wood flooring finish

Oil-Based Polyurethane vs Waterborne Polyurethane Wood Floor Finish

Overview of Hardwood Flooring Finish

What is the purpose of hardwood flooring finish… The common answer would probably be to protect the wood from what humans, dogs and cats do to it. Everyone who walks on finish will be wearing a tiny bit of finish off and eventually it will be raw wood again. However, this is not the only thing to keep in mind when choosing a finish. There are other aspects of hardwood flooring finish you must also take into account. How much luster will the finish bring the project. How will the the finish bring to light a vision you have in your mind color, tone etc. this article will exclusively go over the durability and how each finish stacks up for normal day to day use of a normal family of 2 kids and 2 adults. No one can give you the perfect answer besides a contractor or someone who knows your exact situation and parameters of the hardwood flooring job.

Waterborne Wood Flooring Finish Overview

Waterborne wood flooring finish comes in 2 different types one component and two component. For the sake of this article we will be using the information we have from both. Generally speaking both types of finishes preform the same in homes. If you are a business you can read more about the different types of waterborne finishes here at: Two Component vs One Component Water Based Finishes.  Waterborne finishes were created to cater to being more environmentally friendly, faster drying times and better wear. These types of finishes are nothing super new, they have been around for over 40 years. The technology of waterborne flooring finishes over the years has evolved into something completely different. Below we will look at these in the advantages and disadvantages of waterborne wood flooring finish.

Best Places for Waterborne Wood Floor Finish

Waterbased or waterborne wood flooring finishes have great qualities as mentioned below. These qualities make these finishes great for homes, businesses and gyms. We typically find that these finishes work best in situations where drying times are of the biggest priority. Waterborne hardwood flooring finishes dry incredibly fast – up to 5x faster. A fast dry time allows for these finishes to match perfectly for overnight work in shops/businesses and in gym flooring applications (more about gym finishes here) where schools have little to no downtime between use of their gyms. In homes you will see that these finishes are popular where smell and VOC are a major concern as they cure much, much quicker than oil-based flooring finishes.

Advantages of Waterbased

    • Dry Times – Waterborne hardwood finishes are the fastest in the industry. These finishes tend to dry in a few hours and cure within 3 days. This is awesome so that you do not need to tip-toe around your hardwood floor for a few weeks. This allows whoever is using the floor to get back to normal use after a few days.
    • Simple repairs and fixes – These finishes since they dry quick, allow for anything to be fixed or repaired faster and easier.
    • VOC compliant – These finishes tend to be less odor offending and do not off gas more VOC into the air. People with issues with smells seem to have a much better time with these finishes. Since waterborne dries so fast, the smell leaves almost after 4-6 hours of time.
    • Non-Yellow or Amber – This finish will look like it does on day one as it does on day 1000. the finishes have UV blockers that make the finish not yellow or amber over time. This finish is “clearer”.
    • Raw wood look – waterborne finish can produce a look that almost seems like the floor has zero finish or super matte look when it actually has 3-4 coats of finish!

Disadvantages of Waterbased

    • More expensive – Waterborne finishes tend to be about 3x the cost. This makes projects that are larger much more expensive if the coverage is as directed on the bottle.
    • More Susceptible to Water/Chemicals – It seems that waterborne finishes are more susceptible to water/chemicals penetrating the finish. While not even oil forever repels water/chemicals, it seems waterborne products have a much harder time repelling. Sometimes if you have young kids/dogs this could be cause for concern.
    • Luster is less – Oil-based finishes just straight out perform water-based finished floors in terms of look. Waterborne looks great, but the luster is just a tad lower.

Oil-Based Wood Flooring Finish Overview

Oil-Based Polyurethane hardwood flooring finishes are some of the older finishes still available on the market today. These finishes are tried, tested and have worked great for many years. Oil-Based Poly is obviously an oil-based product that sits on top of the wood and is like waterborne products – a film building finish. Just like waterborne finishes these create a barrier from the elements to the wood. Oil-based products tend to have more of a ambering look and do yellow over time – the old wood look. Typically oil finishes are thicker and have more depth to them that give the traditional wood flooring look. Waterborne and oil-based look different you need to be prepared for that.

