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Rubio Monocoat vs Polyurethane: What's the Difference?

Reclaimed hardwood floor with matte polyurethane finish (Southern Oaks Flooring)

Most owners are vaguely familiar with polyurethane hardwood floor finishes. They don't know exactly what polyurethane is, but they know it protects their hardwood floors. Rubio Monocoat and other hard wax oils, on the other hand, aren't as ubiquitous but are quickly gaining a faithful following as environmentally-friendly, modern, matte hardwood floor finishes. In fact, we at Southern Oaks Flooring have all chosen to use hard wax oil finishes in our own homes, specifically Rubio Monocoat. We have been using hard wax oil hardwood finishes in Nashville for the past three years, after we saw Rubio Monocoat demonstrated at the National Wood Flooring Association Expo. In that time we have used it in numerous hardwood floor applications, and it has never disappointed. So what's the difference between polyurethane and hard wax oil, and which one should you use on your hardwood floors?

18th-century hardwood floor refinished with a hard wax oil finish (Southern Oaks Flooring)


Let's start with polyurethane, a hardwood floor finish that's been popular in the US for the last 30 to 40 years. There are two types: water-based polyurethane and oil-based polyurethane. Oil-based polyurethane was the first polyurethane to come to the market, and dominated as a hardwood floor finish until the last 10 years or so. Oil-based polyurethanes are generally what most homeowners think of when they think "hardwood floors" (because we know you're thinking about flooring finishes all the time...aren't you?) They emit lots o' fumes and over time create the warm, amber (or some would say yellow) tint we've seen so much of in years gone by.

Water-based polyurethane floor finishes, on the other hand, have been around for a long time, but until the last decade or so they were not considered nearly as durable or reliable as traditional oil-based polyurethanes. As manufacturers improved their products, more and more homeowners and contractors switched to the less fume-y, non-yellowing water-based polyurethanes. This also goes hand-in-hand with the trend toward lighter, Scandinavian inspired floors. In 1995, most homes featured red oak floors with oil-based polyurethane. A decade later more and more homeowners installed white oak with water-based polyurethane.

Neither is right or wrong. They both seal and protect hardwood floors by providing a layer of finish between the wood and the feet that trod on it all day. When your dog scratches your polyurethane-finished hardwood floor, he usually just cuts the polyurethane, not the wood underneath (although that's not unheard of with bigger dogs. Or boys.)

Walnut stair treads with a polyurethane finish (Southern Oaks Flooring)

Rubio Monocoat

Rubio Monocoat and similar products are hard wax oils that penetrate the wood itself to provide protection instead of forming a barrier on top. Prior to the early 1980s, hardwood floors had to be waxed, which was a tedious and time-consuming process, hence the popularity of placing carpet on top of them. But Rubio Monocoat is not an old-fashioned wax. It creates a beautiful, natural matte finish that requires the same amount of maintenance as a polyurethane finished hardwood floor: sweeping, cleaning with a dust mop and appropriate cleaner (recommended by the manufacturer!)

One advantage of Rubio Monocoat and other hard wax oils is the ability to fix small scratches and other wear and tear without having to refinish the entire floor. A polyurethane floor, however, looks best on the day it is refinished. You can screen and re-coat it to refresh the hardwood floor, but even that one-day procedure is more expensive and time-consuming that what can be done with a hard wax finished floor.

Reclaimed hardwood floor finished with Rubio Monocoat hard wax oil (Southern Oaks Flooring)

So should you choose oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane, or a hard wax oil finish like Rubio Monocoat? The answer is...there is no answer. It all depends on what you want your floors to look and feel like. More and more of our customers are choosing Rubio Monocoat, but plenty prefer polyurethane instead. Talk with a hardwood flooring professional who can address your questions and concerns and offer you more in-depth insight into your particular floors and what would work best.

If you're in Nashville, we can certainly help you with that. Cheers!

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