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Matte vs. Satin Polyurethane: What’s the Difference?

Are you planning to refinish wood floors, cabinets, or furniture but can’t decide whether to use matte or satin polyurethane?

The key difference between matte and satin polyurethane is the appearance. Matte reflects almost no light, giving it a dull, low-sheen look. Matte’s gloss level is between 15-30%. Satin is also a low-sheen finish, but it reflects more light, making it slightly shinier. Its gloss level is between 30-40%.

That’s the basic difference, but there’s more to know before choosing.

In this comparison of matte vs. satin polyurethane, you’ll learn how they compare in appearance, durability, upkeep, and more.

I’ll also share some insights from experts and answer the most frequently asked questions regarding both finishes.


Use the links below to navigate the comparison:


Appearance

Polyurethane is a clear liquid made from synthetic resin. It hardens when you apply it to wood and forms a flexible, protective layer.

Polyurethane protects wood surfaces, such as floors, furniture, and cabinets, from damage, stains, dirt, and wear. It makes the wood water-repellent but not waterproof.

Besides the functional benefits, the polyurethane you choose has a significant impact on the look of the wood.

In terms of appearance, all polyurethane starts out as a high-gloss finish. Zinc oxide paste is added in different amounts to flatten the shine.

The instructions on all polyurethane cans say to stir well before use. That’s because the zinc oxide sinks to the bottom of the can as it sits on the shelf. Stirring ensures a uniform result by distributing the paste evenly throughout the product.

Matte polyurethane contains the most flattening paste, which means it reflects the least amount of light. The sheen is almost invisible, with a 15-30% gloss level. It’s the best option for a natural or rustic appearance.

Wood floors with matte polyurethane
Wood floors with matte polyurethane

Satin polyurethane contains slightly less flattening paste and is one step up from matte in terms of sheen. The gloss level is around 30-40%, which gives off a subtle shine, but not too much. It’s also the most popular choice.

Wood floors with satin polyurethane
Wood floors with satin polyurethane

I’ll focus on matte vs. satin polyurethane in this comparison, but semi-gloss and high-gloss are two other popular choices.

Semi-Gloss is a step up in sheen from satin. It’s not overly shiny, and hides wear better than high-gloss. It’s a good choice for people who want some shine but not too much. It brings out the beauty of the wood.

High-Gloss offers the highest shine. However, it shows all imperfections. It is best suited for specialty floors with low traffic or any wood you want to showcase.

Durability and Maintenance

Since the main formula for matte and satin polyurethane is the same, both provide the same durability and protection. Remember, the only difference is the amount of zinc oxide paste, which determines the sheen level but doesn’t impact durability.

However, the higher the sheen, the more scuffs, scratches, and footprints will show. In other words, satin reflects more light than matte, making it easier to see dirt, hair, and other imperfections.

Scratch on wood floor with satin polyurethane
Scratch on wood floor with satin polyurethane

With a satin finish, you’ll get the beauty of a subtle luster. But you’ll need to clean it more frequently than matte to keep it looking good.

You can get away with cleaning floors coated with matte polyurethane less often because minor dust and debris won’t be as visible.

Another factor to consider, especially if you’re finishing a floor, is how the appearance of the finish will change over time.

Matte and satin provide the same hardness and durability, but the higher gloss finish (satin) will show a greater change in appearance over time than a lower gloss finish (matte). 

For example, if a wood floor finished with satin polyurethane is exposed to the same abrasive wear as a wood floor finished with matte polyurethane, the satin floor will lose some of its luster. In contrast, the appearance of the matte floor will remain the same.

Since the initial appearance of matte and satin is so similar, you won’t notice a significant difference. If you were to compare matte vs. semi-gloss over ten years, the change in appearance would be much more noticeable.

Regardless of the finish, cleaning and maintaining floors coated with polyurethane is simple and easy.

I go into detail in this guide to deep cleaning wood floors, but the basic steps are to vacuum or wipe loose dust and debris, then mop with a microfiber floor mop and fast-evaporating floor cleaner (like Bona).

