Satin vs Gloss Polyurethane: Which is Better? (2023 Guide)
Polyurethane comes in many different sheens, but two of the most commonly used are satin and semi-gloss.
In many respects these sheens are similar, but their differences are important to consider to get the look you want for your project.
Ready to learn the differences between satin vs semi gloss polyurethane and which you should use? Let’s dig in!
Satin and semi-gloss polyurethanes are both durable, easy to apply and maintain, affordable, long-lasting, and reflective.
But semi-gloss brings out a wood surface’s unique features better than satin finish, without being overly shiny. This is largely why semi-gloss is the more popular polyurethane sheen.
In This Article:
What is a Satin Polyurethane?
Satin polyurethane has a more muted sheen, but it’s not as dull as matte polyurethane.
Satin poly’s sheen allows it to hide dirt and imperfections better than glossier polys, which can make it a better choice for some applications.
This kind of polyurethane is easier to maintain, so it’s great for surfaces that get scuffed and scratched often, i.e. hardwood floors, tabletops, and counters.
Pros of Satin Polyurethane Finishes
- Satin polyurethane can be used on a wide variety of surfaces.
- It adequately protects surfaces from dust, dirt, and other erosive elements.
- It resists scratches, dents, and fingerprints well.
- It isn’t as slippery as glossier finishes.
- Its muted sheen goes great with numerous decors.
- It’s easy to apply, touch up, maintain, and remove.
- It doesn’t fade as fast as glossier finishes.
Cons of Satin Polyurethane Finish
- You may have to clean and touch up a satin polyurethane finish often if it’s exposed to heavy foot traffic routinely.
- If a satin poly finish does get scratched or gouged, dirt and dust can accumulate in these crevices, becoming difficult to remove.
- Usually satin polyurethane doesn’t look good on vintage pieces or antiques because its sheen clashes with the features such pieces often boast.
Satin poly is great for a variety of surfaces, which in large part explains why it’s the second most-used polyurethane (behind semi-gloss polyurethane).
It’s often applied to kitchen and dining room tables, cabinets, stairs, interior walls, doors and door frames, chairs, desks, end tables, dressers, and window frames.
Essentially, if you want a duller finish that hides imperfections well, looks good, and provides adequate protection, go with satin polyurethane.
What is a Gloss Polyurethane?
There are two kinds of gloss polyurethane: semi-gloss poly and high-gloss poly.
These polys are shinier than satin and matte polys, and they’re more slippery.
Both finishes are used to accentuate a surface’s natural features, and both provide adequate protection from a range of erosive elements.
What Is Semi-Gloss Polyurethane Finish?
Semi-gloss polyurethane finish is used more than any other finish, in large part because its sheen is neither too glossy nor too dull.
In many ways it’s like satin polyurethane, and in many ways it’s like high-gloss poly; you could say it combines the best of both worlds.
If taken care of, this finish will protect wood from dirt, dust, moisture, and other elements that can wear down a surface over time.
Most semi-gloss polys are oil-based, and it’s the oils that give these polys an attractive sheen.
There are, however, semi-gloss water-based polys, even though water-based polyurethane is generally duller overall because of its chemical makeup and lack of oils.
Pros of Semi Gloss Polyurethane Finishes
- Semi-gloss polyurethane is moisture-resistant, so it can be used both indoors and outdoors.
- It’s a bolder finish, so it highlights a wood surface’s grain and color.
- This kind of finish can withstand heavy, frequent foot traffic, which is why it’s often used on hardwood floors and similar surfaces.
- Cleaning this finish is easy, provided you clean it regularly.
Cons of a Semi Gloss Finish
- Semi-gloss finish does require more maintenance, largely because it’s much easier to spot defects in a semi-gloss poly finish.
- This poly is harder to touch up, since you need to ensure no section is shinier than the rest of the surface.
- Because it has a more reflective sheen, semi-gloss poly doesn’t look good on some furnishings, particularly antiques that were designed and crafted long before use of polyurethane finishes were common in woodworking.
