Oil-Based vs Water-Based Polyurethane

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Oil-Based vs Water-Based Polyurethane

Polyurethane is a chemical compound (polymer) that contains several organic units. These units are usually joined together using urethane bonds. Polyurethane exists in two forms, that is flexible and rigid.

One of the uses of flexible structures is the production of chemical-resistant coatings. Such coatings are generally used for finishing purposes at home. An excellent example of an area that is usually finished using polyurethane is the floor. Speaking of floor finishes, two main types of polyurethane are commonly used. These two types are; oil-based and water-based. This article focuses on these two types, how different and effective on floors they are.

Oil-based vs. Water-based Polyurethane for Floors

Both of these polyurethane types are flexible. They are used for coating floors to prevent scratches that might occur. When well applied, each one has incredible strength in terms of protection from damage and durability.

Oil-Based vs Water-Based Polyurethane

However, they have some noticeable differences. Some of these differences include;

Oil-based polyurethaneWater-based polyurethane
Has an amber color.It is clear.
Has a severe fumy odor.Has a light odor.
It takes 24 hours to dry after application.It takes 4-6 hours to dry after application.
The coating is thick and soft.The coat is thin and hard.
It is quite cheap.It is expensive.
Has a smooth finish.Has a rough finish.


Oil-based polyurethane has an amber hue color. When applied, this color deepens over time.

Water-based polyurethane is usually clear, and it remains so even after it dries.


Oil-based polyurethane has a strong, pungent odor. While drying, it produces smelly fumes that are toxic if inhaled. Therefore, one should wear a respirator while applying it.

Water-based polyurethane, on the other hand, has a very light smell. Since it almost has no scent, wearing a respirator while applying this type of polyurethane is unnecessary.

Drying and curing period

Oil-based polyurethane takes a lot of time to dry and cure. One is supposed to wait for at least 24 hours before he/she can step on the floor. After drying, it takes one, 24 more hours to move in furniture to the room where it has been used.

Water-based polyurethane takes lesser hours to cure as compared to the oil-based polyurethane. It usually takes approximately 4-6 hours. Furniture can be moved on to the floor in 12 hours after the final coat application.

Hardness and Thickness

The coating of oil-based polyurethane is thick and soft.  Due to its thickness nature, it is advisable to apply a minimum of two coats. This type is very predisposed to denting due to its soft nature. To prevent dents on the floor, one can place pads under furniture feet to increase durability.

Water-based polyurethane coatings, on the other hand, are thin and hard. For this reason, the polys are always vulnerable to scratches. One should apply a minimum of three coats to make it more reliable and durable.


Water-based polyurethane products are more expensive as compare to oil-based polyurethane products.


This is an essential fact to know so that if you find someone who is selling it at a lower price than an oil-based polyurethane, you know that the product might be fake, thus not long-lasting.


Oil-based poly coats are said to be smoother as compared to water-based poly coats.

Types of Water-based Polyurethane and their uses.

1) Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish

This product has no additives, so it provides the wood floor with the natural beauty of the wood.  The product is available in gloss, semi-gloss, and satin form.

2) Bona Mega Clear HD

The primary purpose for using this poly is to boost the look of the floor. It consists of chemicals that are resistant to scratch, so it makes the finish last longer.

3) ZAR Aqua Water Based Poly

Many people usually choose this product due to its incredible benefits. It has some components which are highly resistant to most household chemicals. Therefore it is a suitable protector of floors.

4) Deft Water-based poly.

It is available in a gloss finish. It is modified to provide added protection against sun waves, wind, and water damage. It can be used both internally and externally.

5) Rust-Oleum Varathane floor Finish

The primary feature of this water-based poly is its durability. It is mostly used on wooden floors.

Types of Oil-based Urethane and their uses

1) ZAR Oil-Based Polyurethane Wood Finish

The main feature of this poly is its fast drying time. It also provides a very smooth finish.

2) Dura-Seal Polyurethane

It is one of the most durable polys. It is also inexpensive and covers a vast space.

3) Rust-Oleum Oil Polyurethane

This poly is formulated to provide a thick coat. Its dense nature helps in preventing it from soaking in the wood. It also does not take so long to dry.

Is water-based or oil-based polyurethane better for floors?

Oil-based polyurethane is the better poly for finishing floors because it looks better and lasts longer than water-based polys. It is also cheaper.

How can you tell if polyurethane is oil or water?

One can use these three methods to determine whether the polyurethane is oil or water-based.

  • TouchWhen already applied, oil-based floors feel smoother than a water-based floor.
  • Use of a cotton ball- If wiping a floor with a cotton ball removes an alcohol stain, water-based polyurethane was used on it. This is because oil-based polyurethanes do not react with alcohol.
  • Water beads- If by sprinkling a little amount of water on the stained area, water beads are formed, which is an oil-based poly. Oil-based polys are more resistant to water as compared to water-based polys.


Applying polyurethane is important since it makes the floors and surfaces more durable and attractive. During this task, the major challenge is getting to know which type of polyurethane to use. The above information suits one to go for the best kind of polyurethane as it well describes the differences, uses, types, and better options. It also talks about how one can tell the model used.

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Joe McGuinty
I’ve been working with floors for over 12 years. I started as a flooring contractor, primarily in materials selection. Then, I switched careers into accounting, so my wife and I began buying, renovating, and re-selling homes on the side. You’d be surprised how much value you can add to a home simply by adding new floors.

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