Wood and water don’t mix. So, never soak or oversaturate wood when mopping. Water can penetrate the polyurethane and seep between the floorboards, leading to cupping, warping, and other irreversible damage to the wood.

Also, avoid acidic cleaners and homemade solutions (like vinegar). Those can degrade the polyurethane and ruin the wood over time.

Eventually, you’ll need to refinish wood floors, cabinets, and furniture. 

On average, you’ll need to refinish floors every ten years. Of course, it also depends on how much wear they experience or if they receive direct sunlight. If you see gouges or scratches, discoloration, or decreased luster, it might be time to refinish your floors.

What Experts Say About Matte vs. Satin Polyurethane

To get an expert opinion on matte vs. satin polyurethane, I reached out to the two most popular manufacturers in the industry: Minwax and Varathane.

Both have produced high-quality polyurethane, wood stains, and other finishes for decades.

When I spoke to the product specialists at both companies, I asked the same two questions:

What’s the difference between matte and satin polyurethane? What factors should be considered before choosing?

The expert at Minwax said, “the main difference is the appearance. Satin reflects more light and is shinier than matte.” He also confirmed that ” you’ll see more dust and scratches with a satin polyurethane because it’s shinier. It doesn’t get dirtier than matte, but it appears dirtier.”

He mentioned, “most Minwax poly finishes come in satin, but only one water-based finish comes in matte. The oil-based satin polyurethanes have a slight yellow tone that enriches the word, whereas the water-based matte product goes on completely clear and doesn’t alter the wood’s appearance.”

The product expert at Varathane put it simply by saying, “the level of shine is the number one difference. Matte is not glossy at all, and satin has a slight luster.”

He said, “higher sheens show debris and wear more than lower sheens, but the difference between matte and satin is small. You’ll notice a much bigger difference if you compare matte and semi-gloss.”

He also said, “technically, the higher the sheen, the tougher the product will be — but not by much. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most durable, satin is a 9.5 matte, and matte is a 9.2. Don’t make your decision based on that because you’re not losing much, and both options are incredibly durable.”

He mentioned, “satin has been around for longer and is the most common option for floors, but matte is gaining popularity because it offers a more natural look that some homeowners prefer these days. Go with the look you like best. If you don’t like the result,  you can always put satin over matte or matte over satin.”

Overall, the takeaway from these experts is clear. The sheen level is the main difference between matte and satin polyurethane; durability and the visibility of imperfections and debris are secondary and shouldn’t influence your decision much.

FAQs About Matte and Satin Polyurethane

Below, you’ll find answers to common questions about matte and satin polyurethane finishes.

What if I don’t like the finish I choose? Can I apply matte polyurethane over satin polyurethane or vice versa?

Yes. You can apply matte polyurethane over satin or satin over matte as long as the previous coating has fully dried and cured. Before applying the new coat of polyurethane, lightly sand the wood with 120- to 150-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface and so the product adheres properly. That said, sanding and stripping the surface before applying the new finish will yield the best results.

Does the type of polyurethane (oil- or water-based) change the appearance?

Yes. Oil-based formulas provide greater sheen and depth than water-based polyurethane. Also, water-based polyurethane goes on clear and doesn’t alter the hue of the wood. Oil-based polyurethane has an amber glow that makes the wood darker and slightly yellow, although the change is minimal.

Can I mix matte and satin polyurethane?

Yes, they can. If you mix it in a 2:1 ratio of satin to matte, you’ll get a finish with a sheen in the middle of the two. When doing this, mix the same brands and types (oil-based or water-based).

Is matte or satin polyurethane better for furniture?

This comes down to personal preference. If you want a higher sheen, go with satin. Matte is a better choice if you want a rustic and more natural look. Plus, fingerprints don’t show on a matte finish but are slightly noticeable on satin.

Is matte or satin polyurethane better for floors?

