Refinishing Hardwood Floors: Water Based vs. Oil Based Polyurethane

Our home office remodel is s-l-o-w-l-y coming along with an emphasis on SLOW. It’s been a tumultuous week in our house (for reasons I’ll explain in a few days…) and I really need to wrap this project up. I’m close to being done – just have to finish some caulking, paint my crown molding, and roller one more coat of paint on the walls. I’m really happy with the paint color (Martha Stewart’s Zinc) and am loving my refinished hardwood floors – they started out all scratched and orangey but now… gorgeous!

This is the fourth time that we’ve had hardwood floors refinished in our house – it would have been so much easier and less expensive to have done all of the hardwoods at once but unfortunately I didn’t have that foresight before we moved in.  The first hardwoods that we refinished were in our kitchen where we used oil based polyurethane, but for all of our refinishing jobs since then we’ve gone with water based.  There’s pros and cons to each so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned when making my decision between these two types of polyurethane. 

The major differences to consider are: 

Water-based polyurethane dries much faster than oil-based polyurethane.  With oil-based, you typically have to wait until the next day to add another coat of polyurethane, but water-based polyurethane can be recoated in as soon as 2-3 hours. Since refinishing wood floors involves multiple coats of polyurethane, this means that the total time of your refinishing job is longer with the oil-based. Also, once the last coat of polyurethane has been placed on the floor, the time before you can walk on your floors and put your furniture and rugs back is much shorter with water-based polyurethane.  When we refinished our wood stairs, I decided water-based polyurethane was a must because otherwise we couldn’t get to any of our bedrooms or full baths and would need to sleep somewhere else for a few nights. By using water-based polyurethane, by the end of the day we were able to walk up our stairs in socks and sleep in our own beds.

Oil-based polyurethane is much higher in VOCs so it has a strong odor and is not environmentally friendly whereas water-based polyurethane is a low VOC product with little to no smell.  The odor and possible health effects of using a high VOC product should always be considered, but especially if you’re refinishing hardwood floors in the winter when you can’t air the house out well. When we refinished our kitchen floors with oil-based polyurethane, it was the middle of winter and our house reeked! We made the mistake of sleeping in the house the first night that the floors were polyurethaned and it was terrible – I couldn’t sleep due to the awful smell and my worry about what my kids were breathing in. 

Floors that are finished with oil-based polyurethane tend to amber (turn an orangey yellow) over time whereas floors finished with water-based polyurethane are not expected to change color with age. Many people like the rich ambering that occurs with oil-based polyurethane and feel that this type of polyurethane adds more richness and depth to the floors whereas others don’t appreciate the change in color.  

Our hardwood refinishers have told me that using water-based polyurethane on natural wood floors can result in the floors having a subtle green tinge.  To prevent this, there is a special sealer that they use before coating the floors with polyurethane. If you are using water-based polyurethane, I would recommend asking your hardwood refinishers about this.

Water-based polyurethane is more expensive than oil-based polyurethane.  However, some companies don’t charge a whole lot more for water-based polyurethane because there is less drying time between coats, allowing them to get your job done faster and move on to the next job.  When I’ve gotten bids for hardwood refinishing, I found that the added cost of water-based polyurethane varied greatly from company to company.

I’ve come across all sorts of different opinions about the durability difference between oil-based and water-based polyurethane.  Some refinishers feel that oil-based polyurethane is more durable, hands down.  Others feel that the durability is fairly equal if you are using a high quality water-based polyurethane.

So you’ve probably guessed my preference by now – I like using water-based polyurethane. For me, the extra cost of water-based polyurethane is worth it due to the faster drying time, lower VOCs, and low odor.  For the type of floors that we have, I also like that the color doesn’t change over time, as our floors that were finished with oil-based polyurethane years before we moved into the house look downright orange. Have you tried both types of poly and, if so, which type would you use the next time your refinish your floors?


    • says

      I haven’t had any issues with blushing but from reading a little about it, it seems like blushing is usually caused by applying the polyurethane when the humidity is too high or not allowing it to fully dry between coats.

  1. Kay says

    Hello Kris-
    I love how your floors turned out in your office? We are in the process of getting bids to have our red oak floors refinished as they are really orange in color.

    Would you mind sharing the kind of hardwood that is in your office and the brand/color of stain and water based polurethane you used?


    • says

      Hi Kay – the hardwoods in our office are just your typical white oak flooring. They are “common” grade oak, meaning that there is some color variation, wood knots, etc. as compared to “clear” or “select” grade oak, where they select boards that have limited color variation and no wood knots or other character marks. The “common” grade is much cheaper but I actually like it better than the select because I think it gives the floor some character. As far as the polyurethane used, it was a water-based Bona product but unfortunately I don’t remember which one. We didn’t use any stain – the floors are natural. Good luck with your project!

  2. Kay says

    Hello Kris-
    Thank you for your response it was really helpful. One last question – you mentioned that the people you hired put a sealer on your floors after they were sanded. Do you know if they used a sealer with a tint of color or just a clear sealer? Bona has a product called Amberseal that we are considering and just wanted to know if they happened to use that on your floors.

    Thank you.


  3. Faith says

    It has been a couple years since you wrote this post. I was wondering if you are still happy with the water based poly. Do you still feel like it is just as durable as your oil?

    • says

      Hi Faith! Actually, we just had some hardwood floors refinished last week and went with water based poly again. The ones that we did several years ago with the water based poly didn’t get at all orangey over time like floors done in oil based poly do and I love that there is so much less odor and you can walk on the floors so much quicker. We’ve got kids and a dog and have no complaints with durability either!

  4. Meghann says

    I love the idea of water base, but I am not sure if it last as long as oil. I have read water doesn’t tint yellow/orange after a few years but it fads. Plus I have read more maintenance to keep it clean, moist bare feet can leave footprints. I am going to do the whole main level of my house right now, that includes the kitchen. I have 2 kids and a dog. Can water base hold up to this? Also have you tried the non slip one for the stairs?

    • says

      Hi Meghann,
      Personally, I’ve had no trouble with my water based floors after having them for over five years. I didn’t see any difference in maintenance or wearability (and, like you, we have a dog and kids). I haven’t tried the non slip one for stairs – haven’t even heard of that actually!

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