High durability water-borne polyurethane brands – The top 3 choices
Over the years, we have tested MANY brands of polyurethane…on thousands of floors, and I want to share with you the best water based poly that we have found for hardwood flooring.
Contrary to what many may instinctively think, there are some super durable brands of water-borne polyurethane that are HIGHLY DURABLE…and in fact EQUALLY as durable as the top oil based polyurethane brands.
This is because the manufacturers keep testing and improving the formulas. 8 to 10 years ago, I used to recommend oil based polyurethane over water based poly.
But, now due to all the improvements and added advantages to water borne polyurethane, my answer for whether to use oil or water based polyurethane really depends on the look/stain color choice, budget and type of wood being used.
In this article, I will share the best brands of water based polyurethane on the market, where you can buy them, as well as when water based poly makes more sense than oil based poly.
I will also share the poorly rated water borne polyurethanes – the ones you want to avoid by all costs.
And, I will delve into when you should consider oil based poly.
Please note that this article contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you purchase them. I only recommend products we use and love. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.
Best brand of water based polyurethane
If you’re curious (or in a hurry)
It’s the most durable, looks the best, yellows the least, smells less and cures fastest.
It does cost more than an oil based polyurethane, but it’s equally as durable, smells way less, dries much faster and has lower VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
It’s specifically designed for hardwood floors and to hold up to heavy traffic, pets…and even commercial traffic. It’s available in extra matte, satin, and semi-gloss finishes (extra matte and satin are most popular).
If you can get it for under $150, grab it. That’s one heck of a deal on a GREAT polyurethane! (check current price).
Is water-borne polyurethane durable?
YES!! It may come as surprise to many that when you use a high grade polyurethane such as Bona Traffic HD, it is EQUALLY as durable as a high grade oil based. This was not the case 10 year ago. The formulas have really improved. And, this only holds true if it’s a high grade water based poly (a low grade water poly will be inferior).
Oil vs water based polyurethane
In general, most flooring professionals will tell you that oil based polyurethane is more durable than water borne poly. That is because most water borne polyurethanes are inferior. HOWEVER, if you are using a top notch brand, such as Bona Traffic HD, this is not true In this case, they are EQUALLY as durable.
Oil based poly will give you a slightly darker and more yellow look than water based. This is great for darker colors as it gives you a darker and richer look. But, on light color (or natural) wood, it makes the wood look more yellow and dated (and it yellows more over time). If you are going for lighter and more natural color, or using a gray or white washed color, water based poly is a better option. It will be lighter and won’t amberize as much.
A good water borne poly will cost more than oil based poly, so this is the one big downside. But, it will smell way less, dry and cure much faster (so it will shorten the process and allow you to move your furniture back faster), and it has lower VOCs (Volatile organic compounds).
You can read more about polyurethane in these 2 articles: Best brands of polyurethane (both oil and water based) and Oil vs Water based poly – pros and cons.
The 3 most durable brands of water based polyurethane
1. Bona Traffic HD
Bona Traffic HD (Heavy Duty) is hands down the best water borne polyurethane on the market. It has the highest durability and is considered commercial grade which means it’s great for busy restaurants and retail stores, and will certainly hold up in your residential home. Bona Traffic definitely costs more, but it is worth it. If you ask almost any experienced flooring professional, they will agree.
Bona Traffic is a 2 part product. It comes with a hardener that you mix in, so it becomes very hard and durable. It has a contemporary and upscale look as it doesn’t have the yellow glow that you see in oil based polyurethane. And, compared to other water borne polyies, it just looks cleaner and more natural.
Bona Traffic is the best product for gray and white wash stains, as well as maple as it amberizes (or yellows) the least vs any other product. Also, if you want your oak floors to be as light as possible (and the least yellow), this is the best option.
In addition, Bona Traffic is environmentally friendly. It has very low VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) – less than 150. It has low odor. It’s GreenGuard certified meaning it’s safe for children and pets and it’s school certified.
What’s the difference between Bona Traffic and Bona Traffic HD?
