Which type of polyurethane is better for refinishing hardwood floors – oil-based or water-based polyurethane?
We offer both options, but I usually recommend oil based polyurethane over water based for dark floors because:
1. It looks better
2. It lasts longer
3. It costs less.
So, it seems like a no brainer, right? Well, usually it is a simple decision, but there certainly are some exceptions based on the color chosen, species of wood, and different customers have different needs.
So, let’s explore this a bit further.
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Advantages of oil-based polyurethane.
1. Oil based polyurethane looks better. It has a more depth – both in color and shine and it looks the way we expect hardwood to look. Water based polyurethane has both a duller color and a duller finish.
As you can see from this picture, the difference is pretty dramatic. The water based polyurethane (left) is lighter and duller than the oil based poly on the right.
The other issue, when it comes to appearance, is that over time the polyurethane amberizes and darkens a bit…usually giving it a richer look while the water based poly just continues to get duller over time.
Please note that some people have commented that above picture is misleading because the samples shown are not on the same wood (the one on left looks like maple and the one on right looks like oak so it exaggerates the difference in water vs oil based poly.) This picture (on the right) is from one of my customer’s houses where the previous owners used oil based poly on right and water borne poly on the left. This is not the best picture (esp due to the flash), and it’s time for them to refinish the floors, but it demonstrates the point.
Here are some more pictures – both from the same house. The are both white oak. The one on the left is white oak 5″ using water based poly (Bona Traffic). The one on the right is 2 1/4″ white oak strip using oil based poly. Note: on red oak (which is lighter than white oak), the water borne poly looks even paler.
Water borne poly (Bona Traffic) on white oak Oil based poly on white oak
2. Oil based polyurethane lasts longer than water based. There is no contest on the durability between the 2 options. Water based polyurethane has lower VOC’s – which is a bit of an environmental benefit (more about that in a moment) – but because it has lower VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), it doesn’t last as long. Water based poly is thinner, and you often need 4-5 coats to equal the durability of 3 coats of oil based.
While I do not have detailed analytical studies, most customers who call me to refinish their floors and previously had water based poly, call me after 5-6 yrs vs. most customers that call me to refinish their oil based polyurethane call me at around the 10 yr mark. And, at those points in time, the water based poly looks way worse than the oil based – in fact, it’s usually peeling off and the hardwood is starting to look gray.
What’ s also interesting is that almost all of my customers who have had water based polyurethane tell me they would NEVER do it again. They felt misled by their previous flooring contractor. While sanding and refinishing is not terribly expensive, it can be rather inconvenient if you live in the home. You need to move all the furniture out and often go away for a week. So, if you’re going to go though the hassle of refinishing your floors, I recommend doing it right so it last longer.
3. Oil based polyurethane cost less than water based. The water-based material is more expensive, so often you will pay around 10-25% more. But, on top of the initial cost, you also need to consider that you will need to redo the whole job sooner…you will probably redo them almost twice as often.
Now, there are several benefits to water based polyurethane and in some circumstances, water based poly is a much better option.
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Advantages of water based polyurethane:
1. Water based polyurethane dries faster. In my opinion, this is the largest benefit of water based polyurethane. Usually, water based jobs can be done in 2 days and you can walk on it that night; oil based can take 3-5 days (pending on humidity) and you need to wait at least 24 hrs before walking on them.
This option can really make sense for commercial businesses such as restaurants or stores as longer drying time means the store is closed, and there is a true business cost to that. But, for regular homeowners, usually, it’s worth waiting the extra 2-3 days in order to have the job last longer.
I have many customers who are in a rush to move into their new home, but I always recommend that it’s worth delaying move in by a few days and get their floors done right. If they don’t, they will spend more time and money paying for this later. For customers already living in their home, I recommend that they do this while they will be away for a while. I would rather wait 6 months for their next trip and have them pay less and do it right with oil based. Why do I feel this way? Because they will be happier and save money. I rely on happy customers who recommend me to their friends and come back to me years later for the other flooring in their home.
