Wood Whiz

What is better oil-based or water-based polyurethane?

Oil based or Water based polyurethane

Using any wood component in your home for either decoration or building will make it aesthetic and appealing. But if you want your floor or cabinet to last, you should consider refinishing to prevent moisture or heat damages. Doing this will also protect them from insects and pets’ scratches.
To achieve this, you should use a quality floor finish, which will add its beauty and make it durable.

Can you think of the best finishes?

Choosing the best high-quality floor finishes is always challenging for most people. You can go for any floor finishes while changing the look of your floorings. However, if you want the best, go for polyurethane. It’s the hardest and durable among them, which can make your surfaces look great.
It’s also easy to apply and gives your wooden surfaces like the plastic look. But that’s not that all you’ll need to choose further since it’s got two different types: oil-based and water-based polys.
Deciding between the two polys is another challenge for most people, especially those who use them for the first time. But why not ask someone? You might think this is easy but wait; everyone has got their opinion and experience with polyurethane, so you may get confusing answers.
Some people will tell you oil-based polyurethane while others think water-based is the best. But then everyone has a preference and opinion which they should work with. To walk out of the confusion and choose the best, you’ll have to understand their differences.
You also need to know the features, advantages, and disadvantages of each type of polyurethane. Through this, you’ll make the best decision even without professional help. So, which one is the best between oil and water-based polyurethane? Read on and get to choose the one that meets your demands.

Differences between water-based and oil-based polyurethane

Water based Polyurethane

 Color variation
The main difference between these two finishes is their color. Oil-based is amber, while water-based is clear. This means if you stain your wood with water-based poly, it will maintain its color over time. But with the oil-based poly, it does change color with time.

 The duration for drying
For an oil-based polyurethane to dry, it takes time, meaning you can’t apply more than one coat in a day. However, water-based take poly around six hours to dry, implying that it dries faster. With it, you can do several layers in a day and still walk on it the very day.

 Health risks
If you want a floor finish that won’t irritate you or won’t trigger your allergies, it’s best to work with water-based polyurethane. This is because it doesn’t have a strong smell which can react with your nasal system. You can even be in the house while the application is going on.
The oil-based though it has an irritating odor with its chemical components, which is not safe for both humans and pets. If you’re to apply this type of polyurethane, ensure you cover your face and body well. The smell also takes time before disappearing, so it’s best to adhere to safety tips while applying oil-based poly.

Density and feel

The oil-based polyurethane is denser and soft, unlike the water-based, which has a lesser density with a rough feel. It shows that if you use oil-based, it won’t get scratches or dents easily. However, if you want the water-based poly to last, consider applying at least three coats for the best results.


To buy a five-gallon of water-based polyurethane, you’ll spend around $350, which is expensive than the oil-based, which goes for $150. However, the prices vary according to the brand you’ll use and where you buy from.

Application area

There are certain floorings that you can’t apply either water or oil-based polyurethane. For example, if you use oil-based poly on gray hardwood flooring, it will turn yellowish. Also, the water-based polyurethane can only work with light-colored floorings like pine.

Why should you use Water based polyurethane?

It’s wise to understand why it is for you to choose the best between the two types of polyurethane. To settle for water-based polyurethane, look at its advantages first. One of the things that make it stand out is that it’s environmentally friendly since it doesn’t emit chemicals that pollute the air. It’s also cares for your health and those around you as it can’t trigger allergic reactions. This is major because it has a plant composition making it safer for you.
Another advantage of using it is that it dries faster, allowing you to apply several coats in a day. It can also maintain its clear color over time, keeping the natural look of the wood flooring. The durability level of water-based polyurethane is something to look out for. And it’s because manufacturers are now using high technology to make it resistant to abrasion.

Disadvantages of Choosing Water-Based Poly
Like you know everything has got both its bad and good sides. If you’re an economizer, don’t go for water-based polyurethane since it will milk you dry. Its price is high, unlike other options.
Another thing with it is that it can give you a shiny look if you were to consider that. It’s perfect for maintaining the natural look of the flooring. And given that it’s thinner, you’ll have to apply several coats to get the desired look.
When applying it, you might fail to differentiate the attended and the non-attended areas because its thin. It also has a rough feel with solids.

Why Go for Oil-Based Polyurethane?

Exterior paints

One of the reasons that can make you choose this type of poly is that it’s cheap, making it a good choice to reduce costs. It will also last on your floors as it’s durable and can protect it from scratches and pests as it’s thicker.
With it, your floors will be shiny and attractive since its color boosts the look of the flooring. And since it becomes darker with time, it will make your floor age like fine wine. If you add a shiny look to the smooth feel, your house will be like a small haven.

Disadvantages of Oil-Based Poly
Even though this poly is cheaper, you should also understand that cheap is expensive. The reason why I say so is because of its health risks it imposes on you after application. This is because it contains VOCs, which emits harmful chemicals to the air, which is expensive to treat.
When anyone in your family gets to inhale the fumes from it can result in serious problems. According to America Lung Association, VOCs’ health risk includes breathing problems, allergic reaction, and skin irritation.
It also takes time to dry owing to its thickness which requires at least 24 hours for drying. Meaning it’s time-wasting and will need you to stay away as it dries off.
Oil-based poly does change color, so you should use it on certain flooring types to avoid getting a boring look. You might also experience challenges applying it on certain woods, and it will need sanding before doing the final coat, which is additional work.

What to consider before using any of the polyurethane?

After reading all these, it’s best to consider some factors before settling for any type. Through this, you’ll even make an informed decision. The factors include:

Your safety
The first one being your security while using either of them. If you go for oil-based poly, know that it’s highly flammable, which puts your life at risk. This is because it contains petroleum solvent, which can catch fire any time before drying.
After the application, you’ll also get to inhale bad-smelling hydrocarbon solvents as you clean up. Getting into contact with hydrocarbon solvents will also increase your health risks. However, water-based polyurethane has a low VOC.
Before you buy any floor finishes, consider their compatibility with the kind of flooring you have. Water-based poly can work on almost all types of flooring, unlike oil-based. You can apply it to cement, wood, metal, or stone. However, for the oil-based poly to stick on any floor, you have to sand.
Method of application
It’s wise to choose a polyurethane that won’t take a lot of your time applying. You can either spray paint depending on your choice. You can watch a video on using water-based poly and learning how to do it by yourself without making mistakes. When settling on the application method, consider the poly’s pot life.


It’s best to look for the above features to decide which one is the best given that your preference might differ from the other persons. I can choose a cheaper poly because that’s what fits my budget and term it the best.
On the other hand, you can pick on a fast-drying poly that isn’t durable and call it the best. So, deciding on the best between the two can be challenging, depending on your needs and expectations.
However, to choose on the best look at its durability, thickness, and results. But never forget to look at your safety and health while using any poly since your life matters. If not, consider talking to your contractor to give you an in-depth breakdown of the poly which suits your flooring type and your pocket.
With this information, you’ll plan well for the type of floor finish to use, be it for maintenance or when doing reinstalling. Through your choice, you can get the change you wished for after transforming your flooring look.
Remember, your choice will also determine the amount you’ll spend in the future to refinish or reinstall your flooring. So, choose the best according to your preference.

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