Best Places for Oil-Based Wood Floor Finish

Oil-Based finishes are great for all applications just like waterborne finishes. However, there are some things that might hinder this finish in some applications. In time sensitive situations, this finish is a bad choice. Oil-Based hardwood flooring finish takes 1 day between coats and a 14 day cure time generally. You are able to use the floor after 48 hours, but the finish is still soft and not fully cured. We find that oil is great for houses and gym floors. In these situations you are able to gingerly use the floor and get passed the cure time without much hassle. In homes, using socks and trying not to use the floor much and in gyms, summer time.  Oil-based poly is not ideal for shops/businesses. Oil-Based finishes tend to last long, are durable and are lower in price.

Advantages of Oil-Based

    • Easier to keep looking nice – I think it is the chemical makeup, but oil-based flooring finishes are just easier to keep clean, look good and less grungy day to day.
    • Hides more – Oil-based finish does amber and will turn wood to a darker color. This helps hide some scratching and use.
    • Will repel chemicals/water better – No you should not drop water on your floor every day. However, oil-based flooring finishes tend to repel water from dogs and children longer – protecting the floor for longer if you do not see it right away. It also seems to clean up better when you drop chemicals on it weather it is food or other things.

Disadvantages of Oil-Based

    • Long dry times – It is hard to stay off the floor for a week after it has been coated. Generally an Oil-based flooring finish receives most its problems from humans/dogs in this time period. Until the floor is cured it is susceptible to chemicals, scratch etc.
    • Will yellow and amber – Oil will keep getting darker and darker over time. UV will change the oil to a orange looking color or yellow looking color. You must know that the finish on day 1 will not be the same as day 3000.
    • Cannot product raw wood look
    • Is flammable – see this fact sheet.

Case Study & Field Experience of Oil-Based vs Waterborne Polyurethane Floor Finish

Case Study

As I mentioned in the 1k vs 2k finish article, I actually commissioned a study to see what finish was best. It was done after 90 days of curing. What we found was that in this study oil, wore faster, but it has more finish on the wood for the coverage rate. So realistically wear form both products was the exact same when you factored in this information. However, when we sent in a sample that was not 90 days cured, oil wore extremely fast since it still was not full hard. So what this means is that you need to be careful with oil finishes for the first weeks of use.

90 day vs 90 day samples were equal for each product. However, earlier waterborne finishes killed oil-based finishes since the oil was not fully cured and waterborne was fully cured.

Field Experience

Doing hardwood floors for 15 years and over 2 million sq ft of application of finishes (residential and commercial), I am able to give some facts/opinions on both finishes. Overall, I think both finishes are great. Oil is better for houses that have time to cure & gym floors. Waterborne finishes are best for houses with kids and heavy traffic after the project is done and businesses.

So Which One? Oil-based Poly or Waterborne Poly?

Like mentioned above. It really depends which finish is best for you. Just like life, no product is the best or be all-end all. Each finish serves a purpose in the world today. Below is a simple flow of which finish might be best for you.

  • Do you like yellow/ambered floors?
    • Yes=oil no=water
  • Can you stay off the floors for 7 days or very light traffic?
    • Yes=oil No=water
  • Do you like shiny/luster or matte/satin floors?
    • luster = oil matte= waterbased


No one can answer which finish is best for you except for you. Each finish has distinctive qualities that set each apart from each other. Typically, what it comes down to for 90% of people is do they want the floor to amber/yellow over time or do they not. This is simply the biggest deciding factor for most homeowners over anything else. Most people can disrupt their daily lives to use oil if they want to. Oil-based flooring finish is really a unique look that truly makes wood floors pop and have luster you will not get out of waterborne. However, waterborne flooring finish offers great matte and raw wood look that oil can not produce. Each finish  generally last the same amount of time and preform overall the same over time.

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