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Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane Floor Finish

Find out which finish is the best for you project, water-based or oil based polyurethane. They're both durable and good looking, but there are differences. We'll help you decide.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Pros and Cons of water-based and oil-based polyurethane

Both water based and oil based poly offer good protection; the biggest difference is in appearance. If you love the natural look of maple, apply a water-based (waterborne) polyurethane. They appear milky in the can, but go on clear and remain clear. They'll slightly accent the character of your wood without giving it the amber tint of an oil-based poly. (However, some woods, like the oak shown, cry out for that amber tint.) Water-based finishes dry fast—most within two hours—so you can apply several coats in a day and use the room that night. They have minimal odor and clean up with water too.

But water-based polys have their tradeoffs. They cost twice as much as oil-based polys. They won't give wood the rich glow that oil-based polys impart; some even consider them cold looking. When I applied waterborne poly recently, I found that it went on so clear I had to use a bottle cap to mark each 8-in. wide swath of finish as I went.

Most water-based polys contain only 30 to 35 percent solids, compared with the 45 to 50 percent solids in oil-based products. Since these solids create the protective finish, you need to apply four coats, as opposed to two or three. And you may need to apply additional coats every two years or so.

There's debate over which finish is harder, but some experts maintain that hardness isn't necessarily a good attribute of a floor finish. You want a finish that will flex along with the floor. And a super-hard finish shows scratches more readily. You'll prolong the protective life of any finish by eliminating its No. 1 enemies: dirt and grit. Sweep or vacuum the floor often and put throw rugs in high-traffic areas.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Knee pads
    • Rags
    • Roller tray

You'll also need a floor finish applicator.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Polyurethane
    • Paint thinner (if using oil-based poly)

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 5 of 5 comments
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February 16, 12:53 PM [GMT -5]

I haven't used either of these products on flooring but I have used them on other woodworking projects (window, floor and door trim as well as furniture projects). I really like the water based because it results in much more natural look to the wood your using. It is especially good when your using cleaned up re-claimed lumber.

February 15, 6:16 PM [GMT -5]

I used water base poly on cork flooring. I goes one easy and dries fast so put several coats on in one day. Since the floor is dark anyway the difference in the colour does not show. In the end a great quick finish.

January 12, 12:15 AM [GMT -5]

We recently refinished our oak hardwood floors and chose a water based semi gloss polyurethane. It was easy to work with and we were really happy with the way it turned out. More info and details of our experience here: http://www.christonium.com/HomeProject/refinishing-wood-floor-process-removing-carpet-sanding-finishing

August 27, 4:27 PM [GMT -5]

why did water based polyurethane turn milky where the sun hits it

August 10, 7:51 AM [GMT -5]

Thank you for posting this. Without finish the floor will look uncompleted and won't have this beautiful look. There are many things to take into account when choosing the water-based or oil-based finish, but once you have your floor finished, you can enjoy the durable, unique look.
Toronto Hardwood TipTop Flooring is a professional flooring services firm in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). To find more information about floor finish and refinishing please visit http://www.tiptopflooring.ca/refinishing.html.

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