2. Water based polyurethane doesn’t smell as bad. Because of this, many co-ops are now requiring their homeowners to use water based poly. I think this is a bit of a shame, but I understand it due to all the neighbors. For a regular house, it will not make much of a difference to your neighbors, and I will also point out that both water based and oil based poly smell, and I still recommend that customers go away or stay somewhere else while this work is being done.
3. Water based polyurethane is a bit better for the environment…but it does depends on how you look at it. Since water based polyurethane has lower VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), it is a bit better for the environment. As mentioned above, the VOC’s are lower not non-existent. And, importantly, this environmental benefit only has an impact during the DRYING time. Once the poly is dry, there is no difference in smell, off-gassing, etc. And, yes, I did validate this with the manufacturer – and they offer both water and oil based (and they make more money on the water based so they have no reason to mislead here).
Now, the skeptical New Yorker in me always sees both sides of the equation. So, I will point out that while water based is a bit better for the environment, remember that it doesn’t last as long and the floors will need to be redone in a few years, thereby eliminating that benefit. Furthermore, this will lead to an earlier demise of the wood, which in turn will result in more cut trees…so everything has a flip side.
Because water based polyurethanes only contain 30-35% solids (vs. oil based contain 45-50%) solids, you will need to add more coats of water based poly. Water based poly tends to cost more than oil based poly. And, when you add in an extra 1-2 coats, your cost will increase further. Among water based polyurethanes, most experts agree that Bona is the best brand, and specifically Bona Traffic line. This product definitely costs extra, but if you are going to use a waterborne polyurethane, Bona is the way to go.
4. For Natural maple hardwood, water based poly tends to look better, especially over time. Maple is lighter than oak, and with oil based poly, it really does tend to yellow a lot over time. Generally, maple (without a stain) looks better with water borne poly. The majority of homes in Westchester are made with oak hardwood, and that is followed by older pine floors. I would guess that this applies to around 5% or less of the floors in our county.
4a. For white washed and gray stained floors, water based poly is a must. Oil based poly will turn these floors yellow and look tacky and they will continue to amberize (i.e. yellow over time). Bona Traffic is the best option for these floors as it is stronger/lasts longer vs. other basic water borne polyurethanes and Bona traffic yellows the least so your gray or white washed floors will look better longer. Bona Traffic is definitely more expensive, but also worth it! If you’re going to go through the expense of a gray or white washed floor, you might as well have them last longer.
Video – Oil vs water poly and advantages of oil based polyurethane
This is a 2 part video blog. Part 1 discusses the advantage of oil based polyurethane and Part 2 discusses the advantages on water borne poly.
Video – Oil vs water poly and advantages of water borne polyurethane
Other useful flooring articles:
- How long does it take to sand and refinish hardwood floors?
- Can you change the color of your hardwood floors?
- Stain color trends on hardwood flooring
- What types of hardwood are best for dogs (and pets)?
- What are the best brands of polyurethane? Which do I recommend?
- FAQ’s for hardwood floor refinishing
- Recommended cleaning products and accessories to maintain floors and reduce scratches.
What brands of poly do we use?
While I do not recommend attempting to Sand and Refinish your hardwood floors yourself (as I have seen countless disasters), I do feel comfortable in recommending polyurethane so that you (or hopefully) your installer uses top quality products. This will help with the outcome and longevity of your floors. But, remember, if you don’t have a great installer and top notch equipment, the job will never come out well.
Water borne polyurethane –
When it comes to water borne poly, there is no dispute, Bona Traffic HD is the best in the market place. It looks great, dries quickly, and doesn’t amberize. It’s perfect if you’re staining your floors gray, or white, or just going for a natural super clean look. It costs more than Bona Mega, but it’s worth it as it looks better, lasts longer and amberizes less.
Bona Traffic is the only product we use with gray or white washed floors.
Oil based polyurethane –
When it comes to oil based poly, we typically use Duraseal. It comes in different finishes, but most of our customers prefer the satin finish.
Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors
For more info, check out my Ebook – Discover the 6 Secrets to Refinishing Hardwood floors.