Often the terms Bona Traffic and Bona Traffic HD are used interchangeably (I often catch myself doing this, especially when I’m speaking with a customer). Bona Traffic HD is a little better than the original Bona Traffic. It costs a bit more, but it’s not a significant difference in price. And, I will say that both are top-notch options.
Here are the benefits of Bona Traffic HD (vs original Bona Traffic):
- Lower odor
- Slightly lower VOCs (Bona Traffic is 150 VOCs and Bona Traffic HD is <125 VOCs)
- It dries and cures a bit faster, especially over the the 1st 24-48 hours. (This can be a big benefit for households with dogs as well as those in a rush to move into a new home as the movers are less likely to scratch the floors).
You can learn a bit more in this video on Bona Traffic vs Bona Traffic HD
2. StreetShoe Polyurethane
StreetShoe would be my 2nd choice water borne polyurethane. It used to be the gold standard (and we used to use it) until Bona Traffic came along. It’s a strong polyurethane and last much longer than virtually all water based polyurethanes on the market. It costs a bit less than Bona Traffic (and more than your basic polyurethanes) as it’s a higher grade.
3. Bona Mega
Bona Mega is a mid grade water borne polyurethane. We use this when our customers want (or are required by their co-op) to use water borne poly, but their budget won’t accomodate Bona Traffic. It’s a good water borne poly. There are certainly better ones out there (see above), but there are certainly many many lower grade ones out there.
Generally, if you are getting a much lower price on refinishing using a water borne poly, chances are the installer is using an inferior water borne product. See below for some polyurethanes that are lower grade and I would try to avoid.<
When is it better to use water based poly (rather than oil)
1. When you are using a gray stain, white wash, gray or greige blend (ONLY use water borne poly for these and ideally Bona Traffic HD, oil based will turn these yellow and lower grade water based poly won’t be as bad as oil based, but they will be a bit more amber and turn more yellow over time).
2. When you want a lighter and more natural look…and when you want to avoid yellow in your floors.
3. When you are refinishing maple and going natural. While maple is lighter than oak, it’s is more sensitive to the light and UV rays, so if you use an oil based poly, it will turn yellow…and look very dated and worn quickly (often within 1 year).
4 When smell is a major concern. This could be because you or a family member would prefer to reduce odor (as well as the VOCs, if you have young ones, or if you live in an apartment, and you are concerned about the smell for the neighbors. Or it could be if you plan to say in another part of the house while the work will be done.
5 When timing is tight. Often, when you use water borne poly, it can save you 1-2 days in the process, and you can move the furniture back sooner. Also, because it cures faster than oil based poly, dogs can go on the floors sooner, and they are less likely to cause scratches over the first few weeks.
When it makes more sense to use oil based poly
1. When you want a very dark stain. If you are going for a dark stain, oil based poly tends to look better.
2. When you have a dark species. Often darker and redder woods, such as Brazilian Cherry and Brazilian Walnut, tend to look better and richer with an oil based poly.
3. When money is a concern. Oil based poly is generally less expensive than water borne poly, especially if you are comparing it to a high grade water based poly such as Bona Traffic HD,
Water based polyurethane brands to avoid:
While I love high grade water based polyurethane brands (as they are durable, smell less, dry faster and have lower VOCs), I have to warn you that there are many inferior brands out there. In fact, there are more bad ones than good, and more and more brands enter the market each year.
If you go with one of the brands I mentioned above, you are in good shape. (And, there are a few other new ones we are testing, but it’s too soon to give an objective opinion on those). But, below are several brands that are inferior, and you need to avoid.
Some flooring contractors use these because they are cheaper or locally made. Some use them because they buy their products from Home Depot, and not a real hardwood flooring distributor (they just don’t have access to the right products or know any better). In these cases, you are truly getting what you pay for. They will not last as long.
- Bona Novia (note Bona Traffic HD is excellent and Bona Mega is good)
Related polyurethane articles:
- Best brands of polyurethane (oil an water based brands)
- Oil vs water based polyurethane – pros and cons
- How many coats of polyurethane you should use
- Hardwood flooring trends
- Most popular stain colors
If you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here.