Water Based Flooring Finishes

Up front I must say that of all the finishes in the industry, if I had my choice in most situations, I’d favor the new water-based polyurethane. I suppose my opinion is biased. However, I’ve been using both water-borne and oil-based finishes for the past 14 years. During that time I’ve seen the water-based polyurethane finishes evolve into probably the best finishes in many ways.


The one drawback evidenced by professionals lies in that water-borne poly can and often will raise the grain of wood thereby causing the flooring to be rough. This only happens with the first coat. After Applying water based finishthat, the wood is sealed enough so as not to be affected by consecutive coats. Therefore, the professional usually knows how to eliminate the problem by using a special alcohol based sealer.

The alcohol in this sealer does not raise the grain thereby creating a great barrier coat between the bare wood (or stain) and that first coat of water-based poly which would otherwise raise the grain. This alcohol product is a new patented de-waxed shellac. With the wax removed it becomes a universal sealer. When finishing is done this way, it becomes known as a "hybrid finish". The adherence of poly to this shellac is very good, and it can give you the warm, slightly tinted appearance that you can have with the oil-based, but less severe.

Appearances Different From Oil Based

A couple more things about water-based finishes; they will not darken with time as does oil-based poly. Water-based poly is absolutely clear and remains that way for years. For this reason, water-based poly is becoming more and more desirable on gymnasium floors; the maple flooring remains light and natural without the darkening and ambering. Also, all sheens (satin, semi-gloss, gloss) have the same durability, and a two-component (poly with a hardener additive) water-based poly is harder than any oil-based polyurethane. This is proven through laboratory, 9-step testing.

If the use of water-based poly sounds like more thanWater based sealer you want to tackle in your home, don't hesitate to contact a professional who is well versed in the use of water-borne polyurethane...the wave of the future.

In conclusion, I hope I've presented a few facts that will help you decide on what's best for you and the consumer. Understanding the pros and cons of these types of finishes can help in making informed decisions. In turn, it can help you to give your floors the best protection that will help maintain your floor's beauty for years to come.

When I think of all the homes I invade with my machinery and noise, one reality that must be addressed is that people want me out of their homes as soon as possible. In light of this, consider these facts about water-based poly:

• One coat down every hour. This one fact enables me to knock 1-2 days off the job which greatly satisfies the homeowner and allows them to get back to their routine of life sooner than if I had used oil-based poly.
• There are very few fumes. In fact, by the first day after I’ve finished the last coat, people have told me that they can’t even smell the fumes. Even a customer who has Environmental Illness (allergic to most fumes) was able to safely walk into his house without any reaction the day after I put on the final coat of water-based poly.
•  Any given coat will dry enough in 1 hour so that the owners can walk on it.
• The water-based finishes (with hardener) has proven to be tougher, more durable, and more resistant to household spills.

Contractor Opinion - Water Based Vs Water Based

Whether you’re refinishing antique wood floors or Coating stairspurchasing new site-finished wood floors, there’s a sealer/finish that’s right for you. Let’s take a quick look at some of the products available to your local wood flooring pro and try to figure out which one might work the best for your application.

Oil-Based Polyurethane (OBP) floor sealers and finishes have been around for over 60 years. When they came into popularity among contractors and homeowners, the previously acceptable finish was paste wax, which required frequent ongoing maintenance to keep up with. OBP offered a significant leap in durability over paste wax and changed wood flooring forever. They’re still used today and quite popular with the old guard of wood flooring pros.

When I think of Oil Based, I think of 3 things:

• Low Price: least expensive at $18-$30 per gallon
• Simplicity: easiest to use, slower drying*, longer flowing
• Strong Fumes: very strong odor which lingers for days

Water-Based Polyurethane (WBP) floor sealers and finishes were introduced to the wood flooring industry in the 1990’s as an answer to OBP’s two biggest downsides; smell, and long dry times. Now you may be scratching your head right now because earlier in the discussion, I said that longer, slower drying was a plus because it made the product easier to use. This is true. Longer drying time does translate into a more forgiving product for the finisher to apply; however, this is a double-edged sword. Slower drying products translate into more project days compared to fast drying WBP. The unique benefits of WBP were almost immediately recognized by wood flooring pros but they weren’t universally adopted by all.

When I think of Water Based, these 4 things come to mind:

• High Price: more expensive at $39-$110 per gallon
• Fast Dry: more coats in fewer days and shorter cure time
• Durability: improved scratch resistance and chemical resistance
• Low Odor: many of these are certified Low VOC

Oil-Based vs. Water-Based. Translated Into Square Feet Costs

Question: Why would I recommend OBP over WBP?

Answer No.1: Price. For example, if I install 1,000 square feet of red oak floors I could use OBP and spend $220 in product or choose a WBP and spend $440. A homeowner on a tight budget might not spring for the extra $220.00.

Answer No.2: Condition. Recently we refinished older floors in a very old house. The slower drying, deeper penetrating OBP offered enhanced fortification for the antique wood that the faster drying WBP wasn’t likely to provide. Some pros may criticize us for that choice but the end result looked as good as it gets. Besides, the top layer can be recoated with WBP to take advantage of the enhanced durability that it offers.

Question: Why would I recommend WBP over OBP?

Answer No.1: Convenience. The absence of the strong, irritating odor of OBP makes it possible for a homeowner to stay in their home instead of sleeping somewhere else at night. The fumes from OBP are not good for food, pets, or people.

Answer No.2: Durability. Enhanced chemistry in the WBP means that your floors won’t need recoating as soon as they would have if OBP was used. If you plan to sell your home in less than 3 years, you won’t reap the benefit of improved durability.

Answer No.3: Environment. If you're really sensitive to environmental issues, WBP will offer the peace of mind that your finish isn't polluting the air or your lungs nearly as bad as the OBP. Hopefully this provides you with some insight into the process of selecting an appropriate wood floor finish. Ask your contractor what they recommend for your project and why.

Contributing Contractor: Ashley Blythe, President and Founder of HSW Floors
Specialty: Custom Hand Scraped Floors
Location: Dallas, TX

Ashley Blythe HSW Floors
Contact: 972-755-4850