Water Based vs Oil Based Polyurethane | Which Works Best?

Which is Better, Oil or Water-based Polyurethane?

The choice between water-based and oil-based polyurethanes isn’t a matter of better or worse. New-generation water-based polyurethane finishes are as durable and long-lasting as older oil-based ones. Appearance is the deciding factor. Durability, drying times, odor, and cost are less important when deciding which to use. Read on for full details…

Last Updated: June 1, 2023, by: Rob Parsell

Welcome back to another round of Ask the Home Flooring Pros. Following our recent post on maple flooring we had a question from a reader in Texas asking us to explain more clearly the difference between water based and oil-based polyurethane and to outline the pros and cons of each. So let’s compare and contrast these two types of polyurethane and see how they match up.

close up polyurethane application on hardwood floor


The difference between water based and oil based polyurethanes isn’t one of better and worse. We use both types with excellent results. It’s the project, not the product, that determines our choice.

Oil-based finishes were once more durable, but the new generation of water-based polyurethane is remarkably hard and long-lasting. There is no discernible difference in how long they last. Also, professionally finished floors should feel satiny smooth, whether the finish is oil or water based.


Let’s cover a few basics before discussing which is best for specific wood types.


  • Water based polyurethane can be recoated in 4-6 hours. Up to 4 coats can be applied in a day. Furniture shouldn’t be placed on the flooring for 12 hours after the last coat is applied.
  • Oil based poly can be applied in just one or two coats per day depending on the product instructions on the can. Wait 24 hours after the last coat to walk on it and 48 hours before moving furniture back into the room.

Pro tip: Speaking of coats, oil based polyurethane has more solids than water based finish, so just two coats are required. We recommend three coats of water based poly.

Find out more about polyurethane drying times.


  • Water based finish has a light odor. No respirator is required, but you might want to crack a couple windows for fresh air.
  • Oil based polyurethane has a strong, fumy odor. We recommend wearing a respirator and keeping pets and anyone with breathing issues away from the smell. Keep the area ventilated. The odor will linger until the polyurethane is fully cured in a couple days.


While both are long-lasting, there is a difference in how they wear and what you can do to protect the finish.

  • Water based poly is harder, so it is more susceptible to surface abrasion caused by fine debris. For this reason, vacuum your flooring regularly using a hardwood floor vacuum.
  • Oil based finishes are softer, so they don’t scratch as easily, but they dent more readily. While keeping debris off the flooring is still a good idea, it’s also important to put pads under furniture feet to prevent denting.


These finishes look different when applied and even more so as they age.

  • Water based polyurethane dries clear and remains clear.
  • Oil based poly has an amber tone that immediately darkens the wood. As it ages, the amber hue deepens.


Water based polyurethane cost is two to three times higher than oil based products. When cost and coats are calculated, this works out to about 35 to 50 cents per square foot for oil based poly and 80 cents to $1.35 per square foot for water based polyurethane. Well known brands like Minwax produce both types of poly making it easier to compare prices.

Related Reading: Cost to Refinish Wood Floors


The appearance is what matters. Drying times, odor and cost are negligible factors when deciding whether to use water based vs. oil based polyurethane. The smell will be gone in a week. You’ll live with the look for a decade or more.

Will your wood look better with a clear coat or an amber coat? Here’s what we recommend.

Water based polyurethane: If you want your floor to stay the same color, choose water-based polyurethane. Wood that is gray, white or light looks better with a clear coat, i.e., a water based finish. Woods with a hint of yellow in them already, such as pine, fir and ash, become even yellower with an oil-based finish. Go with water based poly if that’s a look you want to avoid, or choose an oil based finish to enhance it.

Oil based polyurethane: Darker wood tones are enriched by an amber hue and an oily sheen. Oil based polyurethane can bring out the vibrant color in red oak, cherry or exotic woods like teak.

Looking for wood floor stain color ideas?


Quarts of both finishes are relatively cheap compared with the cost of redoing a floor you believe would look better with a different finish, an unpleasant position to be in. The quandary is easy to avoid with this method:

  1. Buy a quart of water based poly and a quart of oil based poly
  2. Select two or three pieces of your flooring with differing looks (pieces with or without knots or wide grain and narrow grain, for example)
  3. Finish half of each piece with the oil based poly and the other half with the water based finish
  4. Apply a second coat, and wait 24 hours for them to dry/cure
  5. Give yourself a few days to compare the looks, view them against wall colors and furniture and decide which you prefer

With this approach, the decision about whether to use oil based polyurethane or water based polyurethane will no longer be hypothetical. You’ll have tangible finished flooring samples you can see, feel and run your feet over, if you want. Your decision will be much easier when you do.

Now you’ve chosen your finish you should check out our guide on how to apply polyurethane.

About the Author:

Rob Parsell

Rob joined the Home Flooring Pros team in 2014 and is a freelance writer, specializing in flooring, remodeling and HVAC systems (read more).

“I’m the son of an interior designer and picked up an eye for design as a result. I started hanging wallpaper and painting at 14 and learned enough on the job to be the general contractor on two homes we built for our family and did much of the finish plumbing, electrical, painting, and trim work myself.”

4 thoughts on “Water Based vs Oil Based Polyurethane | Which Works Best?

  • September 30, 2020 at 7:09 am

    I assume this has been dealt with by now.. but incase it hasn’t, I would suggest oil based. It worked thus far and you were happy with it so why risk the change? Not to mention, the water based and oil based areas will not match. There will be a noticeable difference. If this contractor is wanting to redo all the flooring with water based- then they are clearly wanting to make money off you. Water based will cost more and the labor to sand the floors ect… rip off. If this has already been finished, I hope you are happy with the results. That matters most.

  • September 30, 2020 at 7:07 am

    Yes. It states this very clearly on the can. Its important to read the info listed on any product you’re unfamiliar with.

  • September 22, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    My wife just read an article that said walking on floors finished with water based polyurethane can leave an impression of your foot or shoe on the surface. Is that possible?

    • August 20, 2023 at 1:52 am

      In my experience on the waterbase jobs i did in the past none of my floors have a single foot or shoes printed on the floor i only work with waterbase satin Masterline product


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