Satin vs Semi-Gloss Polyurethane Finish (Differences Explained)

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Can’t decide between a satin vs. semi-gloss polyurethane finish? We know that it can get confusing and stressful, but don’t worry! Because we’re here to bring you all the information you need to make a better choice. 

Read along and be prepared to make your woodworking project a piece of cake!

What is a Satin Polyurethane Finish?

Satin polyurethane creates a mid to almost no sheen finish that conceals debris and flaws nicer than a high-gloss finish.

polyurethane products

Because satin finishes contain more flattening substance than a high- or semi-gloss finish, they have a more subtle luster making them easy to maintain and suitable for hardwood surfaces because it hides flaws perfectly.

The Pros and Cons of Satin Polyurethane

Pros

Cons

What is Semi-Gloss Polyurethane?

It is another poly finish that has more glimmer than satin or matte. However, it is less shiny than a high gloss.

applying polyurethane varnish to wood

Semi-gloss floors reflect more light compared to satin floors because they have a shine that falls between satin and high gloss poly. 

Furthermore, a semi-gloss poly gives you a decent shine and adequate protection.

The Pros and Cons of Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

Pros

Cons

Comparing Satin and Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

Appearance

When deciding between satin vs. semi-gloss polyurethane finish, a satin paint includes more flattening paste and thus reflects less light, giving it a duller appearance. While semi-gloss polyurethane contains less flattening paste, tends to reflect a significant amount of light, and appears shinier.

Both are in the middle of the sheen spectrum. Matte is the dullest as it reflects virtually no light.

Sheen Level

At 55% sheen level, semi-gloss polyurethane is below high gloss finishes.

hardwood floor sheen level

With 40% luster, a satin finish is the choice of most households and complements every shade of hardwood floors.

Scratch Resistance

Satin polyurethane is better at concealing surface imperfections compared to semi-gloss polyurethane.

You will see more flaws on a semi-gloss surface than on a satin poly surface due to the increased reflection of light. Semi-gloss polyurethane will be more resistant to scratches than a satin finish.

Durability and Maintenance

Satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes are equally durable because they use the same formula.

furniture varnish

Satin conceals dirt, dust, and scuff marks better. Semi-gloss reflects more light; thus, surface debris will be more visible.

Furthermore, semi-gloss polyurethane requires more upkeep.

Formula and VOC Levels

According to our experts, polyurethanes have similar compositions or formulas; the levels of VOCs[1] in a satin formulation are identical to a semi-gloss polyurethane.

However, a water-based poly has lesser Volatile Organic Compounds quantity when compared with an oil-based poly.

Dry Time

Water-based polyurethane dries much faster and can be re-coated in just two hours, whereas oil-based polyurethane requires 24 hours. Oil-based polyurethane takes at least four hours to dry.

comparing polyurethane products

Water-based polyurethane will cure 1 to 3 days after the final coat is applied. On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane takes about two weeks to cure fully.

Practicality and Cost

Although a high gloss polyurethane finish is more eye-catching, it may be a poor choice for household use because of its slippery nature.

Semi-gloss poly and satin urethanes are more popular in homes because they are less slippery.

Additionally, satin urethanes are better at hiding surface defects than high gloss finishes. 

Other Polyurethane Finishes

Gloss Polyurethane

This type of polyurethane is the most gleaming of all and has approximately 70% luster. It is commonly found on gym floors and similar settings.

painting hardwood floor

Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

Matte Polyurethane

Regarding sheen levels, matte polyurethane is the counterpart of gloss polyurethane. It has a low level of sheen gloss and less mirrored light.

According to our tests, opting for the matte finish is good because it has a superior ability to conceal surface defects.

Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

Comparing Matte, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss Polyurethane

Satin or Gloss Polyurethane Finish?

Gloss poly mirrors more light on wood floors. Satin polyurethane finishes mirror roughly 50 percent less light.

wooden boards with different polyurethane finish

A gloss polyurethane finish is highly slippery due to its shiny appearance, while satin polyurethane finishes possess a lower sheen and provide a smooth feeling surface.

Both satin and gloss polyurethane finishes are extremely durable.

Semi-Gloss or Gloss Polyurethane?

Both gloss and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes possess a different sheen level or reflective quality, where gloss is the most gleaming of all, and semi-gloss polyurethane comes second.

However, gloss polyurethane is not a good option for anyone with light sensitivity.

Satin or Matte Polyurethane?

Those who prefer the lowest shine in a polyurethane finish can choose matte or satin polyurethane.

polyurethane wood varnish matte finish

Because of the significant flattening paste levels in the formula, matte has almost no light reflection. Satin sheens also contain more flattening substances, but the level is smaller than those in matte formulations.

