Shellac vs. Polyurethane for Floors: Which is Better?

By Samuel N •  Updated: 07/04/23 • 

For finishing your wood and hardwood floors, there are different finishes you can apply to protect them from foot traffic, moisture, abrasive action, and other elements. There are different wood finishes you can use, and each comes with its own pros and cons.

In this article, we’ll explore two wood finishes – polyurethane and shellac. We’ll cover their differences and which is better as a floor finish.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a type of varnish that is modified with an alkyd polyurethane resin to make it more durable and protective. It is one of the most durable wood finishes around and hardens once it cures to form a very protective tough finish.

There are two types of polyurethane you can apply on your wood floors – Oil-based and water-based poly. Oil-based polyurethane is thicker, has more VOCs, is more durable, and takes longer to dry and cure. Water-based polyurethane dries and cures faster, has lower VOC content, and dries to a crystal clear finish.

Applying Minwax Polyurethane to Wood Flooring

Applying Minwax Polyurethane to Wood Flooring

For your floors, you can apply either oil or water-based polyurethane. However, oil-based polyurethane is more protective against high foot traffic, moisture, and other elements. Because of the high VOCs released when applying oil-based polyurethane, make sure there is good ventilation or wear protective gear to avoid any health complications.

What is Shellac?

Shellac wood finish has been around for several years and is mostly used for finishing furniture and other woodwork. It is a natural resin that is secreted by insects called lac bugs, found primarily in South Asia or India. The shellac resin is scrapped from trees and melted to remove any impurities.

Once the impurities are removed, shellac is sold as flakes or already dissolved in denatured alcohol. Shellac has a dark orange color and contains about 5 percent wax. You can also get a shellac finish without the color and or with the wax removed. Once applied to wood, shellac darkens to add warmth, which is better for darker-stained or darker-colored woods.

Applied Shellac Wood Finish to a Sliding Box Camera

Applied Shellac Wood Finish to a Sliding Box Camera

Shellac is mostly used to finish or refinish antique furniture, to seal off the wood before applying a finish, and for French polishing. It is not used as a floor finish because it is softer and can easily be damaged. However, it is a great finish for most wooden home objects.

Polyurethane vs. Shellac for Floors


In its natural form, shellac will leave a warm or amber hue once applied to a wood surface. However, it leaves a clear wood finish when stripped of its color.

The appearance of polyurethane will depend on the type used. Oil-based polyurethane will leave a darker-colored hue and continues to darken over time. It is best for darker wood flooring or darker stained flooring. Water-based polyurethane has a milky appearance in the container and dries into a crystal-clear finish. It is great for lighter woods such as Ash or maple flooring.

New Floors With Polyurethane Applied

New Floors With Polyurethane Applied


When it comes to durability, polyurethane is hands up the best option you can use on your wood flooring. It forms a hard and protective film finish that can handle different elements, from heat, moisture, abrasive action, high foot traffic, and much more.

While shellac is also a durable finish in its own right, it is not a good floor finish. You can use shellac as a wood finish for furniture, especially antique wood products.

Which is Better for Floors?

For the best floor finish between shellac and polyurethane, use polyurethane. Polyurethane, whether water-based or oil-based, is more protective and will better handle different elements thrown at your wood floors.

Samuel N

Samuel N is the founder of Improve Floor and has been in the flooring industry since 2005. Since then, his mission has been to make flooring easier for everyone. He helps countless people with flooring installation, finishing, maintenance, and repairs each year.