A very common question we get from customers is “What is the difference between oil and water based finish?” or “What do you recommend?” Well there is isn’t exactly an easy answer. In either case, the polyurethane acts as a protective layer between your hardwood flooring and anything that happens on top of them. Here we will break down some of the most noticeable differences, and benefits of both types.
The finished product color between water base and oil base is distinctly different. Oil base will cover your floor with deep, rich amber tones, and enhance the floors natural beauty. Water base on the other hand, is a much more clear and colorless product, it will not become more orange or yellow over time, and is very close to the same color as the floor before any finish is applied. (Keep in mind that it’s possible to stain the floor to alter the color – before the polyurethane is applied) If you are going after a grey or white wash look, you may want to stick with water base.
Oil base poly is a thicker product, and will build up a thicker layer of protection for your hardwood floors. It is a great choice for longevity and high traffic areas. We generally recommend and apply 3 coats of oil based polyurethane. Water based finishes will lay out thinner, but are slightly harder than oil based. If you choose water based finish and are concerned about high traffic areas, we recommend an extra coat (4 coats total), or consider upgrading to the “traffic” water based finish we carry.
Oil base has a distinct and fairly strong smell. It can be unpleasant for some time even after it is applied. We generally recommend customers be out of the house during the days we are coating with oil base. However, everybody’s nose is different, and some people don’t have a problem staying in a room far enough away from the floors that are being finished. Water base is a much lower VOC (volatile organic compound) product than oil and has considerably less smell, which is more ideal if you need to be staying in the house while your floors are being finished.
Water base dries much faster than oil. Water base can be walked across with socks in around 4 hours, while oil base is around 10 – 12 hours. These dry times are estimations and can be affected by humidity and temperature. Waiting longer is advised–better safe than sorry!
In summary, we try to recommend oil base when applicable due to its thickness and longevity. Oil based polyurethane has been around for longer and is still preferred and recommended by many contractors, craftsmen, and woodworkers. If you’re sensitive to smells, and or need to be living in the home during this process, water base can be a great alternative.