Skip to content

Understanding Hardwood Floor Finishes: Oil-Based vs. Water-Based Polyurethane

Are you a Philadelphia homeowner planning to refinish your hardwood floors?

The right hardwood floor finish will enhance the appearance of your flooring and provide long-lasting protection to your floors.

In this blog post, we will compare and contrast oil-based and water-based polyurethane, the two most commonly used finishes for hardwood floors.

We will cover the composition, uses, appearance comparison, durability, drying time, and the pros and cons of each finish to help you make an informed decision.

Read on to know what factors to consider when choosing the right finish and why it’s important to consult with a professional or flooring expert.

The importance of hardwood floor finishes in protecting and enhancing the floor’s appearance

Hardwood floors are not only a significant investment but also a timeless and elegant addition to any home.

A proper finish for your floor restoration not only enhances the color and grain of the wood but also protects the floor against everyday wear and tear.

The finish acts as a shield that repels dirt, spills, and scratches while keeping the wood safe from moisture and other external elements. A well-maintained finish can also increase your floors’ lifespan and resell value, making it a valuable investment for any homeowner.

Therefore, it is essential to choose the right finish (oil vs water based stain for hardwood floors) that meets your needs and suits your décor.

The two primary types of hardwood floors finishes: oil vs water based polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane: Water-based polyurethane is a chemical compound that is made up of water, polyurethane resins, and additives. When applied to a flooring surface, it provides a clear protective layer that helps prevent scratches, scuffs, and water damage while enhancing the natural beauty of the wood. It is also environmentally friendly because it contains fewer harmful chemicals compared to oil-based polyurethane.

Oil-based polyurethane: oil based wood floor finish is a type of protective coating that is made from a combination of polyurethane resin and a solvent, typically a petroleum-based one. This coating is applied to hardwood floors to make them more durable and resistant to wear and tear. Oil-based polyurethane generally has a longer drying time than water-based alternatives and may produce unpleasant odors and require greater ventilation during application. However, it is generally more durable and offers a deeper and richer finish than water-based polyurethane.

Oil-based polyurethane: its composition and common uses

Oil based polyurethane uses synthetic resins that are made from petrochemicals, which makes polyurethane oil vs water based less environmentally friendly.

This type of coating can be applied to a wide range of surfaces, including:

  • hardwood floors
  • furniture
  • cabinets
  • trim

It provides a beautiful and glossy finish to solid wood floor installation that enhances the natural beauty of the wood grain. It protects Philly hardwood floors from scratches, stains, and water damage. Oil-based polyurethane is more resistant to heat, chemicals, and moisture compared to water-based alternatives. However, it requires caution when disposing of excess materials due to the hazardous nature of its chemicals.

Water-based polyurethane: its composition and common uses

Water based polyurethane for floors, on the other hand, uses synthetic resins that are made from water as a solvent, making it a more environmentally friendly option compared to oil-based polyurethane. It is also less toxic and emits fewer fumes during application, making it a safer option for indoor use.

This type of coating is also commonly used for:

  • hardwood floors
  • furniture
  • cabinets
  • trim

It provides a clear, non-yellowing finish and dries quickly, making it ideal for projects that require a fast turnaround time. It is also easy to clean up with just soap and water.

While water-based polyurethane may not be as durable as its oil-based counterpart, it still provides adequate protection against scratches, stains, and water damage. It is also more flexible and less likely to crack or peel over time.

The purpose of both types of finishes in hardwood flooring applications

The main purpose of applying polyurethane finishes when finishing wooden flooring is to provide a protective barrier that helps to extend the life of the floor while enhancing its appearance.

Overall, both oil-based and water-based polyurethane offer specific benefits and are commonly used in various applications. The choice between the two ultimately depends on personal preference, project requirements, and environmental concerns.

The finish helps to prevent scratches, scuffs, and stains caused by normal wear and tear, as well as damage caused by moisture or water. Additionally, the finish can also enhance the natural color and grain of the wood, bringing out its beauty and making it more appealing to the eye.

