a slippery surface, especially when wet
  • Highlights imperfections but is more resistant to surface damage
  • Shows visible footprints from shoes and bare feet

In sum, satin and semi gloss polyurethane are appealing finishes for hardwood. They provide adequate protection and have low maintenance requirements. Most people choose semi gloss for a bold or formal aesthetic in low-traffic areas. Satin is probably the better choice for a busy room with kid and pet traffic. But this doesn’t mean that satin can’t be formal. A satin finish provides a neutral backdrop for any decor.