Semi-gloss polyurethane finish looks good on a variety of wood and wood-based surfaces, and it can also be used on other materials, like metal and stone.
Because of its visual appeal, durability, and a few other key benefits, semi-gloss poly is used on kitchen cabinets, tabletops, stairs, floors, railings and banisters, wood trim, vanities, chairs, window and door frames, night stands, desks, and bed frames.
Differences Between Satin and Semi-Gloss Polyurethane
Since satin and semi-gloss are both popular polyurethane sheens, they’re often compared according to several metrics, specifically appearance, durability, lifespan, frequency of maintenance and cleaning, drying time, ease of application, reflectiveness, cost, and versatility.
Satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes look similar, but a semi-gloss poly finish is shinier. That said, semi-gloss poly isn’t that much shinier than satin, which is why both can be used on the same surfaces—just not concurrently.
Semi-gloss polyurethane finish highlights wood grain, colors, and other features that both natural and engineered woods boast, and while satin finish can technically do the same thing, the latter doesn’t accentuate features to the degree semi-gloss polyurethane can.
But semi-gloss poly’s ability to accentuate details becomes a downside when the surface gets marred with scratches and gouges, as these will be highlighted too.
Plus, the sheen of semi-gloss polyurethane can be overwhelming if it’s exposed to bright light, either natural or artificial, which is why furnishings that are coated with this poly are not used in certain areas.
But even satin polyurethane with its more muted look isn’t great for older pieces, as its shine clashes with the beautiful look that only aged wood can display.
The video below does a great job of summarizing the best finishes out there. Check it out!
Before I get into how satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes stack up in terms of durability, it’s important to point out the differences between oil-based and water-based polyurethane.
Oil-based polyurethane is more durable than its water-based counterpart.
Therefore, if you use either a satin or semi-gloss oil-based poly, you can expect top-notch durability, i.e. protection from a range of erosive elements, including grime, moisture, heat, UV rays, and most chemicals.
Water-based polyurethane is still durable, but not as durable as oil-based polys.
Oil-based poly’s durability is a result of its composition, and its composition is also what gives it its sheen. In other words, it’s the oils these polys possess that make them especially shiny.
Water-based poly, on the other hand, is more muted because of its composition, but semi-gloss and high-gloss versions include components that make them shinier.
Oil- and water-based polyurethanes—whether satin or semi-gloss—can be used on a range of wooden surfaces.
But when it comes to wood floors and other surfaces that are at a higher risk of getting damaged, it’s best to opt for an oil-based, satin polyurethane.
Generally speaking, semi-gloss polyurethanes last longer than satin polys, in large part because semi-gloss polys require more maintenance.
Since satin polys are good at hiding dirt and imperfections, it’s easy to overlook the negative elements that accelerate wear and tear. And if you don’t clean a satin poly finish as often as you should, chances are it’s not going to last very long.
The differences between oil-based and water-based polys are relevant here as well. Specifically, oil-based polys are more durable and generally last longer than water-based polys.
Lastly, the conditions a poly has to withstand day in and day out also in part determine how long it will last.
So polyurethane that’s applied to a regularly used hardwood floor—whether it’s matte or satin—will probably not last as long as a tabletop poly finish that’s seldom at risk of being damaged.
Frequency of Maintenance & Cleaning
Because semi-gloss polyurethane highlights defects like scratches and gouges, it must be properly maintained in order to avoid this.
On the other hand, since semi-gloss finishes are generally more durable than satin, they don’t get damaged as often and therefore don’t require maintenance as frequently.
The frequency of maintenance and cleaning is largely determined by the conditions the polyurethane is exposed to routinely.
For example, a floor that’s coated with satin or semi-gloss polyurethane should be touched up every month or so. A surface that’s less at risk of getting damaged, however, should be cleaned and touched up two to three times a year.
Fortunately, both polyurethanes are relatively easy to maintain, and routine maintenance is neither time-consuming nor expensive.
