Refinishing Hardwood Floors: Should I use Water-Based Polyurethane?

Sometimes customers have heard about this because they want to go more green and use less chemicals; other times they ask about this so that the project will get done faster. 

My general preference is to use oil-based polyurethane rather than water based poly and here’s why:
Westchester Refinish hardwood floors oil based polyurethane1. Oil based polyurethane looks better than water based.
It’s hard to explain this until you see the two side by side, but oil based just looks like the way we are accustomed to wood looking – it has some sheen (you can adjust whether it’s satin finish, semi gloss or glossy).  Water based poly is just duller – the color is a bit duller as is the finish.  Take a look at at the National Wood Floor Association pictures for a comparison of water based vs oil based polyurethane.  Some have such a dull finish that they almost look fake – like laminate.

2.  Oil based polyurethane lasts longer than water based polyurethane.  I have a lot of customers complaining that their water based polyureathane floors don’t last long and how they got bad advice from their previous contractor.  Often, these are worn down just after 5 yrs.  I would guess that prob. equates to 7-10 yrs for oil based to get to same point.

3.  Oil based polyurethane is less expensive.  The materials for the water based polyurethan are just more expensive (the labor is the same for both).  Further, since it lasts longer, there is an additional cost savings over the long run.

So given that oil based polyurethane looks better, lasts longer. and costs less, it’s usually a no brainer for most of my customers to go with this option.

So why do Water-based polyurethane – What are the advantages?

1.  Water based polyurethane has faster drying time/faster process.  This is especially important if we are refinishing a restaurant, store or place of business where being closed longer can have a real financial impact.  With a water based polyurethane, most jobs can be completed in 2 days whereas an oil based poly may take 3-5 days plus an extra day drying time at the end.  Because all furniture needs to moved off the floors and you can not walk on it during the entire process, when people are limited on time, this sometimes is the only option. But, when it is for a residence, I urge my customers to think about the choices they are making as refinishing can sometimes be a major pain after you’ve moved furniture in.  It’s often better, easier and more cost effective to wait a few extra days and have the job done right rather than rush everything.  If my customer is already living in the house, I tell them I’d rather wait 4-6 months and do this right and wait until their next vacation…it’s worse for me, but better for them and in the long run, they’ll be happier.

2.  Water based polyurethane is a bit better for the environment.  Water based polyurethane has lower VOC’s.  But note, it still has VOC’s (and it’s because of the lower VOC’s that it doesn’t last as long.)  For those concerned about “off gassing,” please note the benefit of the lower VOC’s is ONLY relevant during the drying time.  Once it’s dry, there is no environmental difference between the two.  And, if you are considering using water based poly because a member of your family is pregnant or you have a baby, water based poly may be slightly better, but if I were you,, I wouldn’t refinish at all while either are home.  The bigger issue is all of the sawdust.  So, my advice is go away while you are refinishing or else put off this project.

3.  Water-based polyurethane doesn’t smell as bad.  But, please note that it still smells and there is no way around that (except going away which I always recommend my customers do.

We are happy to offer both water-based polyurethane and oil-based urethane, but if it is for a residence, more often than not, oil-based makes more sense.  We are happy to price it out both ways for our custoner and talk through the pro’s and cons.   Also, it’s important to understand that water-based and oil-based poly look different and they will never match.  So, if part of your home is done one way and you want the other type to match, it’s best to use the same type in all areas.

Author Bio: Debbie Gartner is the owner of Floor Coverings International in Westchester NY.  She is known as The Flooring Girl and she can be reached at 914-937-2950 for more information.  Her estimates are FREE.


About Anita Clark Realtor

Anita Clark has written 618 posts on this blog.

Anita is a residential Real Estate Agent in Warner Robins Georgia, with Coldwell Banker Access Realty (478) 953-8595, aiding buyers and sellers with all their real estate questions on her Warner Robins blog.