Ultimately, the type of finish used will depend on the specific needs of the project, such as the level of durability required, the ease of application, and the desired appearance.

Comparison of appearance, durability, and drying time

When comparing the appearance of oil-based and water-based finishes, it is important to note several things.

Oil-based finishes


Oil-based finishes tend to deepen the color of the wood and provide a more traditional, amber-like look.


Oil-based finishes are known to be more resistant to wear and tear, making them ideal for high-traffic areas or furniture that will be heavily used. This is the primary reason that many people choose oil based polyurethane over water based polyurethane.

Drying time:

Oil based vs water based polyurethane typically take much longer to dry, with some requiring up to 24 hours between coats. Proper ventilation can speed up polyurethane drying time.

Water-based finishes


Water based vs oil based polyurethane finishes tend to be clearer and do not darken the wood as much, making it ideal for lighter woods or those that require a more modern look.


Water-based finishes have made significant strides in recent years and can now offer comparable durability to oil-based finishes.

Water-based finishes and water based floor stains are more resistant to yellowing over time.

Drying time:

Wondering how long for water based polyurethane to dry? Water-based finishes typically dry much faster, often within hours, making them ideal for projects that require a quick turnaround time.

In conclusion, both oil-based and water-based finishes offer their own unique benefits and drawbacks. Understanding the specific needs of your project and weighing the pros and cons of each type will allow you to make an informed decision and achieve the perfect finish for your woodworking project.

Pros and cons of each finish type: water vs oil based polyurethane

Advantages and disadvantages of oil-based polyurethane:


  • Provides a durable and hard finish that can resist scratches and abrasions
  • Enhances the natural color and grain of the wood, giving it a warm and rich appearance
  • Can be applied in thicker coats, resulting in fewer coats needed for the desired finish
  • Slower drying time allows for more time to work with the finish and make adjustments as needed


  • Strong odor and requires proper ventilation during application
  • Longer drying time can result in dust and debris settling into the finish
  • Can yellow over time, especially in areas exposed to sunlight
  • Some people may experience allergic reactions or skin irritation when handling oil-based finishes

Advantages and disadvantages of water-based polyurethane:


  • Low odor and environmentally friendly, as it contains fewer harmful chemicals
  • Dries quickly, allowing for multiple coats to be applied in a short amount of time
  • Resistant to yellowing, making it ideal for light-colored or white wood
  • The best water based polyurethane can be easily cleaned up with soap and water


  • Requires more coats and may not be as durable as oil-based finishes
  • Can raise the grain of the wood, requiring additional sanding between coats
  • Can dry too quickly, resulting in brush strokes or uneven application
  • Water based flooring finishes can be more expensive than oil-based finishes

Recommendations for choosing the right finish

When choosing between oil or water based polyurethane for your Philadelphia hardwood floors, it’s important to consider factors such as the type of wood you’re using, the level of durability you need, and the overall look you’re going for.

If you’re working with light-colored or white wood, a water-based finish that resists yellowing may be the best choice.

If you need a particularly durable finish, you may want to choose oil based floor finishes that require fewer coats.

By doing your research on types of polyurethane finishes and considering your specific needs, you can choose a finish that will protect and enhance your project for years to come.

The right finish for you

Choosing the right finish for your Philadelphia flooring project can make all the difference in its overall appearance and longevity. It’s important to consider your specific needs and preferences, as well as the type of wood you’re using, to determine the best finish to use.

Hudson Hardware (leaders in hardwood floor installation Philadelphia) can assist with choosing the right finish for your home. We will ensure that your project comes out looking great and will last for years to come.

Remember, woodworking finishes are not one-size-fits-all, so take your time to research your options and choose the one that best meets your needs. Do a hardwood floor finishes comparison.

With the right finish, you can create a beautiful and durable woodworking project that you’ll be proud of for years to come.

Reach out to Hudson Hardwood’s owner, Joe Hudson. He loves to discuss projects! He’d be happy to go over the different finishes with you. There are so many companies with different makes and models, and he will help you narrow down your options and understand exactly what you are investing in.


Get a Free Quote