Satin and semi-gloss polyurethanes take hours to dry, especially if the polyurethane is oil-based. Specifically, oily poly can take five to seven hours to dry, whereas water-based poly takes one to two hours to dry.
But polyurethane being dry isn’t the same as it being completely cured.
For oil-based poly, satin or semi-gloss, the curing process takes about a month. For water-based poly, the curing process takes about two weeks.
A polyurethane will only display its true sheen after it’s completely cured. So if you apply satin poly and it looks too glossy at first, give it some time to cure—it’ll display its muted sheen eventually.
Ease of Application
Both satin and semi-gloss polys are easy to apply, and you can apply either with a paintbrush, roller, or sprayer.
That said, if you’re going to apply poly using a sprayer, it’s best to use water-based poly. Using oil-based poly with a sprayer is possible, but it has to be thinned with paint thinner or denatured alcohol first, otherwise this applicator will have a hard time spraying.
When applying polyurethane, you should pay attention to the evenness of the coats you’re applying. If you apply too much on one part of a wood surface, it’ll be shinier than the rest when it dries.
The best applicator for ensuring a consistent finish is a sprayer, provided you know how to use this tool. But if you’re not comfortable with a sprayer, use a roller – this way you can avoid pesky brush marks.
Semi-gloss poly finish reflects more light than satin poly, and this is a main reason why it’s used on wood floors.
But there are times when the reflective nature of semi-gloss isn’t ideal.
Say, for example, you have a room full of furnishings that have been coated with semi-gloss poly. If this room is illuminated by a lot of natural or artificial light, all of these reflective surfaces could overwhelm you and make being in the room unpleasant.
As far as price goes, satin and semi-gloss polys cost about the same. Specifically, these polys usually go for $20-$60 a can for some of the popular brands like Minwax and Varathane.
The price of polyurethane is largely determined by its components, but other factors like drying time and demand also influence the price.
You could argue that since semi-gloss poly is the most-used poly on the market, it is somewhat less expensive because it’s more mass-produced. But you could also argue that satin finish is cheaper because it doesn’t highlight wood surfaces as nicely as semi-gloss finish.
Lastly, it’s wise to consider durability and lifespan in relation to the price of poly. After all, a polyurethane that’s durable and long-lasting is going to get you more bang for your buck than a poly that’s hard to maintain and easily damaged.
Versatility is another thing these polys have in common. Both can be used on a variety of furnishings, as they’re protective yet not overly glossy.
But just because they’re versatile doesn’t mean they can be mixed. In other words, if your satin poly finish gets scratched, you can’t touch it up with a semi-gloss polyurethane, as these touch-ups would stick out like a sore thumb.
And since both polyurethanes are versatile, you can purchase a can of either and coat multiple furnishings with it, achieving pretty attractive ROI.
What Is High-Gloss Polyurethane Finish?
High-gloss poly is the shiniest of all the polyurethanes. There are oil-based and water-based versions of high-gloss finish, and these are rarely used on hardwood floors because they make these surfaces too slippery.
And while it’s possible to coat furniture with high-gloss finish, this is rarely done because the sheen is usually too much for most pieces.
After all, a piece that’s too glossy can be distracting and even bother someone who’s sensitive to bright light.
- High-gloss poly is stain-resistant.
- It’s easy to clean and maintain.
- It’s durable and long-lasting, as it resists scratches, dents, and gouges better than other polys.
- It is an effective sealer, but it won’t make a wood surface water proof.
- Fixtures that are coated with high-gloss poly can light up rooms that’d be dim otherwise.
- Because of its sheen, this poly isn’t as versatile as semi-gloss or satin varnish.
- A glossy finish is too slippery for hardwood flooring. (you can check out these options to dull a glossy finish if necessary for your project)
- This finish will not hide surface imperfections, rather it will accentuate these.
- Because it can cause intense light reflection, high-gloss poly should not be used on furnishing that are mounted at eye level, like cabinets, as it can be blinding.
High-gloss polyurethane is suitable for bowling alleys, gym floors, stages, and other commercial applications.
