When choosing the finish for your wood floor, you’ll need to select one of two basic types: penetrating or surface. Penetrating finishes, which include oils, permeate the wood grain. They are easily renewed, but they do require special care in waxing and polishing to keep floors strong and clean. Old-house owners with softwood (pine) floors often prefer penetrating oil-based finishes because they give the wood an aged patina that does not look shiny and plastic. Oils bring out the grain and texture of the natural wood, which is why makers of fine furniture use them, too.
Surface finishes, including varnishes and polyurethane, form a hard surface on top of the wood. They offer better protection against scratches and stains and are easily cleaned, so they’re more common on hardwood floors and in newer houses. Think of the finish on a gym floor—superdurable but plastic-looking. That’s polyurethane. Surface finishes can be removed if you change your mind later, but the process of stripping and refinishing is time-consuming.
Here’s a loose rule of thumb: consider oils if your floors get light use, and surface finishes if your floors get a lot of foot traffic from kids and pets. Choose your finish according to your circumstances and preferences.