What is the difference between water-based and oil-based polyurethane?

Should I use oil or water based poly?

Polyurethane is perhaps the most important product in the process of sanding and refinishing hardwood floors. Polyurethane determines many factors in a project: Color, durability, sheen and protection. It is extremely important to choose a high-quality polyurethane to apply to your floors.

Today we can choose between 2 formulas of polyurethane, water or oil based. Each has their own unique characteristics. 

Water based polyurethane has the upper hand over oil due to a few key factors: No toxic fumes, quicker drying time (2-3 hrs~), does not yellow over time, and longer durability (holds up better to traffic). The downside to water-based polyurethane is that it tends to be more expensive, with entry level products costing about $50 a gallon, and higher grade products can go as high as $180 a gallon.

Water based polyurethane has a clear look, leaving a whiter, more transparent look to the floors, which looks more modern than oil. With water based poly you will see more of the natural color of the hardwood than oil. 

It is highly suggested to use water based poly over stained hardwood floors because it will not yellow over time like oil. As oil darkens with time, it gives the floors a more aged, golden look, water-based poly doesn’t do that.

Oil based polyurethane has been around for over two hundred years. It is what you see in almost every home older than 15 years, and is still to this day just as popular as water based polyurethane. Oil based poly has a more classic look than water-based poly. This is because oil has a yellowish/orange look which when applied to the floors darken over time, giving you an older, more rustic look. 

Oil based polyurethane is still a really good option for people who are on a tighter budget or who want a classic, rustic look to their home. Although it doesn’t hold up as well over time as some water based products, it still is very resistant. Afterall, there are millions of homes with oil-based poly on their floors to this day which are holding up to traffic just fine. 

The factors which would drive me away from oil based poly are the toxic fumes, which linger in the air for days during and after refinishing, long drying periods (24 hrs~ depending on humidity and air circulation), and the fact it darkens over time, altering the look of the floors. 

In summary, water based poly is a better option if you are staining your floors, want a more modern look and higher durability. Oil based poly is better if you want a classic look and or have a tighter budget. Either still look amazing and we are sure you’d be happy with whichever you choose


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