Oil vs. Water-Based Polyurethane for Wood Floors: Which is Best?

Kenneth Wilson

If you've decided to add a coating of polyurethane to increase the durability of your wood floor, then you're probably aware that there are two main types to choose from – oil or water-based polyurethane.

So, to help you decide which is the best type of coating to apply to your wood floor, we've put together this informative guide that explains everything you need to know about each type of poly.

We go into detail about each type of application, introduce the pros and cons of each, suggest when they should be used, and then run through the approximate costs of each type of installation.

But let's begin by looking at what polyurethane actually is and why it would be an excellent addition to the wood floor in your home.

What is Polyurethane and Why Should You Use It on Your Wood Floor?

Polyurethane is a liquid coating that you can add to a hardwood floor to protect the surface and even alter the aesthetics. The substance itself is plastic, and its application on top of floors is only one of its uses, as it is exceptionally versatile in liquid form. (Related: Epoxy Garage Flooring: A Breakdown of Costs & Option (& Pricing Chart))

The two primary chemicals used to create polyurethane are methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) and toluene diisocyanate (TDI), which strengthen when they combine.

And the main reason why they're a popular addition to wood floors is that they offer an additional layer of protection, meaning the floor is typically longer lasting. Polyurethane is also resistant to mold, fungus, and mildew, which is particularly ideal for indoor wooden floors in parts of your home where your white appliances are stored.

So, if you've decided that you want to protect your newly laid wooden floor, a polyurethane layer is an ideal way to go about it. But which should you opt for – water or oil-based polyurethane? Let's take a look at each type now.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethane is comprised of various mineral and petroleum solvents. Thanks to the fusion of these chemical parts, oil-based polyurethane creates a solid protective shell for your wooden floor with fewer applications than a water-based solution.

Wooden floors that have been treated with oil-based polyurethane often have a slightly yellow or amber hue, which is a direct result of the petroleum solvents within. And although you don't need to apply as much oil-based polyurethane as a water-based option, it does take longer to cure.

One of the best things about oil-based polyurethane is that it's extremely scratch and abrasion-resistant, which offers an excellent level of protection to your expensive wood floor! Given the way that it sets, it's best to spray an oil-based substance to ensure an even application.


  • Extremely hard shell that is scratch-resistant
  • Fewer coats are required when compared to oil-based polyurethane
  • Self-leveling and easy to apply to all wooden floors
  • The yellow/amber hue improves the aesthetics of lighter woods


  • The smell during the curing time can be off-putting for some people
  • It takes longer than water-based polyurethane to cure
  • You need to treat the floor with mineral spirits to clean it after the application

When to use:

Oil-based polyurethane is perfect for indoor wooden floors and offers an excellent level of scratch resistance. But just be mindful of the fact that oil-based polyurethane will make your wood turn yellow or amber, so it's not suitable for grey or whitewash-styled wooden floors.

Water-Based Polyurethane

The main difference between oil and water-based polyurethane is their composition. Instead of solvents, the latter uses water as its base, but it still hardens to provide a strong protective layer over your hardwood floor.

And because water-based products don't contain any solvents, they don't cause your wood floor to change color when it has been applied. The protective film that forms on top will be clear, which is ideal if you don't want the polyurethane to affect the aesthetics of your wooden floor.

To ensure your water-based polyurethane provides a similar level of protection to an oil-based product, you would need to add multiple coats as it is thinner than its counterpart. And the good news is that you can apply two coats of water-based polyurethane on the same day, which means it doesn't necessarily take longer to cure and dry than oil-based poly.

The fact that water-based polyurethane doesn't alter the aesthetics of your wood, it's ideally suited to all hardwood floor surfaces.


  • It forms a clear layer on top of your floor without altering the aesthetics
  • It's odorless, so you don't need to worry about the fumes during the curing time
  • Easy to clean after application with soap and water


  • Less durable than oil-based polyurethane when it comes to scratch protection
  • In most instances, multiple coats are required to achieve the desired results
  • More expensive than oil-based polyurethane

When to use:

Water-based polyurethane is ideally suited to lighter-colored hardwood floors. For instance, if you're going for a grey or white stained hardwood floor, the water-based poly won't affect the color of your surface. But that being said, you can apply water-based polyurethane to practically any hardwood floor.

Is One Really Better Than the Other?

Ultimately, it's hard to say whether oil or water-based polyurethane is better. This is because they both have their pros and cons as introduced, and they serve different purposes depending on what look and level of protection you're going for.

Both types of polyurethane provide additional protection against surface abrasions and scratches, although oil-based poly is typically harder than a water-based product.

Perhaps the biggest thing to consider before choosing which type of polyurethane to go for is how you want your wood floor to look. If you don't want the poly to affect the finish of the wood, then a water-based polyurethane coating is best for you.

Alternatively, if you like the idea of the poly creating a warm, yellow/amber hue over time, then by all means, opt for an oil-based polyurethane layer.

The bottom line here is that one isn't necessarily better than the other, so you will need to consider how you want your floor to look and how scratch-resistant you want it to be before deciding on which type of poly to go for.

How Much Does Polyurethane Cost?

Another factor that may influence your decision is the difference in the cost of oil and water-based polyurethane. Oil-based poly is typically cheaper and runs between $20 - $40 per gallon, depending on the brand that you choose.

Conversely, water-based polyurethane costs anywhere between $25 - $50 per gallon. And you should bear in mind that you need to apply more than one coat of water-based polyurethane to achieve the required protection, which means it will end up costing you considerably more to lay the same area with a water-based product.

To work out how much polyurethane you would need to cover your hardwood floor, bear in mind that most products can cover between 300-600 square feet per gallon. So, given that you require at least two coats of oil-based and at least three coats of water-based polyurethane, you will need a minimum of two and three cans respectively to suitably cover the wood floor of an average American living room (330 square feet).

Therefore, it will cost you at least $40-$80 for oil-based poly, and somewhere in the region of $75-$150 for a water-based application.

Other things that may affect the price of applying polyurethane to your wood floor include:

  • Pre-application sanding or floor repairs, as you should never lay polyurethane on a damaged wood floor.
  • Cost of labor if you decide to hire someone to lay the polyurethane on your behalf.
  • The purchase or hire of the required equipment to spray your floor with poly.

With all costs considered, it can realistically set you back anywhere between $100 and $300 to apply a polyurethane coating to your hardwood floor, which is a savvy investment if you're hoping to increase the durability of your expensive wood floor!

Final Thoughts

As we've explained, oil and water-based polyurethane are well worth your consideration if you're hoping to increase the durability of your wood floor.

Because it's cheaper and more readily available, oil-based polyurethane is the more popular choice of the two, but it's not suitable for all wood floors, particularly those that are light in color.

Ultimately, you should consider the differences, pros, and cons of each type of polyurethane before coming to a decision to ensure you select the correct type of coating for the floors in your home.

Kenneth Wilson
December 22, 2021

Kenneth Wilson

Retired contractor. Currently residing in Southwest Florida. Now in semi-retirement, I write and manage this blog focused on helping home owners make savvy decisions when it comes to finding contractors and getting their projects done. I also operate remodeling design service for homeowners.

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