Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane Floor Finish

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

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Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane

Water-based and oil-based polyurethane each offer good protection; the biggest difference is in appearance. Polyurethane is actually the most durable hardwood floor finish. Here are our expert tips for applying polyurethane.

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.

Here’s How to Apply Polyurethane:

Plus, check out these tips and techniques for applying polyurethane that produce virtually flawless results. They include where wipe-on poly is better than a roller, and the best way to control dust.

Water-Based Polyurethane

Pros

  • Provides a clear finish with low odor.
  • If you love the natural look of maple, apply a water-based (waterborne) polyurethane.
    • Pro tip: 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.
    • Pro tip: If you start early enough, you can apply the recommended four coats and sleep in the room that night.
  • Cleans up with water too.

Cons

  • Water-based polys 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.
  • Some waterborne polys go on so clear that you’ll have to mark each swath of finish as you go.
  • Most water-based polys contain only 30 to 35 percent solids, compared with the 45 to 50 percent solids in oil-based products.
    • Pro tip: Since these solids create the protective finish, you need to apply four coats, as opposed to two or three.
  • When applying polyurethane to floors, you may need to apply additional coats every two years or so.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Pros

  • Leaves an amber glow and requires fewer coats than water-based polyurethane.
  • Less expensive than water-based polys.
  • Contain 45 to 50 percent solids, which creates a more protective finish.
  • Require less maintenance over time.

Cons

  • The five-hour wait between coats and 12-hour wait after the last coat will put a bedroom out of commission for a few days.
  • You’ll have to put up with a strong odor.

Plus, here’s how to tell if your polyurethane finish has gone bad.