Oil vs water based poly – Which is better for hardwood floor refinishing?

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.


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Video – Oil vs water poly and advantages of oil based polyurethane

Video – Oil vs water poly and advantages of water borne polyurethane

Full detailed article: Water vs oil based polyurethane




Hi.  My name is Debbie Gartner, and I’m known as The Flooring Girl.  You can find me at TheFlooringGirl.com.

Today, I’m going to answer the question about oil vs water based polyurethane and which is better for sanding and refinishing hardwood.  I’m going to do this in 2 parts.  First to discuss oil based poly and 2nd water based.

There are definitely some disagreements in this area, but I do think that if you look hard enough you ‘ll find that most professionals agree.  I’m going to attempt to give you the pros and cons of each of these, as well as the circumstances in when I would use one over the other as well as my personal preference and opinion.

We offer both oil and water borne poly, but we strongly recommend oil based for most circumstances.  The reason being is first, it looks better.  Secondly, it lasts longer, and third, it costs less. So, it seems like a no brainer, right?  Well of course not.  Nothing is ever that simple.  I will give you some circumstances where water based may be a better way to go even though I am a strong proponent of oil based.

First, let’s talk about the look.  Most customers prefer the look of oil based poly.  Oil based poly has a deeper and richer look. It’s more what you are accustomed to seeing on hardwood floors.  And, certainly if you are doing part of your floors, most likely you have oil based and the only way to match what you have is to do oil based.  The water borne will give you a different look. Water borne poly comes out lighter and has a duller finish.

These 2 pictures here are meant to help illustrate a point, but you will need to use your imagination.  The first one on the upper right shows the water based on the left, and it’s showing it on maple floors (and maple is lighter than oak) and on the right, you can see the oil based poly on oak floors (which are darker).  So this exaggerates the color difference.

In the picture below, this is from one of my customer’s houses after the floors have aged for a while showing part of water and part of it oil.  However, in real life, the difference between these two in color looks stronger than what you see in the picture.

So, most people do prefer the look of the oil based, but not all.  If you’re looking to do dark floors, esp very dark floors, you will get a darker look with the oil based poly.

Secondly, oil based poly lasts longer.  There’s just no question about it.  While it does take longer for the floors to dry with oil based poly – a few more days –  to me, that is generally worth it to add a few more years at the back end.  Sanding & refinishing is rather inconvenient and you need to be out of the house in most circumstances.

These are some generalizations because everyone’s floors are different based on their wear and tear, but most of my customers who do have water based, generally refinish every 5-6 years; with oil based, that looks more like 7-10 years.  I’ve also had many customers who have done water based and would never repeat that process again because it just did not last as long.

This is a really important consideration if you have dogs, or are doing heavy traffic areas such as the kitchen or entryway, as well as if you are doing darker colors which tend to show the scratches sooner.

Third, oil based poly usually costs less.  There are some exceptions because there are some places out there that use a very cheap water based poly.  It is inferior.  But, in general the oil based poly will cost you less.

What are the disadvantages?
The biggest one is that it takes longer to do this work.

The 2nd one is that it smells more, but generally this work is done while you’re outside of the home.  And, both oil and water based do smell.

And 3rd is that this really is not right for all circumstances.  If you have maple hardwood, or if you are going for a whitewashed or gray look, you really want to do the water based poly.  It will just not look right with the oil based.  More for that in my next video.

If you do live in the Westchester area, feel free to give us a call.  914-937-2950.  Thank you.



Hi.  My name is Debbie Gartner, and I’m known as The Flooring Girl and you can find me at TheFlooringGirl.com.

This is Part 2 in my question to answer the question about Oil vs water based polyurethane and which is better for refinishing hardwood floors.

If you have not listened to Part 1, you may want to listen to that first.  As I mentioned before, we do offer both oil and water based poly and there are some circumstances where water borne is better and others where oil. is better.

I’m now going to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of water borne poly.

Here are the advantages of water borne poly:

First and foremost, it dries faster.  And, a lot of people like this as they have limited time to get the work done – sometimes they are limited before they move into a new home or they may only have a few days when they’ll be away for vacation.

It definitely does cut down on the timeline by a few days.  Generally, it may shave off maybe a couple of days/maybe 1 day – it depends on what you are doing in terms of the actual process. Also, on the other end, for drying time, it cuts down on that as well.  After you do oil based poly, you need to wait 4 days before putting drop cloths on or moving the furniture back; for water based, you only need to wait 2 days. So, in total, this may shave your timeline up to 3-4 days which definitely can help.

Secondly, water borne poly smells less.  Now, I don’t want to kid you because it still smells. But, it doesn’t smell as bad and it doesn’t smell for as long.  There are some Co-ops in our area that do require water based poly because of the smell to the other tenants, so do be sure to ask your Co-op if you do live in one.

Third, and this is a little bit controversial, it might be a little bit better for the environment.  Water based poly has lower VOC’s (that’s Volatile Organic Compounds).  They still have VOC’s but just less of them.  Really the Volatile Organic compounds don’t have an impact to your family once the floor has dried.  It’s really only the drying process of sanding & refinishing, and most people prefer to be out of the house during this time anyway.  You need to do what’s right for you and your family.  I do have some people who prefer to do the water based because they have young kids and they are concerned about that.  I have other people that prefer to do it because the wife if pregnant.  But, honestly, the saw dust has a much bigger impact than the poly does, and I would recommend for anyone that’s pregnant that they stay out of the house for this.  I just think that is a much safer approach.

In terms of this actually being better for the environment, I’m not so sure.  The skeptical New Yorker in me says yes, you may be releasing fewer VOC’s; however, water based poly does not last as long; therefore you are refinishing the floors often twice as often, so you wear down the wood sooner and you are doing this process often twice in the same period of time.  So I’m not so sure that it’s really better for the environment.

There are definitely times where water based is a much better option than doing oil based.  In particular, if you have maple hardwood floors, they look much better with water based.  With the oil based, they really tend to yellow over time and it does not look so pretty.  Also, if you are doing a gray floor or a white washed floor, you really need to do water based.  Otherwise, they will yellow and colors will not look right.

Among the water based polyurethanes, Bona Traffic is definitely the best one.  It looks a little bit better, and importantly it lasts a lot longer and it yellows less.  But, it definitely does cost more.

If you do live in the Westchester area, feel free to give us a call. I’d be very happy to give you a free consultation.  We bring the store to your door.  My name is Debbie Gartner.  You can reach me at 914-937-2950 or at TheFlooringGirl.com.  Thank you very much.

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Oil vs water based poly – Which is better for hardwood floor refinishing?