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How many coats of water based polyurethane should you use?

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:


Please note that this article contains affiliate links.  That means that if you purchase a product, I at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.  These are products that we use and recommend to our customers.  You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page. 



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

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


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

[easyazon_link identifier=”B0040RXD7Q” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ cart=”n”]Bona Traffic HD[/easyazon_link]

[easyazon_image align=”right” cart=”n” height=”320″ identifier=”B00B3A86S4″ locale=”US” src=”” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ width=”320″][easyazon_link identifier=”B00B3A86S4″ locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ cart=”y”]Bona Traffic HD[/easyazon_link] (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.


[easyazon_cta align=”none” identifier=”B00B3A86S4″ key=”wide-orange” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″]

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.

[easyazon_cta align=”none” identifier=”B00B3A86S4″ key=”wide-orange” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″]


Bona Traffic is available in [easyazon_link identifier=”B00B3A87WO” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″]semi gloss[/easyazon_link], [easyazon_link identifier=”B0040RXD7Q” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ cart=”y”]satin[/easyazon_link] and [easyazon_link identifier=”B00B3A87BA” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″]extra matte[/easyazon_link] finishes.



Want to see the floor cleaning products I recommend?


StreetShoe Polyurethane

[easyazon_image align=”right” height=”300″ identifier=”B0079NBSE8″ locale=”US” src=”” tag=”hwpoly-20″ width=”300″][easyazon_link identifier=”B0079NBSE8″ locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ cart=”n”]StreetShoe[/easyazon_link] 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.

[easyazon_cta align=”none” identifier=”B0079NBSE8″ key=”wide-orange” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″]


Bona Mega

[easyazon_image align=”right” height=”320″ identifier=”B00793YIEK” locale=”US” src=”” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ width=”320″][easyazon_link identifier=”B00793YIEK” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″ cart=”n”]Bona Mega[/easyazon_link] 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.

[easyazon_cta align=”none” identifier=”B00793YIEK” key=”wide-orange” locale=”US” tag=”hwcoatsofpoly-20″]



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.
Buy me a coffeeDid you find my tips helpful? If so, feel free to buy me a coffee and support my blog


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?

13 thoughts on “How many coats of water based polyurethane should you use?”

  1. I’ve read that oil is best for dark stains and water base poly is best for gray stains. Would you recommend oil or a water poly if you’re doing a dark stain with a gray mix. For example, Jacobean and Classic Gray.


    1. Ray – Right, I agree with that. The reason you want water, and more specifically Bona Traffic, is that oil based poly will turn the gray yellow…and w/ a blend, an odd yellowish tint, so go with water borne poly. Bona Traffic HD amberizes the least and is the most durable, so I would go with that one over all others. It does cost more, but it’s worth it. I have a whole article on best brands of polyurethane, too and you you can find a link on my side bar (scroll down a lot).

      1. Thank you so much! Which Bona Sealer would you use with the Bona Traffic HD on a dark grey floor? Will certain sealers cause the dark grey stain to amberize or yellow?

        1. Ray – You don’t need a sealer at all. If you are using a stain, the stain is the sealer. You would use a sealer when the floors are natural. Regarding amberizing, that happens when you use any oil based poly…or even an amber seal.

          If you did want to use a sealer, I would guess that classic seal would be fine. Nordic seal has a tad of white/gray, but it may lighten your stain. You would use that with natural (i.e. no stain).

  2. Hi there, just stumbled onto your page and this post is help for our situation. We had our house built two years ago and the sealer was supposed to be Bona Traffic. However, after we moved in we found discarded bottles of a different brand. We strongly believe they didn’t use Bona Traffic. Also, after reading your post I realize they didn’t do enough coats! They only did two. My husband and I have always been baffled about why our floors feel so rough. But the worst part of all is damage from our pets. We have an older dog who occasionally has an accident in the house. In a few spots on the floor the dog’s urine has caused almost immediate stains. Our floors are white oak and have zero stain so these stains are horribly noticeable. To me it doesn’t seem right that the floors are staining immediately and only in some areas. Two questions. 1) Do you think doing 3-4 coats of Bona Traffic would help with preventing stains? 2) Do we have to sand the entire floor? Or is it possible to just sand out the problem areas and then reseal the entire floor? Sorry for the length of my post.

    1. Amanda – Sorry to hear this. You can fix the damage by replacing the wood pieces and you would probably need to sand and refinish the whole floor…or at least that room. I would hire someone else to do this. More coats of poly, as well as proper sanding and screening will help. But, NOTHING is full proof with urine, especially if it sits there. I think it’s the uric acid that does the most damage, but also, the liquid itself damages the floor. You may be able to just refinish that room and do a screen and recoat in the other rooms for more protection.

      But, you need to have a professional look at it so see what the best option is. They can see the condition of the floor.

  3. Hello. I am having my whole house sanded and stained and top coats (3) applied starting tomorrow.

    I am still not certain if I will choose to use an oil-based poly or a water-based poly because I will wait until the sample stains are put down on the sanded floor.

    But my real question is this: IF I go with the Bona Traffic HD (3 coats), should I have one coat of sealer put down before the top coat? I know you mentioned above that the stain acts as a sealer, but one Bona distributor highly recommended using the Bona sealer, then only 2 coats of the Traffic HD.

    What has been your experience?

    Is 3 coats of Traffic HD a good idea, or should I go with one coat of sealer and 2 or 3 coats of Traffic HD?

    I appreciate any insight you can provide. Thank you.

    1. Terry – Sorry for the delay…I’m behind in my comments – I think 150 comments behind. It is fine to do 1 coat sealer + 2 Bona Traffic HD. That is basically the same as 3 coats Bona Traffic HD. It will save you a bit of money, too.

  4. Can I add Bona Mega to floor that had the same finish put on one year ago. Can I add the finish without sanding down and making sure the floor is clean and scuff marks removed?

    Thank you.

    1. Jesse – Yes, you can do that. However, you MUST buff the floors before you apply the polyurethane. You don’t sand it, you buff it…and that’s kind of like a “light sanding.” You can’t apply the poly on top without doing this. If you do, it won’t adhere properly. you need to scuff up the floor first. You may want to buy or rent the the machine or hire someone to do it. otherwise, you can attempt to get on your hands and knees and hand sand it (which isn’t very fun).

    1. Maureen – whichever applicator your prefer. There are many types and it doesn’t differ based on the poly. Usually, our guys use lamb’s wool, but people use a wide range of products.

  5. Hi Flooring girl, I have an urgent question. My previous installer (who we fired) installed red oak, even though I wanted light modern floors and gave him a sample of white oak. After researching a lot (2 months!) I found my current installer. He created a mix of white and natural stain (DURASEAL), and used Bona Mega as a top layer for my samples. He created big samples (3X4 sf) – and it looked beautiful. I loved the 75% white – 25% natural mix. The red tone of the floors did not show AT ALL and the grain of the red oak remained very subtle. It looked like a beautiful light brown/white washed floors. But then my problems began. I always want the best products, so I asked him to use the traffic HD and not the MEGA. BIG Mistake. Now my floors look pink. I understand that the Mega has some amber color, which is apparently what I needed to cover the redness of the floors. My installer is really nice and caring. He suggests that we apply the MEGA on top of the HD. What do you think about it? will it help me remove the redness now? Will it harm the floor (peel, make it less durable)? Do I need to start again? The floor now is smooth and has a luxurious look, but is too PINK. I cannot have a pink master bedroom. Does not fit my vision for that room. Can applying another layer or two of Bona MEGA help? Can it harm?

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