Satin vs. Semi-Gloss Polyurethane: When to Use Each?

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 09/22/23 • 

Polyurethane is one of the most popular protective wood finishes because of its durability and high level of protection. It comes in different sheen levels, from matte, satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss. Of these four sheen levels, satin and semi-gloss are the most popular. In this article, we’ll look at the difference between satin and semi-gloss poly and when to use each sheen.

What is Satin Polyurethane?

Satin polyurethane finish has a muted sheen with a 35-40% luster. This is due to a higher level of the flattening agent zinc oxide added to reduce the sheen. The zinc oxide absorbs light rather than reflecting it, thus the lower luster.

Varathane Water-Based Clear Satin Polyurethane

Varathane Water-Based Clear Satin Polyurethane

Because of its lower sheen level, a satin polyurethane finish will hide more dirt, surface marks, dust, and other debris. It is also great for hiding surface imperfections and everyday damage, such as dents and scuffs, from being seen.

Pros of Satin Polyurethane

Cons of Satin Polyurethane

What is Semi-Gloss Polyurethane?

Semi-gloss polyurethane has a higher sheen than satin, which sits at around 45-55%. This finish has more sheen and will reflect more light than satin finishes but less than a gloss finish.

Applying Multiple Layers of Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

Applying Multiple Layers of Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

The higher the sheen of a finish, the more protective and durable it is. Semi-gloss polyurethane is more durable than satin and also offers better protection. However, unlike satin polyurethane, it will easily show small imperfections like dirt, dents, and other surface marks.

Pros of Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

Cons of Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

Differences Between Satin and Semi-Gloss Poly

Appearance & Sheen Level

Satin polyurethane has a duller appearance and less sheen compared to semi-gloss polyurethane. The higher reflectivity of semi-gloss poly will reveal more surface imperfections, but it can be great if you’re looking to brighten up a space. The higher reflectivity of semi-gloss poly is great for molding, trim, or even cabinets to add that extra sparkle.

Satin poly is great for hiding imperfections and much better than semi-gloss polyurethane. It is also good for reducing the glare of sunlight on surfaces that come in contact with the sun’s rays. For larger surfaces or better-lit spaces, satin poly can soften the light.

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Durability And Maintenance

Semi-gloss is slightly more durable than satin polyurethane. Generally, the higher the sheen of polyurethane or any finish, the more durable and protective it is. For this reason, semi-gloss is great for surfaces that get more contact or frequent scrubbing. However, satin polyurethane is still durable and great for surfaces that don’t get to be scrubbed regularly.

When it comes to maintenance, a satin poly finish will show less dirt than semi-gloss, thus requiring less maintenance. However, if cleanliness is important, a semi-gloss finish is better because you can notice dirt easier and clean it up.

Scratch resistance

Semi-gloss polyurethane is more resistant to scratches, dings, and other surface marks caused by abrasion. Semi-gloss poly will have an edge and offer better protection for surfaces that are likely to be more exposed to abrasion and a lot of wear. However, although satin polyurethane is slightly easier to scratch, it will hide these damages better and can easily be repaired.

When to Use Each

Both satin and semi-gloss polyurethane are great and offer good protection as protective layers. However, each has its own strengths that make it great for certain applications.

Satin polyurethane is great for surfaces that will be exposed to little use. It is great for larger walls and rooms or better-lit spaces. Semi-gloss, on the other hand, is slightly more durable and has more moisture and scratch resistance. It can stand up to satin polyurethane in kitchens, bathrooms, and other surfaces exposed to more traffic, such as furniture, trim, and kitchen cabinets.

Apart from looking at the various pros and cons of satin and semi-gloss polyurethane, your preferences also play a part in selecting the right sheen. If you prefer a shinier appearance, semi-gloss is good. For a slight sheen, a satin sheen is better. Which sheen do you prefer between satin and semi-gloss polyurethane, and why? 


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