Hardwood Floor Finishing Face-Off: Oil-Based VS Water-Based Polyurethane

Hardwood floor suffers from wear and tear over time—this is no longer a secret. That’s why any contractor or builders will likely recommend that you should apply hardwood floor finishing to protect your wood flooring. Wood finish will take on the scuffs or scratches and increase resistance to water if applied properly. However, hardwood floor finishing options abound in the market these days that even homeowners are challenged to identify which one is better than the others. Amongst these choices, two hardwood floor finishing options remain popular: oil-based and water-based polyurethane. 

hardwood floor finishing

The difference between oil-based and water-based polyurethane isn’t about which is better or worse. We can say that both hardwood floor finishing options can offer incredible results. Often, it’s not just about the product, but the project, that determines what’s right for your wood flooring. What do you want the result or outcome to look like? How do you want your hardwood floor to perform after a couple of years or so? These questions can help you figure out which finishing option fits your hardwood flooring the most. To answer this, we have created a head-to-head comparison of these two hardwood floor finishing options. 


Drying Time

Consider all factors such as humidity and temperature being equal, water-based polyurethane dries up faster than its oil-based counterpart. Typically, water-based jobs can be completed in just 2 days. It takes up to four applications between coats in one day and you can already walk on the floor in about four to six hours after the last coating. On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane normally takes 3 to 5 days and you must wait for another 24 hours before you can even walk on the floor. 

Fastest Drying Time: Water-Based Polyurethane

hardwood floor finishing


Number of Coats Required 

Rule of thumb: for each coating of oil-based polyurethane, you must apply at least 2 coats of water-based polyurethane. While it is true that a water-based finish has a faster drying time, you need to apply up to 4 coats in a day to achieve great results. This is because the water in water-based polyurethane reacts more with the grain, so frequent application of finishing is necessary. On the other hand, an oil-based finish has more solids, so it needs only 1 to 2 coats per day. 

Least Coats Needed: Oil-Based Polyurethane



Number of Coats Available

A limitless coating is possible if you use water-based polyurethane. However, this won’t be possible with oil-based polyurethane. This is because an oil-based finish is susceptible to sheeting, chipping, or scratching after a few first layers are applied. To be safe, make sure to read the product specifications before refinishing. 

No Limits in Coating: Water-Based Polyurethane



Final Look, Color, and Finish

These hardwood floor finishing options look different when applied and as they age. Oil-based polyurethane has an amber hue that quickly darkens the hardwood. This creates more depth both in shine and color on your hardwood flooring. Over the years, the amber tone deepens with an oil-based finish. Whereas water-based polyurethane is clear, dries up clear, and remains clear for the lifetime. Because of its color, the water-based finish looks duller. This is ideal for homeowners who want the natural color of wood to be constant over the years. Keep in mind that there are different variations to each polyurethane type, so you should always read the product specification sheet before applying it to your hardwood floor.

Best Final Look and Finish: Both




When it comes to affordability, oil-based polyurethane is less expensive than a water-based finish. You may pay 10% to 25% more with water-based polyurethane. The raw materials used to create a water-based finish cost more than the oil-based finish, making the final price higher. According to HomeAdvisor, oil-based polyurethane typically costs $20 to $40 per gallon, while water-based polyurethane is ranging from $25 to $50 per gallon. In looking for a cost-effective polyurethane, you should consider consulting a professional hardwood floor finishing contractor near you. 

Most Affordable: Oil-Based Polyurethane



Ease of Installation 

Since water-based polyurethane dries up quickly, it can leave overlapping lines, bubbles, or any mistakes that can be difficult to correct. It is not a DIY-friendly job because it requires skills and experience to apply a water-based finish. On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane is much easier to apply than a water-based finish, making it a good choice for DIYers. The extended drying time of the oil-based finish allows enough time to apply the coating evenly and correct any mistakes. 

Easiest to Apply and DIY-Friendly: Oil-Based Polyurethane

hardwood floor finishing


Durability and Thickness

Both hardwood floor finishing options are long-lasting and tough. Oil-based polyurethane is thicker, but it is also softer. It doesn’t easily scratch but it is more susceptible to dents. That’s why it is so important to put furniture pads on heavy furniture to prevent dents on the floor. Whereas water-based polyurethane has a thinner but harder coating, which makes it more susceptible to scratching or any surface abrasion due to debris. With this, regular vacuuming is necessary. 

Most Durable: Both



Smell and Fumes

Water-based polyurethane doesn’t smell as bad as that of oil-based polyurethane. The water-based finish has a light odor, and it won’t require you to use a respirator when applied. Oil-based polyurethane, however, gives off a very pungent smell and releases a strong chemical odor during the application and drying process. With this, you need a respirator for protection. Make sure that the area should have good ventilation. Also, keep your pets or anyone in the family with breathing issues away from the project area. Some refinishing contractors will advise homeowners to be out of the house while the oil-based polyurethane is being applied and drying. 

Least Odor Released: Water-Based Polyurethane




If you’re looking for a greener hardwood floor finishing option, water-based polyurethane is the best choice. A water-based finish is better for the environment because it emits less volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A well-engineered water-based finish contains little to no hazardous ingredients or chemicals. On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane is created with highly combustible and toxic solvents. Hence, it releases high levels of VOCs. 

Most Eco-Friendly: Water-Based Polyurethane

hardwood floor finishing


Compatible Substrates

Water-based polyurethane is so versatile that it can bond well with almost any surface such as wood, fiberglass, metal, cement, carbon fiber, and stone. Oil-based finish adheres to nearly anything as well except itself. You need to sand it first in between coats, so it can create a mechanical bond to the succeeding layer.

Most Compatible to Any Substrates: Water-Based Polyurethane



What is Your Deciding Factor?

The decision to choose either water-based or oil-based polyurethane will depend on the importance you put on each category above. What is important to us may not be as important to you. But amongst these categories, do not forget that the result is what matters most. How will your hardwood flooring look after a few decades or so? 


If you are still confused about which hardwood floor finishing option is better for your wood flooring, Carpet Ready is here for you. Call us today to get a no-commitment estimate for your next hardwood floor refinishing project.