Basically, if extreme shine and slipperiness aren’t going to be problematic for a surface, high-gloss poly can be used to form a protective, appearance-enhancing barrier.
What Is Matte Polyurethane Finish?
Matte poly is the most-muted sheen on the sheen spectrum, as it contains more flattening paste than any other poly.
Its duller appearance makes it ideal for dimly lit spaces and relaxing decors.
Since it lacks the shine that other polys boast, it’s scratch- and fingerprint-resistant, and it also provides decent protection from dust, dirt, and other elements that’ll wear down a poly surface over time.
- Matte poly hides imperfections and dirt better than satin polyurethane finishes.
- It isn’t slippery like satin finishes.
- Matte polyurethane looks great with modern, minimalist decors.
- This finish is easy to touch up, as you don’t have to worry as much about one section being shinier than the others.
- Because it hides dirt and damage well, you may put off maintenance and cleaning longer than you should.
- If flanked by glossier furnishings, a matte finish will stick out like a sore thumb.
If you want the protection that polyurethane surfaces afford but you don’t want any glossiness, go with a matte finish.
You can even use this on a wood floor, but if you do you’ll need to do cleaning and maintenance work regularly, even if the surface doesn’t look visibly dirty or damaged.
Satin vs Gloss Polyurethane for Furniture?
Both satin and semi-gloss varnish can be used to coat furniture. Neither is too glossy and both provide adequate protection.
If you’re having a hard time determining which polyurethane is best for a piece of furniture, consider the furnishings and fixtures that’ll be around the piece. If they have muted sheens, then you should opt for satin finish, as it’s less glossy.
But if the furniture is going to be in a well-lit place flanked by glossy furnishings and bright metallic fixtures, it makes sense to go with a semi-gloss finish.
Also, if you don’t want the surface to be too slippery, opt for satin over semi-gloss. That said, even semi-gloss isn’t that slippery, which is why it can be used on most surfaces, including hardwood floors.
Satin vs Semi-Gloss Polyurethane for Cabinets?
Cabinets can be coated with either satin or semi-gloss polyurethane.
But before you decide on a polyurethane, you should consider the furnishings and fixtures around the cabinets.
Kitchen cabinets, for example, are usually mounted in a well-lit space, so if they’re too glossy this may diminish their visual appeal. That said, if nearby countertops are glossy and the area is replete with metallic appliances, go with a glossier finish.
The same can be said for bathroom cabinets. So if the marble vanity, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, and floor tiles are all glossy, you should choose semi-gloss poly over satin so the cabinets don’t stick out.
However, in a dimly lit, spa-like master bath, it’s best to have more muted bathroom cabinets, as these will help to create a tranquil atmosphere.
Which is better: satin or gloss polyurethane?
Satin and semi-gloss polyurethane finishes possess many of the same qualities, so it’s hard to say conclusively that one is superior. In truth, satin finish is best sometimes while semi-gloss is best at other times. Specifically, satin polyurethane is wear-resistant and good at hiding imperfections, while semi-gloss is accentuating, durable, and highly reflective.
Is satin or semi-gloss polyurethane better for hardwood floors?
Both finishes are used to coat hardwood floors, and both offer benefits and drawbacks. A satin finish will hide imperfections, dirt, and other diminishing elements, but it won’t prevent the damage these elements cause. A semi-gloss finish is stronger and better at highlighting wood surfaces, and despite being somewhat slippery it’s been a go-to floor poly for a long time.
So which is better overall: satin or semi-gloss polyurethane finish?
Since semi-gloss is the most-used polyurethane sheen, and since it provides more durability and visual appeal than satin, it’s fair to say semi-gloss polyurethane has a slight edge over its satin counterpart.
That said, both finishes are long-lasting, affordable, easy to apply and maintain, versatile, and reflective, so they can be used on a wide variety of furnishings.
In the end, if you want your polyurethane finish to be on the shinier side, choose semi-gloss polyurethane finish.