The difference between oil-based and water-based polyurethanes isn’t one of better or worse. They are both used with excellent results but it’s really the project, not the actual product that determines the choice on which to use. 

Drying time:
– Water-based polys can be recoated in 4-6 hours and up to 4 coats can be applied in one day. After the final coat, there is a 12 hour wait period before furniture can be placed back into its original position on the floors.
– Oil-based poly can be applied in just 1 or 2 coats per day depending on the product (per cans instructions). Wait time can be up to 24 hours after the last coat is applied to even walk on and 48 hours total before moving furniture back into that room. This can be a huge deal breaker if timing is an issue. 

Both polys are long-lasting but there is a difference in how they wear and what you can do to protect your new finish. 

  • Since water-based poly is harder, it is more susceptible to surface abrasions and scratches caused by dirt and other debris. You should vacuum your floors regularly, using a specialty hardwood floor vacuum. 
  • Oil-based poly finishes are softer so they don’t scratch as easily but they dent more often than water-based. While keeping dirt and grit off the floor is always a great idea, it is just as important to put pads underneath furniture feet to help prevent denting. 


Water-based poly costs 2-3 times more than oil-based products. When calculating costs and coats, it’s about 35-50  cents per square foot for oil based poly and around 80-$1.35 per square foot for water based polyurethane. Most well known brands make both types of finish so it makes comparing prices fairly easy.


  • water-based finishes have a slight odor. There is no need for a respirator, but it’s always a good idea to at least have a window cracked to let in a little fresh air
  • Oil-based polyurethanes have a very strong odor. It is recommended to wear a respirator and to keep those with breathing issues away from the smell. This also includes pets! The area should be well ventilated – windows open and fans circulating. The strong smell will stick around for a few days or until the poly has fully cured.

The Look:

These two types of finishes will look different when applied, but even more so, as they age. ,
– water based poly dries clear and always remains clear
– oil-based poly has an amber tone that immediately darkens the wood. As it ages, the amber continues to deepen.

No matter the odor, drying time or cost – the look of your floors is really what should matter most. The smell will be gone in a week but you will have to live with the look for years! A quick reference: 

  • Water-based should be used if you want your floors to stay the same color. Wood that is light, white or gray will almost always look better with a clear coat (or water-based finish). Woods that have yellow tints (fir, ash, pine) will become even more yellow with an oil-based poly. Go with water-based if that’s a look you want to avoid, or choose an oil-based poly to enhance the tint.
  • Oil-based poly will help enhance and enrich dark wood tones. It will give them an oily sheen and bring out the vibrant colors of cherry or oak floors.