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Oil vs. Water-Based Finish: What Finish Is Best for Me?

The one thing I am asked the most about on hardwood flooring (right after the price) is finishes. Which finish is better, water or oil-based polyurethane. That’s not as cut and dry a question as one might think, and if someone tells you it is, RUN!

Personal preferences, the purpose of the project, budget, lifestyle, type of wood involved, and even the stain color all play a factor in this decision. I am going to walk you through the main difference in the products and share with you some information I offer our clients when having this discussion. Everyone should be informed and not swayed by a contractor’s preferences. This is your home and your vision. Let’s get started.

The Look

Let’s start with the look. After all, isn’t that why you’re refinishing or installing new flooring? You want that beautiful, warm, gorgeous, clean hardwood flooring look. Let’s see what you get with each type of finish.

Oil-based polyurethane has a gorgeous and unmistakable amber color. With time, however, that color continues to darken or amberize. That is something to discuss with your contractor when selecting your wood, stain color, and finish type. Oil also does not have the same level of UV protection and does tend to allow fading at a faster rate. Although there are tricks to help reduce the appearance of fading, it is inevitable with an oil-based finish.

Water-based polyurethane goes on clear and stays clear, meaning it does not amberize. Manufacturers have come a long way in recent years with the higher quality brands producing finishes that mimic the way oil-based finishes bring out the character of the wood and improve its durability. Bona Novia is a great example of that. (I will mention Bona products often during this blog.) Creations Hardwoods only uses Bona finishes because of one reason, and one reason only: We believe Bona products are the best! The higher quality water-based finishes have superior UV protection to help reduce fading. All floors will fade with time, and if you have a home with a lot of windows, your contractor may suggest, or you may want to request a water-based finish and an additional UV protectant such as Lobia to preserve the color of your floor.

Special Circumstances:
There are some instances when your contractor will recommend a water-based finish. Some such circumstances would be white washing, gray, and white stain colors. An oil-based finish will turn those yellow immediately, and they will continue to amberize and turn more yellow/orange with time. Light color wood species such as maple, ash, white oak, pine, and fir will also turn very yellow and will turn more yellow/orange with time. This is a matter of taste but can have a detrimental effect on the resale value of the home as it tends to look more “orange” and dated with time. The yellow or orange look just does not have the more desired appearance and will lower the value of your home.

Is it dry yet?

The drying time between oil and water-based finishes is significantly different.

Oil-based finish takes much longer to dry and cure than water-based finish. Standard drying and curing time for oil-based finish is as follows:

One coat of finish can be applied every 24 hours.

The floor can be walked on in 24 hours. I recommend sock feet during the first 48 – 72 hours so that you can walk on the floor.

The floor will be fully cured in 14 – 30 days. During this time, the floor is most susceptible to damage such as dents, dings, scratches, marring, and scuffs. There should be no rugs or mats placed during that time.

You should discuss when to replace your furniture with your contractor, and I highly recommend having the contractor handle the appliances if that is the service they offer. They are experienced and can move refrigerators, stoves, and other appliances without damaging the floor.


Water-based products (using Bona Mega 1 guidelines) dry much faster. These products make the project more efficient with shorter waiting times. Besides being a healthier option, the water-based finish has another important quality: it reduces the curing time, which in turn reduces the risk of potential damages that occur during those initial days.

Drying and curing time for water-based finish:

Up to three coats of finish can be applied per day

The curing time is as follows: up to 75% cured in 24 hours, 90% cured after 3 days, and fully cured in 7 days. During this time, the floor is most susceptible to damage such as dents, dings, scratches, marring, and scuffs. There should be no rugs or mats placed during that time.

You should discuss when to move your furniture in with your contractor, and I highly recommend having the contractor handle the appliances if that is the service they offer. They are experienced and can move refrigerators, stoves, and other appliances without damaging the floor.

The Smell:

There is a big difference in odor between oil and water-based finishes, and in my personal opinion, the most important difference is the difference when it comes to health and safety.

Oil-based polyurethane releases a very strong, pungent noxious odor that lingers for weeks.

Clients are advised to be out of their home while the finishes are being applied due both to drying time and safety precautions. If you live in the home and think you are going to save money by choosing the oil-based finish, keep in mind, you could spend that much on alternative living.

The fumes from oil-based polyurethanes are not safe to inhale, and respirators are required.

There are a number of health issues related to oil-based finishes, ranging from mild to severe. The less severe health issues include throat and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. The more severe issues include primarily respiratory issues such as asthma, coughing, shortness of breath, and other breathing problems. Children may be more at risk of becoming sick from fumes due to their sensitive immune systems. Those with respiratory issues are disproportionately affected. The fumes will also affect your pets, especially the small ones. The fumes from oil-based finishes affect pets far worse than humans.

Water-based finish has almost no odor after it dries. It can be applied without a respirator and dries within 3 – 6 hours. The family that lives in the home can remain in the home while the work is being performed, including while the finish is being applied.


Oil is thicker than water, but it is also softer. The softer quality does make oil-based finishes more susceptible to dents.

Since oil is thicker than water-based finishes, two coats of finish are sufficient in most cases. If you have large pets or a highly active household, your contractor may suggest a third coat.

Water-based finish is harder, but it is also thinner, making it more susceptible to surface scratches.

Three coats of finish are recommended with water-based finish due to being thinner. In homes with larger pets, lots of windows, or active lifestyles, we often recommend Bona Traffic HD. Depending on the level of activity, we may recommend doing all coats of finish with Traffic.

About Bona Traffic HD a/k/a Traffic: Traffic is a commercial-grade, high-quality water-based finish. It is a two-component system that provides additional UV protection as well as a hardener. This finish upgrade will help reduce scratching and fading in a far superior way than your basic finishes. Traffic is very affordable and well worth your consideration. If you are choosing a water-based finish, be certain to ask your contractor about upgrading your final coat of finish to Traffic. Although not foolproof, this finish is durable enough to use in restaurants, stores, and other high-traffic areas. With the high durability, Traffic allows more livability and extends the life of your floor, even in homes with active lifestyles, lots of windows, and pets.

Feel & “Slidability”

There is a myth that oil is smoother than water-based finish. If a quality product is used by a qualified professional, both oil and water-based finishes are smooth as silk, and you can get the Tom Cruise Slide from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (I’ve done it!) For those of you that don’t remember the 80s, think about the sliding they do on Dancing With The Stars! There is a little bit of a different look, especially with the water-based finish going on clear. The water-based finish does have a more natural wood look to it. Some people will never get past the different look, and old-time floor guys will never accept water-based finishes as equal. Change, it’s just hard to accept sometimes. Creations Hardwoods has basically phased out oil-based finishes, except for special circumstances, and we have not experienced negativity with the quality water-based finishes.

Last, But Not least….. Cost

Oil can be less expensive than water-based finish, which runs around $200.00 per 5 gal. bucket or $40 per gal.

Depending on where you live and the contractor, you can expect to pay approximately $0.50 – $1.00 more per sq. ft. for a water-based finish. Some contractors, including Creations Hardwoods, have discontinued this practice due to the ability to complete projects faster.

Creations Hardwoods, and most reliable contractors, do not allow clients to remain in the home while oil-based finish is being applied. You can expect three days of alternative living arrangements. By the time you look at the whole picture, you might not be saving money if that is your driving factor in your decision-making.

As you can see, determining which finish is best for your flooring project is not a cut-and-dry decision. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration. Whether you are working with Creations Hardwoods or another contractor, this is your choice, not ours or theirs. Be sure they are listening to your questions and providing answers on both sides of the questions.

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