Oil-Based vs Water-Based Finishes – Comparisons and Common Misconceptions

Your hardwood flooring project is slowly coming to a close, but have you decided on the finish yet? In order to achieve and preserve a rich, warm look, it’s important to apply a layer of polyurethane finish. Although its basic purpose is to protect your floors, not all its varieties are created equal. Basically, there are two types of polyurethane finishes, water and oil-based – both with their unique characteristics. In fact, there are major differences you should consider before choosing the right one.

How Do Oil-Based Finishes Differ from Water-Based Ones?

Here’s an overview of two of the most common types of hardwood polyurethane finishes, as well as their benefits and drawbacks. We will also cover some of the most common myths surrounding the two.

Drying Times

Are you in a hurry to move into your new home? Do you want your flooring to be done fast? Then a water-based polyurethane finish is the right choice. No matter which you choose, you will need to apply several coats to achieve the right amount of sheen and protection. Since water-based finishes have a thinner texture than oil-based ones, they dry much quicker and you can apply multiple coats in a single day. Moreover, you can start using the floor within six hours of the final coat being applied.

On the other hand, oil-based finishes have a thicker texture that generally takes each coat at least 12 hours to dry and has a wait time of 24 hours before you can use them. This means that the floor will be unavailable for several days.


Common Myth: Hardwood polyurethane finishes with a longer drying time provide better, stronger protection than ones that dry quickly.

Reality: Water-based finishes may dry quickly but they’re just as effective at preventing dents and scratches as an oil-based finish with a thicker texture and longer drying time.


Both oil and water-based polyurethane finishes have somewhat pungent odours, but water-based finishes are not so bad. The reason is that oil-based polyurethane has a higher volatile organic compounds (VOC) content than water-based polyurethane. In fact, most water-based finishes with low VOC content have very little odour, making them a safer option. Considering the strong smell and possible health effects of oil-based finishes (with higher VOC levels), it’s highly recommended that you (along with your pets) vacate the house during the floor finishing process. With water-based stains, it’s perfectly okay to remain in your house and carry on with your daily chores.

Note: The main concern here is not the odour but the harmful chemicals emitted that can cause several health issues. So, if you’re concerned about your health and surroundings, water-based finishes are definitely a better option.


Common Myth: Lower VOC content in water-based finishes makes them the obvious eco-friendly finishing option.

Reality: While fewer VOCs in water-based finishes is certainly commendable, they aren’t necessarily the best choice for the environment. This is because they have a shorter lifespan than oil-based finishes and require frequent reapplications. Depending on the kind of damage done to your floors and the number of refinishings required, you can negate any benefit from the lower VOC content.


Since a finish protects the wood underneath, its thickness is an important factor. The thickness or hardness of the protective layer depends on the number of coats applied. Since water-based finishes have a thin texture, several coats may be required to attain the desired level of hardness. This will, however, depend on the space being refinished and the expected traffic volume. Frequently-used rooms like bedrooms or living rooms need a thick floor finish for extra protection against dents, scratches and other types of damage.


Common Myth: Oil-based finishes with a thicker texture provide better protection than thinner, water-based finishes.

Reality: Since the thickness of oil-based finishes helps prevent scratches and dents, it’s a go-to option for high traffic areas. However, they’re softer than the water-based variety, which means they are susceptible to denting. So, a water-based finish that’s more durable may actually be a better choice for high-traffic areas.


When choosing a hardwood floor finish, it’s important to consider the final look. Different finishes have different staining effects, and you may end up with a look you didn’t initially want.

Oil-based polyurethane finishes impart a yellowish, honey colour to hardwood over time, whereas water-based finishes are clear and don’t change the original flooring colour. For those who like the natural beauty of hardwood, water-based polyurethane is an excellent option.


Common Myth: Oil-based finishes have a similar, rich effect on all types of hardwood flooring.

Reality: While the warm, amber effect of oil-based finishes suits some types of hardwood floors, it doesn’t necessarily look good on all of them. For example, light-coloured woods like maple, ash, pine and fir look better with a water-based finish that won’t turn yellow or alter their natural colour. Oil-based finishes are a great fit for dark-coloured woods like oak or larch as they create a rich, warm look.

While nothing can make your floors last forever, choosing a quality finish can protect them from damage and extend their life. Both oil-based and water-based polyurethane finishes have their benefits and drawbacks, so being familiar with them will help you make an informed choice. Now that you know their key features and differences, you can decide what’s right for you.

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