Our home office remodel is s-l-o-w-l-y coming along and I’m loving my refinished hardwood floors – they started out all scratched and orangey but now… gorgeous!
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. Some 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?