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Water Based or Oil Based Floor Polyurethane. Which one is better?

Water or Oil Based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane and oil-based polyurethane are both types of floor finish that are used to protect and enhance the appearance of wood floors. The main difference between the two is the type of solvent that is used. Water-based polyurethane uses water as a solvent, while oil-based polyurethane uses mineral spirits or other types of oil.


One of the main advantages of water-based polyurethane is that it dries much faster than oil-based polyurethane. This means that the floor can be walked on and put back into use more quickly. Water-based polyurethane also has a much lower odor than oil-based polyurethane, making it a better choice for indoor use. Additionally, water-based polyurethane tends to be less toxic and more environmentally friendly than oil-based polyurethane. However, we offer new oil based products that can dry very quickly in just a few hours. Call us for more details.

It's important to think about the drying time and the odor from VOC's (volatile organic compounds). Oil-based has a longer drying time and a stronger smell than water-based. Water-based dries faster and has a low odor. We recommend not being around either of these finishes when they are curing. Overall, it is important to weigh these factors and consider your own needs and preferences before making a decision.

Water-based polyurethane requires 2-3 hours between coats, and it takes 24 hours before it is safe to walk on the floor, 36-72 hours before you can replace furniture, and a total of 5 days for the finish to fully cure. You can remain in the house while the finish dries. Oil-based polyurethane needs 24 hours before it is safe to walk on, 48 hours before you can replace furniture, and a total of 30 days for the finish to fully cure. You must vacate the house for at least 2-3 days while the finish dries. We do offer a fast drying oil based polyurethane that can help the drying times if Oil Based is prefered.


On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane is more durable and longer lasting than water-based polyurethane. Oil-based polyurethane also tends to have a more pronounced and attractive amber color, which can enhance the appearance of the wood. Additionally, oil-based polyurethane can be used to fill in small scratches and imperfections in the wood, which can make the floor look better over time.

In summary, both water-based and oil-based polyurethane have their own advantages and disadvantages. Water-based polyurethane dries faster, has a lower odor, and is more environmentally friendly, while oil-based polyurethane is more durable, longer lasting, and has a more pronounced color. Ultimately, the choice between the two will depend on the specific needs of the project and the preferences of the user. We have noticed that we do sand the floors more often if the waterbased finishes are chosen vs some oil based floors that have lasted upwards of 20 years.

Water-based polyurethane: can last around 10-12 years when a high-quality product is applied by professionals. Inexpensive, lower quality products may last only 5-6 years. Water-based polyurethane is harder, which offers greater dent resistance but wears out quicker than Oil. Oil-based polyurethane: generally lasts around 10-15 years. Oil-based polyurethane is softer and more self-healing, which can offer greater scratch resistance.

Both oil-based and water-based polyurethane can be durable, but it depends on the quality of the product you choose. Quality water-based polyurethane can be durable, but in our opinion, not as much as oil-based, but it's important to choose a reputable brand and have it applied by a professional.

Thickness and Hardness

Oil-based polyurethane is a thicker coating, but it is also softer. Water-based polyurethane, which is an acrylic product, is a thinner coating but is harder. Water-based polyurethane can be more susceptible to surface scratching. Because water-based polyurethane is a thinner product, it's recommended to apply at least 2-3 coats for maximum durability. On the other hand, 2 coats of oil-based polyurethane are considered sufficient as a minimum.


When choosing a finish for your wood floor, there are a few things to consider. One of the main things to think about is whether you want to change the color of the wood. We recommend waterbased finishes if you don't want your floors to amber or change color. If you choose a darker stain, we normally recommend oil based due to it's more protective nature.

Water-based polyurethane doesn't change the color of the wood, it dries clear and stays clear. However, some residential or cheap waterbased finishes will slighly yellow/amber with time. This makes it ideal for light colored wood. Oil-based polyurethane darkens the color of wood and adds a yellowish or amber tone. Over time, this tone continues to darken. Oil-based polyurethane is more suited for dark colored wood.


Cost is also a factor to consider. Quality water-based polyurethane can cost more than oil-based, but the cost of the contractor's labor is often the same for both types. Currently, as of 2023, prices for a gallon of 2 Component Waterbased are reaching upwards of $140 per gallon, while oil base polyurethane is around $50 per gallon. These prices will range depending on the quality and brand your choosing.


If you are going for a gray stained, white stained or white-washed hardwood floor, you must use a water-based polyurethane, because an oil-based polyurethane will make those floors look yellow over time. Certain very light species of wood, such as Maple, look best with a water-based polyurethane for the same reasons. Water-based polyurethane is also recommended for hardwoods that have a very yellowish tone to them naturally, such as Ash, Pine, or Fir. Because oil-based polyurethane will bring out the yellow tones even more.

It is important to note that this is a matter of taste and preference, and clients with the aforementioned hardwood species have been very happy with the application of a clear water-based polyurethane. Oil-based polyurethane can make these floors look too yellow and over time it becomes more obvious. We also recommend water-based when a customer chooses to go with a true natural look.


If you're choosing to go with White Oak floors, we highly recommend going with a waterbased finish to showcase it's natural beauty. We recommend either Bona HD Traffic or Loba Invisible or 2k as the topcoats. It's a super clear finish that won't amber like oil or a residential grade waterbased finish.

Call the Hardwood Guys today for a free estimate.

White Oak Floors Finished with Waterbased


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