Waterborne vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane

This is the age old question- which is better waterborne polyurethanes or oil-based polyurethanes?

Well, some waterborne polyurethanes are better than oil base poly’s and some oil-based polyurethanes are better than  waterborne.

Around 1980 I was introduced to the first generation of waterbase. One of my suppliers hands me a jug of what looks like a gallon of milk and says, “Try this, it’s great!” Turns out, it wasn’t so great. Unfortunately waterbase got a bad name from the start. The product was very hard to use and it didn’t flow out. So, when an inexperienced person used it, the finished product came out terrible.

Waterborne Finishes Are Safer Today

Today, waterborne polyurethane is a million percent better. Since 1980 there has been pressure from the government to lower the Volatile Organic Compounds or VOC levels in floor finishes, which has led to today’s safer products.

Which One to Choose

Here is a short explanation to help you decide which one is right for you. Waterborne polyurethane is harder than oil based polyurethane. Because it is harder, waterborne finishes can sometimes scratch easier. Oil base is softer, so it doesn’t scratch as easy. Think of it like this: glass is harder than plastic, but glass breaks easier than plastic. Waterborne finishes will out-last oil based finishes in high traffic areas.

Exceptions to the Rule

This doesn’t include the higher end waterborne finishes like a 2 part epoxy. Once cured it’s almost impossible to scratch them. And, some oil base moisture cured polyurethanes are as hard as you can imagine.

Here’s a true story. In 1983 I refinished the Bear Mountain Inn which is halfway between New York City and Poughkeepsie. I applied four coats of a moisture curing high gloss polyurethane. I checked in with them a year later. They told me they had around a million people walk on that floor. That’s two million footsteps at the top of the stairs. It didn’t wear through the finish.