Again, it’s a matter of preference, and the differences in appearance are subtle. Matte hides imperfections better than satin and makes your floors look natural and understated. Satin is the more traditional finish that makes a statement.

Is matte or satin polyurethane more expensive?

Prices vary based on the brand, type (oil-based vs. water-based), and sheen. In general, satin polyurethane will cost more, but usually not by much. Higher sheen finishes command the highest prices.

Which polyurethane is more popular, matte or satin?

According to the product specialists at Minwax and Varathane, satin has been available much longer and is the more popular choice. Matte is a relatively new option, so it’s not as popular, but more and more people are picking it lately. Google Trends data confirms what the experts said. Searches for “satin polyurethane” have steadily increased since the early 2000s, but searches for “matte polyurethane” have spiked in the last few years.

How to Choose Between Matte and Satin

There are no defined rules for choosing between matte and satin polyurethane, but these are some key factors to consider.

  • Other finishes: When choosing between matte and satin, consider the other finishes in your home. For example, if most of your furniture, trim, and molding has a satin finish, a matte finish might disturb the unity of the aesthetic. 
  • Frequency of cleaning: Consider how often you want to clean. Remember, satin will need to be cleaned more frequently. Matte is a bit more forgiving.
  • Level of sheen: Consider testing each finish on a small piece of wood or furniture. Light reflects off surfaces differently in each room. Seeing the finish in the room will help you decide.
  • Wear-and-tear: For high-traffic areas, consider an oil-based polyurethane. It stands up well to wear-and-tear, but it has a more pungent odor for seven to ten days after you apply it. Choose a satin finish to give it a touch of sheen for a richer look.
  • Humidity: If you live in a humid environment or are finishing surfaces in an area with frequent moisture, such as a bathroom or basement, choose a polyurethane specially designed to protect wood from water damage.
  • Sunlight: The amount of sunlight in the room impacts how the finish will look. Satin will reflect more light and appear shinier if the sun shines directly on your floor, furniture, or cabinets. If the room gets little sunlight, satin will look almost the same as matte. Floors or furniture coated with matte polyurethane will have very little shine, even if the sun shines brightly into the room.
  • Water or oil-based: Oil-based finishes have a more pungent odor and an amber tint. They can change the look of your wood. If you prefer a clear coat, go with a water-based polyurethane formula.

Bottom Line: Should You Choose Matte or Satin Polyurethane?

Now that you know how matte and satin polyurethane compare, it’s time to decide which is best for your project.

Let’s recap the main considerations:

Appearance: Satin features a low sheen, while matte has virtually none. You can use either finish on a variety of projects, from cabinets to hardwood floors. Polyurethane formulas start as a high-gloss finish, but zinc oxide powder is added to flatten the sheen.

Durability: Both matte and satin polyurethane are equal in strength, hardness, and durability. However, the level of sheen wears differently. A satin finish will lose its luster over time and show scuff marks, scratches, and footprints more than a matte finish.

Maintenance: Satin requires more frequent cleaning since dust and dirt are more visible. You can easily clean both finishes with a damp cloth. Go light with water when cleaning to avoid damaging the wood. Be sure to dust cabinets or sweep floors before using a damp cloth to wipe them clean.

Bottom Line — the best polyurethane finish is one that will reflect your needs, lifestyle, and preferences. If you’re going for a low-maintenance, rustic look without sheen, choose matte. If you want a subtle shine and don’t mind dusting and cleaning more often, go with satin. 

I highly recommend getting wood samples with matte and satin finish and seeing how they look in your home before choosing.

Andrew Palermo Founder of Prudent Reviews

Andrew Palermo - About the Author

Andrew is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prudent Reviews. He’s studied consumer buying behavior for 10+ years and has managed marketing campaigns for over a dozen Fortune 500 brands. When he’s not testing the latest home products, he’s spending time with his family, cooking, and doing house projects. Connect with Andrew via emailLinkedIn, or the Prudent Reviews YouTube channel.

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