As a result, a satin polyurethane is going to reflect light while concealing surface flaws. 

Polyurethane on Hardwood Flooring: Does the Finish Affect the Color?

Applying polyurethane over paint can alter the paint colors, whether water- or oil-based, but this may not always be true for hardwood and other wood surfaces. 

The yellow tint of poly with an oil base will transfer to the surface. This tint will appear and become more noticeable over time if an oil-based finish is on a hardwood floor.

living room floor

If you want your floor surface to not be yellow over time, use a water-based product that does not change the wood surface color.

How to Choose a Polyurethane Finish for Hardwood Flooring

Color

The tint of the poly finish is significant because it affects the appearance of the floors. Some finishes come in many pigments. However, other options might be very limited.

After drying, water-based poly looks clear, whereas oil-based finishes yellows over time. Water-based is the better choice if you want to retain how your wood floors look.

Cost

Before starting any work on your floors, you must already know how you want them to look. If you don’t want the surfaces to turn yellowish, don’t go with cheaper options. 

Oil Based Polyurethane on a wooden board

Oil-based poly costs more than standard finishes. But you can use dark wood if you prefer or work on large wood floor surfaces.

Drying Time

It is possible to recoat water-based polyurethane after two hours, while oil-based finishes require 24 hours to dry. The drying time for an oil-based finish is four hours, but it is more expensive.

Curing time for water-based polyurethane ranges from one to three days after the tough topcoat is applied. 

Odor and Ease of Application

Water-based varieties are much less labor-intensive and do not always require sanding between coats.  

person applying polyurethane varnish on hardwood floor

However, seven coats of water-based poly are needed to get smooth wood surfaces and avoid wood grain, but only three coats of oil-based finish are needed.

Water-based options have a faint odor and emit few volatile organic compounds, while oil-based finishes have an unpleasant odor; thus, you need a gas mask or face mask. 

Luster or Type of Finish

High-gloss and matte aren’t recommended for heavily used hardwood floors. 

Oil-based finishes have several advantages, the most notable of which are their versatility and the attractiveness of their satin, high- or semi-gloss poly.

FAQ

Which is shinier, satin or semi-gloss polyurethane?

A semi-gloss finish is shinier than satin polyurethane. Satin varnish has a more flattening paste, giving it a duller appearance. Since satin polyurethane contains more flattening paste vs. semi-gloss varnish or polyurethane, it does receive as much reflected light.

What polyurethane finish to use on kitchen cabinets?

For kitchen cabinets, the polyurethane finish you should use lies in your taste and the quality of light in the room. The semi-gloss will show more marks and dirt; thus, a satin finish is preferable. However, semi-gloss is better if you’re after a glossier, more glassy appearance.

Is it easy to switch from satin to semi-gloss and vice versa?

If you want to change the finish from satin to semi-gloss and vice-versa, achieve the best results by sanding and stripping the surface before applying the new finish.

Can you use satin polyurethane on semi-gloss polyurethane and vice versa?

It is possible to apply satin over semi-gloss polyurethane; however, for the satin polyurethane to adhere, the glossy layer of the semi-gloss finish must be removed first.

Does the type of polyurethane (oil or water-based) affect the appearance of satin and semi-gloss finishes?

Yes. Formulations of oil-based polyurethane offer more sheen and give more color to the surface than water-based polyurethane, thus affecting their appearance.

Can you mix satin and semi-gloss polyurethane?

If both satin and semi-gloss polyurethane are mixed in the right proportions, the resulting sheen will be somewhere between the two. Due to the tendency of the satin to predominate, you will need to use a two-to-one ratio of semi-gloss and satin.

Which is better for kitchen tables, satin or semi-gloss polyurethane?

Choose a semi-gloss finish over satin for a kitchen table if you prefer a more lustrous or shiny finish. It will be more stain- and moisture-resistant better than a satin finish, giving you more value for money over time. The same is true when contrasting both satin and semi-gloss furniture.

Which is better for stairs, satin or semi-gloss polyurethane?

If finishing stairs, it is better to choose satin vs. semi-gloss. Stairs are heavily-used in any home or office, so they are more prone to scratches and dents.

You should go for a finish that will not highlight imperfections, and satin is a better choice.

Is satin polyurethane the same as water-based polyurethane?

Satin polyurethane differs significantly from water-based polyurethane. Water-based polyurethane is a water-soluble paint, whereas satin polyurethane is a polyurethane finish.

Conclusion

Now that you know everything you need about semi-gloss vs. satin polyurethane finish, you can decide what you prefer to use on wood surfaces based on appearance, maintenance, drying time, and durability.

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson

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