Which is best for your floor?

Comparing Water and Oil Based Polyurethane Floor Finishes

by Benjamin Roussey

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Looking at a DIY floor finish for your home but just can't seem to decide between water-based or oil-based polyurethane? It is a tough choice because both options are equally terrific looking and can spruce up your flooring. Let's compare the two based on a few vital parameters to see which fits your needs.

1. Durability

Many professionals are undecided about which floor finish is more durable than the other. The two options are quite similar regarding durability. The ability to withstand heavy use for each of the two options is dependent on a few factors such as the brand of product you are using, how much the product is being thinned down, and the application of the product with regards to number of coats applied and the thickness of each coat. If both quality water-based and oil-based polyurethane floor finish products are used and applied appropriately, the difference in durability, toughness, and reliability is negligible.

2. Pricing

Oil-based floor finish costs more than water-based finish so you can make a choice depending on your budget.

3. Drying Time & Odor

Water-based finish dries much faster compared to an oil-based finish. Each coat of water-based finish takes about two to three hours to dry, while oil-based finish takes around ten to twenty hours to dry. A water-based finish has a mild odor, much like that of a gentle cleaning agent, where, due to the high levels of VOC in oil-based finish, the odor can keep you out of the house for about 2 to 3 days. So if you have no family around, or you do not want to impose your family's presence on your friends, choose a water-based poly.

4. Appearance

Water-based poly tends to be clear whereas oil poly provides the floor richness and color. If you're a fan of the natural look of maple, choose a water-based finish. While they do look milky when they're in the can, they are actually quite clear and will slightly highlight the natural character of your wood without giving it that amber hue that most oil-based polys have. If you are working with oak, opt for an oil-based poly whose amber tint amplifies the charm of the wood. In about five years, water-based finish may look better as it tends to hold its color better than oil poly, which has been known to darken and amber.

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5. Feel

Oil-based floor finish feels smoother to the touch than a water-based finish since oil-based poly conditions the wood better. Both types of floors, however, will smooth out over the first couple of weeks and the grain will settle down, as the water or spirits in the product take some time to evaporate. Also, the constant contact of your feet on your floor will work well in polishing it. Having said that, if your floor ends up feeling like sandpaper, try lightly sanding and then putting down another coat of finish.

What You'll Need

It's best to have all your items ready before you start. You will need:

  • Knee pads
  • Roller tray
  • Rags
  • A floor finish applicator
  • Polyurethane
  • Paint thinner (if you are using an oil-based poly)

Benjamin Roussey is from Sacramento, CA, and grew up doing all varieties of home improvement projects around the home since his parents did not hire contractors or outside help to maintain their home or vehicles. As a result, he has acquired a multitude of home handyman skills in plumbing, carpentry, electrical and everything in between. He also has two Masters degrees and he served four years in the U.S. Navy.

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