Oil or Water-Based Polyurethane for the finishing touch... Which flooring finish is right for me?

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

The difference between water (left) and oil (right) based polyurethane finishes

The one thing I am asked the most about hardwood flooring, right after price, is finishes. Which finish is better, water or oil-based polyurethane. That's not as cut and dry a questions as one might think, and if someone tells you it is, RUN! Personal preferences, purpose of the project, budget, lifestyle, type of wood involved, even the stain color all play a factor in this decision. So, I'm going to walk you through the main differences in the products, and share with you some information I offer our clients when having this discussion. Everyone should be informed, and not swayed by a contractor's preferences. This is your home and your vision. So, let's get started.

"The Look:" After all, isn't the look why you're refinishing or installing new flooring? You want that beautiful, warm, gorgeous, clean hardwood flooring look. Let's see what you get with each type of finish.

  • Oil: Oil-based polyurethane has this gorgeous, unmistakable amber color, but with time, that color continues to darken. That is something to discuss with your contractor when selecting your wood, stain color and finish type. Oil doesn't have the same quality of UV protection and does tend to fade more. And although there are tricks to help reduce the appearance of fading, it is inevitable.

  • Water: Water-based polyurethane goes on clear and stays clear. Manufacturers have come a long way in recent years with the higher quality brands producing finishes that mimic the way oil-based finishes bring out the character of wood. Bona Novia is a great example of that. (You will hear me discuss Bona products quite often in this blog. Creations Hardwoods only uses Bona water-based products because of one reason and one reason only: we believe their products are the best). The higher quality water-based finishes also have superior UV protection to help reduce fading. However, all floors will fade with time and if you have a home with a lot of windows, your contractor may suggest a water-based finish and a UV protectant such as Loba to preserve the color of your floor.

  • Special Circumstances: There are some instances when your contractor will recommend a water-based finish. Some such circumstances would be white washing, or gray and white stain colors. An oil-base finish will turn those yellow immediately and the will continue to yellow over time. Light color species such as maple, ash, pine and fir also turn very yellow and more so overtime. This his is a matter of taste, but can have a detrimental effect on the resale value of the home down the road as it has it is not a more desired look.

Is it dry yet?

The drying time between oil

and water-based finishes is

significantly different.

  • Oil: Oil-based finish takes much longer to dry and cure than water-based finish. Standard drying and curing is as follows: The floor can be walked on in 24 hours. One coat of finish can be applied every 24 hours. The floor will be fully cured in 14 days. During that time the floor is susceptible to scratches, marring and scuffs and there should be no rugs or matts placed during that time. You should discuss furniture placement with your contractor, and I highly recommend having your contractor handle your appliances if that is a service they offer.

  • Water: Water-based products, using Bona Mega 1 guidelines, we can apply up to 3 coats of finish per day. The curing time is as follows. Up to 75% in 1 day; 90% in 3 days, and total curing time is 7 days. During that time, the floor will be susceptible to scratches, marring and scuffs and there should be no rugs or matts placed during that time. You should discuss the placement of furniture with your contractor, and I highly recommend having your contractor handle your appliances if that is a service they offer.

What about that smell!

There is a big difference in odor between oil and water-based finish, and in my personal opinion, probably the most important difference there is. In this section we are going to review not only the smell, but any safety concerns and what it means for you, your family, and fur babies.

Water: I'm just going to start with the water-based finish in this section. It's short, sweet and to the point. Water-based finish has almost no odor. It can be applied without a respirator and what little bit of odor it does have dissipates once the floor is dry - about 4 - 6 hours, if that long. You can remain in your home while the product is in use and it is safe for people and pets.


  1. Oil-based polyurethane releases a very strong, pungent, noxious odor that lingers for weeks.

  2. Clients are advised to be out of their home while the work is being performed due to drying time, but primarily for safety purposes. So, if you live in the home, what you think you are saving in price, you could spend in an alternative living situation. Creations Hardwoods will not apply polyurethane in an occupied home unless the occupants have made other living arrangements while the finish is being applied until 24 hours after application is complete.

  3. The fumes from oil-based polyurethanes are not safe to inhale and respirators are required.

  4. There are a number of health issues related to oil-based finishes, ranging from mild to severe, and include the most alarming of all, the respiratory illnesses such as asthma, coughing, shortness of breath and other breathing problems. Other health issues include throat and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, headaches. Children may be more at risk of becoming sick from fumes due to their sensitive immune systems, and those with existing respiratory issues are disproportionately affected. And please, don't forget about your pets, especially the small ones. It affects them far worse than it affects humans.


Did you know that the #1 cause of damage to a hardwood floor is that old pair of high heel shoes with the exposed heel that you just can't part with?

A 125-pound woman walking in high heels has an impact of 2,000 pounds per square inch.  An exposed heel nail (from over-worn heels, or exposed metal spike) can exert up to 8,000 pounds per square inch- as much as an elephant or small car! This kind of impact can dent pretty much any floor surface. In this next section, I'll explain the differences between the durability and thickness between oil and water-based finishes and possibly help you decide which product might be best for your home. As lifestyles become more hectic, more demanding, and more active, there are products that are rising to the occasion, but there is no product that will stand up to that kind of damage.


  • Thickness: Oil is thicker than water, but is also softer, which makes it more susceptible to dents.

  • Two coats of finish are sufficient in most cases, however, if you have large pets, we recommend three coats of oil polyurethane.


  • Water-based finish is harder, but also thinner, making it more susceptible to surface scratches.

  • Three coats of finishes are recommended since it's thinner. In homes with pets, we often recommend Bona Traffic HD water-based polyurethane. For homes with large pets, or homes that do a lot of entertaining we may recommend up to three coats of Bona Traffic HD.

Feel and "Slidability"

There is this myth that oil is smoother than water-based finish. If applied properly by a qualified professional, they are both smooth as silk and you can get the Tom Cruise slide from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (trust me, I've done it). For those of you that don't remember the 80's, think Dancing With the Stars. Some people will never get past the different look and old time floor guys will never accept water-based finishes as equal. Change, it's just so hard to accept.

And Last, But Certainly Not Least..... Cost

  • Oil can be less expensive, running around $200.00 less per 5 gal. bucket.

  • You can expect to pay approximately $0.50 - $1.00 more per sq. ft. for water-based finish.

  • If your contractor is not charging you more for water-based finish, they are using a cheap product that will not last . As I've said throughout this blog, Creations Hardwoods almost always uses only Bona Products. And there's a reason for that. We don't have the problems, and the products last. We believe our clients deserve the very best and we believe Bona products to be the best.

  • We also do not allow our clients to remain in the home while oil-based finish is being applied, so you are looking at a minimum of two days alternative living arrangements. By the time you look at the whole picture, you might not be saving money. There are a lot of things to consider if money is a factor.

As you can see from this blog, determining which finish is best for your flooring project is not a cut and dry decision. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration. Whether you are working with Creations Hardwoods or another contractor, this is your choice, not theirs. Be sure they are listening to your questions and providing answers on both sides of the questions.

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