Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Polyurethane Floor Finish

When the final planks are laid and it is time to finish the floor, you might be wondering which finishing method is best for the job. While there is no shortage of old (e.g., wax and shellac) and new techniques, in this piece, we’ll focus on one of the most popular choices for wood floor finishes: Polyurethane.

Polyurethane is popular because it offers tough protection for floors at a reasonable cost and is resistant to heat, water and many acids. The two types of polyurethane finishes are oil-based and water-based, and they both offer excellent damage protection.

The most notable difference between the two types is simply the appearance of the wood after the final coat. Water-based polyurethane goes on virtually clear and will not alter the appearance of the wood to which it is applied. Oil-based polyurethane, on the other hand, will impart an amber glow to any hardwood floor. Whether you want to preserve the natural color and look of your wood floor might be the main deciding factor when choosing between the two. Below, we break down the other differences between the two finishes.

Water-Based Polyurethane


  • Dries quickly, within 2 hours of applications
  • Low odor emissions
  • Easy cleanup, using just water
  • Preserves the color of the wood (clear finish)


  • More expensive than oil-based
  • Requires multiple coats
  • Because of fast drying time, difficult to correct mistakes
  • One-dimensional look
  • Less tough

Oil-Based Polyurethane


  • Slower drying time allows for corrections
  • More tough
  • Requires fewer coats
  • Imparts an amber glow, adding depth
  • Less expensive than oil-based


  • Long wait between coats (5-12 hours drying time)
  • Stronger odor (though VOC amounts have been drastically reduced in recent years)
  • Requires mineral spirits or a paint thinner for cleanup
  • Will darken over time