Company Floors

Oil Based Polyurethane vs. Water Based Polyurethane

When it comes to hardwood floors, applying polyurethane is a great way to add protection and enhance their longevity. Polyurethane helps protect the wood from scuffs, scratches, dents, and even water damage. It’s worth noting that there are two types of polyurethane: oil-based and water-based finishes. When deciding which type of finish is best for your application, it’s important to think about how each one performs in terms of durability and maintenance.
When deciding on whether to use oil based paint to recoat wood, the key factors to consider are ventilation of the area and any lingering odors. It will be necessary to keep the area clear for a few days; however, if you desire a different shade of wood and can accommodate any odor changes, then this is an option worth looking into.

Durability of Water Based vs Oil Based Polyurethane

It comes to durability and performance, water based and oil based polyurethane both have much to offer. While oil based used to be the go-to choice for long-lasting protection, nowadays there are high quality water based products, such as Bona Traffic, that can provide the same level of longevity. It’s important to remember that all water or oil based products aren’t created equal – when selecting a product for your flooring project, seek out products with higher levels of actual polyurethane resins and consider having your product applied by a certified professional for best results. With the right product and application technique, both water based and oil based formulations can deliver long-term performance.

Cost of Water Based vs Oil Based

The cost between water-based and oil-based polyurethane, you may not find a significant difference due to dry time consideration when it comes to professionals. Whether you decide to complete the job yourself or hire a professional, oil-based is most recommended as it will require more time for corrections if mistakes occur. Water-based must be applied quickly and any mistakes can lead to overlapping lines or bubbles in the final product. Make sure you take the necessary precautions with your project for the best outcome.
Hardness ratings for wood species are based on the Janka hardness scale. The following list of hardwood floors is in order from softest to hardest: (Ten Most Common Types of Hardwood Floors)

Drytime, VOC’s & Odor of Water Based vs Oil Based

It comes to oil-based and water-based paints, there are three key differences: their effect on the wood color, drying time and odor from VOCs. Since many homeowners prefer oil-based for its odor, it’s important to know that this option produces higher levels of VOC fumes and has a lengthy drying process. Two or three coats may take up to five days to dry completely, with potentially dangerous exposure in the meantime. Because of this potential hazard, many apartment buildings forbid residents from using oil-based paint. Fumes can spread rapidly throughout a building, putting other people at considerable risk.
Oil-based finishes should only be used for flooring with attention paid to those who may be affected by the fumes. It’s necessary to evacuate the house and ventilate the space once finished, as well as inspecting curtains, rugs, bedding, and clothing for any odor residue. In individuals with asthmatic or sensitive conditions, it may take up to two months before they can enter the house comfortably. When undertaking an oil-base finish project yourself, always ensure that you’re wearing a respirator for your own protection against noxious fumes.
Water-based polyurethane doesn’t require the use of a respirator or evacuation, and it features a mild odor that allows you to be in the area while it’s applied. It is also fast drying, allowing all coats to be applied in one day. This makes water-based polyurethane a great choice for both safety and convenience.
The curing process is estimated to take 7 days (with 75% of the product cured after 24 hours and 90% after 72 hours). After waiting 24 hours, carefully walking on the surface should be permitted; however, it should still be protected from scuffing or marring for up to a full week. Furniture can also be moved back in cautiously after 72 hours; any area rugs should not be replaced until full curing has taken place.

Wood Color Change – Water Based vs Oil Based Polyurethane

Oil based floor finish is a suitable option for homeowners; however, this may require everyone to vacate the house during the application. As odors can linger in furnishings and clothing following their use, windows and fans should be kept on for some days after reentry. Additionally, those with asthma or other sensitivities might still smell its effects up to two months later. Furthermore, an appropriate respirator must be worn during the application process to safeguard against the toxic fumes associated with oil base finishes.
For top-notch results both types of polyurethane should be used. When properly applied they both create a comfortable and durable finish. Although the long-term durability will depend on preventative care, some measures you can take include using throw rugs in high traffic areas, adding felt pads to furniture legs, vacuuming regularly to remove grit, trimming pet nails, avoiding wearing high heels on the floor, and removing your shoes whenever possible.

Summary Comparison of Water based vs Oil Based Polyurethane:


water based: doesn’t change color of wood, dries clear and stays clear. Ideal for light colored wood.
oil based: darkens the color of wood adding yellowish tone, amber tone continues to darken over time. More suited for dark color wood.

water based: less shine
oil based: more shine
Required coats:
water based: 3 coats of high quality product like Bona Traffic, 4-5 coats of lower quality product
oil based: 3 coats
Dry time:

water based: 2-3 hours between coats, 24 hours to walk on, 72 hours to replace furniture, a total of 4 days (but house can remain occupied)
oil based: one coat a day can be applied, 24 hours to walk on, 48 hours to replace furniture, a total of 5 days.(house must be vacated at least 3 days)

Ease of application:

water based: not easy, requires experience, not recommended for do it yourself because it dries quick & can leave bubbles & overlapping lines, difficult to correct mistakes
oil based: easier to do it yourself, the extended dry time allows time to apply evenly & correct mistakes


water based: very low odor & VOC’s compared to oil based, area can be safely occupied during application, much more environmentally friendly
oil based: very strong odor & high VOC’s during application, area must be vacated for at least a few days, odor can linger for days or weeks, requires a respirator to apply


water based: quality product can cost 2-3x that of oil based, but because of oil based extended dry time requiring additional trips, contractor prices are often the same whether water or oil based.
oil based: less expensive for the product itself which can save money if you’re doing it yourself

Clean up:

water based: water & soap
oil based: mineral spirits, paint thinner or turpentine


water based: can last around 10 years when high quality product is applied by professionals, inexpensive lower quality product may last only 5-6 years. Water based is harder which offers greater dent resistance.
oil based: generally lasts around 10 years. Oil based is softer which can offer greater scratch resistance.

As a professional flooring company in New York City our #1 choice for polyurethane is the water based Bona Traffic line. Most buildings in the city do require water based because of the oil based toxic odors. However many customers also prefer water based for the above mentioned reasons. In Long Island where we service houses we do have occasional requests for oil based, though water based still is most preferred.