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Should I Use Water-Based Polyurethane?

Should I Use Water-Based Polyurethane?

Everyone wants to find greener, lower VOC products for their home, but is water-based polyurethane something you should use on your wood floors or other projects? I get this question a lot. Water based polyurethane, or polycrylic as it is sometimes called, is a vastly different product than oil-based polyurethane. Sure they share a slot of similar characteristics but the chemical makeup, performance, odor, and appearance are factors you need to take into before you know which one is right for you.

For decades, oil-based polyurethane has been the gold standard for finishing wood floors and other wood projects. It creates a hard finish that can stand up to years of foot traffic with minimal care other than regular cleaning. Recently, government regulation has made it difficult or impossible to find these oil-based products in a few areas (sorry California!) and so the topic has come to a head for those of you who no longer have access them and are wondering about your water-based options.

In this post I’ll discuss the differences in the two products and how to work with water-based polyurethane if you choose to go that route.

Water-Based vs Oil-Based Polyurethane

Polyurethanes were invented in the 1930s and have found their way into many home improvement products like foams, glues, finishes, and caulks. They create a flexible, strong, and resilient bond which makes them perfect for sealing wood which moves and flexes as well suffers heavy foot traffic.

Prior to the introduction of polyurethane to wood finishes most varnishes were simply alkyd varnish which created a nice hard finish, but the addition of polyurethane resin to the formula added scratch, heat, solvent, and water resistance to the varnish, vastly improving the life and performance of the finish.

Water-based polyurethane is technically a misnomer since polyurethanes are an oil-based product. Water-based polys use an acrylic resin just like water-based paints. This resin is hard but doesn’t provide the same protection as the oil-based resin which is far more resilient to wear and especial heat. Below I’ve outline some of the key differences between the two products.

Water-Based Polycrylic

  • Solids Content: 30-35%
  • Price: $50-60 per gallon
  • Color: Clear
  • Dry Time: 1-2 hrs
  • Clean Up: Water
  • Coats Needed: 4

Oil-Based Polyurethane

  • Solids Content: 45-50%
  • Price: $30-40 per gallon
  • Color: Amber Hue
  • Dry Time: 12-18 hrs
  • Clean Up: Mineral Spirits
  • Coats Needed: 3

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Still the best for high traffic areas like floors and heat resistance oil-based polyurethane has a higher solids content which means more leftover materials to seal and coat your wood when everything is dry which is why you can get away with only three coats versus the four coat minimum required with water-based polyurethane. It adds a warm amber glow to the wood which I can appreciate and has a tendency to bring out the character of the wood nicely. Strong, reliable, and tested oil-based polyurethane is still my choice.

Best Uses

  • Wood Floors
  • High Traffic Areas
  • Table Tops

Water-Based Polyurethane

There are two huge benefits of water-based polys to me and those are the ease of clean up and the quick drying. Nobody likes cleaning up with mineral spirits so using water is a big bonus. And sure you’ll have to put more coats of water-based poly on to get the same protection as oil-based poly but when you can re-coat in hours rather than a day that takes some of the sting out of it. For sealing projects where you want a truly clear finish a water-based polyurethane is one of the best options because it doesn’t give you that warm amber of the oil-based version. Good for specific projects water-based polyurethane should definitely be in your arsenal if it’s the right project.

Best Uses

  • DIY Projects
  • Light Colored Woods
  • Anywhere Low VOC’s are Needed
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5 thoughts on “Should I Use Water-Based Polyurethane?

  1. I loooooove your blog and IG. You explain things clearly, thoroughly yet concisely.

    We did a matte finish with Polywhey to our red oak and pine floors prior to moving in. I really regret the matte finish and wish I went for a semi-gloss or satin. I might try your suggestion for no sanding and then applying a higher gloss finish.

    I love the clear (not yellow) finish, but I hate the white scratches that are left every where (for example dining room chairs). Any thoughts on that? I would love to not have an area rug in the dining room (easier clean up with little kids and to see the floors more!), but the dining chairs leave the white scratches with even the slightest scoot across the floor.

  2. Very helpful, thank you! My question is what do we put over soft wood (stools) that scratch/dent from simply sitting on them. Made of some grained wood engineered to look real, is not MDF (maybe). We put two coats of gel urethane, which looks nice, but didn’t do much to harden the wood. Don’t want to change the grayish color. More coats needed or can something else be used on top that’s a tougher finish?

  3. Great article, thank you! We just cleaned our newly sanded fir floors with mineral spirits – we had been intending to use water based polyurethane (we are in California), but didn’t realise we should have used just denatured alcohol instead. How long should we wait for the mineral spirits to dry before applying water-based polyurethane?

  4. Hi,
    The information was very helpful.
    I have one additional question: Will water-based polyurethane be effective for wood furniture that will be left outside (I will be staining the wood first)?


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