When it comes to hardwood floor refinishing and water-borne poly, what number of coats should you use?

This question comes up often when people are sanding their hardwood floors with water-borne polyurethane, especially as these coats are thinner…and many brands of water based poly are not as durable.

How many coats of water based polyurethane should you use for hardwood floors

But the truth is there’s a simple answer for the number of coats of polyurethane you should use…and I need to dispel a few myths about the durability of water borne polyurethanes, because there are some water based poly brands that are extremely high quality (and just as durable as oil based poly) and there are others that are substantially less durable.


First, I’m going to first discuss the advantages of using a water-borne poly (as well as the disadvantages)..  Then, I’m going to explore the best brands of water based polyurethane (and where you can buy them).  I’m also going to provide a few key tips when working with polyurethane for the best results.


Related polyurethane articles:


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How many coats of polyurethane should you use on hardwood floorsHow many coats of water based polyurethane should you use?

You are best off using 3 coats of water based polyurethane for the best results.  And, this is is especially important on the 1st floor of your home and heavy traffic areas (e.g. kitchen, entryway, family room).


Not only is water borne polyurethane thinner, but it also raises the grain of the wood, so the floors can sometimes feel rough with just 2 coats of poly (especially if it’s a cheap brand of poly).  3 coats gives you more protection and an extra buffing so it will smooth the surface more and show the wood’s imperfections less.


Advantages of water borne polyurethane

1. Water borne polyurethane smells less

One of the biggest drawbacks to refinishing the floors is the smell.  Water based poly, especially Bona Traffic HD smells way less.  It smells less while the work is being done, and the remaining odor dissipates MUCH faster.  It’s infinitely better.


2. Water borne poly has lower VOCs

VOC’s are Volatile Organic Compounds, and the lower the better.  Bona Traffic has super low VOC’s (just 125) which I believe is the lowest in the marketplace.  (For perspective, most mid grade water borne polyurethanes have around 200.)


So this is just healthier for you and your family/  And, of course, it’s better for the environment.


3. Water borne poly dries and cures faster

how many coats of polyurethane do you need when it's water basedThis is a huge advantage as you can move into your house much sooner.  (Or, if you’re doing this while on vacation, you can move back in much sooner).  Sanding and refinishing often takes much longer than what people think, especially when you factor in the time you need to wait before the furniture can go back on the floors.  (See:  How long does it take to refinish your floors? and How long does it take for polyurethane to cure)..


With water based poly can save you several days in the drying time…so that you can move in faster and paint faster.  Drying is the first stage, but there is also curing time. For oil based poly, it usually takes 30 days to fully cure.  But, with water based poly, the curing time can be cut down to 2 weeks.


While you can walk on the floors much sooner (often after 24 hrs), the floors are still vulnerable during the curing process, and that means they can scratch much more easily.  This is especially important if you have a dog.  (and you would want to keep the dog off the floors longer…unless you buy some doggie socks).


4. Water based poly doesn’t yellow as much…and has a color advantage for many lighter colors and species

gray hardwood - how many coats of poly do you needThis is a huge benefit as yellows tend to be rather dated these days.  Oil based polyurethane adds an amber tint to your floor…and as it ages from exposure to the sun and interior light, it amberizes more.  Most people are looking to cut out the yellow, and the way to do that is use an water based polyurethane.


So, if you’re looking to go natural and light without the amber tones, water based poly is the way to go.  And, if you’re doing a white washed or gray (or beige) blend, water poly is mandatory.  If you do an oil based poly, it will turn yellow…and get more yellow over time.  The best choice to avoid this is to use Bona Traffic as that is the least yellow.  Lower grade water borne polyurethanes amberize more and just don’t look right (not to mention that they are less durable).


Also, if you have a light hardwood species, such as maple, you’ll want to use a water borne poly.  With an oil based poly, maples turn super yellow and look old (and unhealthy).  You would generally use a water poly on other lighter species such as bamboo or ash.  Or, if you’re looking to reduce the yellow and orange tones on pine or Douglas Fir, water would be the way to go.



Debbie Gartner The Flooring GirlAre you about to sand your floors? Not sure how long to wait before using them? Avoid these common pitfalls that can impact your floor’s durability!



Disadvantages of water borne polyurethane

1. Water based polyurethane is more expensive than oil based poly.

This comes as a surprise to some, but yes, the material costs are higher as it’s more challenging to make a water based poly.that actually adheres and works.  Expect to pay an extra $0.50 – $1.50 per square foot for a water borne poly, pending on the brand used. And, if your installer is charging you the same for oil and water based poly, they are using a cheaper brand that won’t last!


2. It doesn’t give as dark or rich of a look for darker stains.

dark hardwood floors and polyurethaneIf you are looking to go dark, I generally prefer using an oil based poly as it will look darker, richer and have more depth.  This is especially important if you want very dark colors (e.g. dark walnut, jacobean, ebony, true black or ebony blends.  If you looking for a great oil based poly, check out this article:  Best brands of polyurethane.


3. If you use a cheap or mid priced water borne poly, it won’t last as long as an oil based poly.

There is a wide range of durability among water borne polyurethane brands (and the I highly recommend Bona Traffic HD).  But, if you are using a mid grade water poly (or low grade), expect the durability to be significantly lower than oil based poly.  When I say lower durability, I mean that it will scratch and peel more easily and it won’t last last as long (often 2 to 4 years less, but everyone’s wear and tear is different).


Best brands of water based polyurethane

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.


Bona Traffic is available in semi gloss, satin and extra matte finishes.



Want to see the floor cleaning products I recommend?


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.


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.



Debbie Gartner The Flooring GirlAre you about to sand your floors? Not sure how long to wait before using them? Avoid these common pitfalls that can impact your floor’s durability!



Some quick tips when using polyurethane

  • Stir the can, never shake. Shaking will introduce air bubbles and then those can show up on the floor.
  • Keep the indoor air temperature between 65-75 degrees and normal humidity levels (even if you don’t live there)…and keep it that way during the entire sanding, drying and curing process (i.e. up to 30 days after the last coat).
  • Keep the area well ventilated (but do not open the windows as dust and pollen can blow in and settle on the floor.  After the last coat has dried 24 hours, you can open the windows to help it dry and cure faster.



how many coats of water borne poly do you need for hardwood flooringSo hopefully, this helps clarify the advantages of water based polyurethane, when it makes sense to use it and the best brands.  If you’re looking for my recommendations on the best oil based polyurethane, check out The best brands of polyurethane (this has info on both water and oil brands, so scroll down to the second second).  I’m a big fan of Bona Traffic due to it’s durability, looks, low smell and quick drying time.  This is the brand we prefer to use when we are doing water based poly.


Related polyurethane articles:


Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors

color consultation for paint and stain colorsIf 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. Due to many requests, I’m now starting to offer phone consultations, too.
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For more info, check out my Ebook – Discover the 6 Secrets to Refinishing Hardwood floors.

6 Secrets of Refinishing hardwood floors ebook


How many coats of water based polyurethane should you use when refinishing hardwood floors?