What is the Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors? (2023)

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Polyurethane creates a hard, durable surface for wooden floors to withstand heavy foot traffic and spills. But applying the wrong type of poly can make your floors vulnerable to damage and look worn out.

So our contractors rounded up the best water-based polyurethane for floors they’ve been using for large projects that’ll surely suit your needs.

Premium Option
General Finishes QTHS
Editor’s Choice
Bona Mega Wood Finish
Budget Option
Minwax 710330000
General Finishes QTHS
Bona Mega Wood Finish
Minwax 710330000
• 1-2 hours dry time
• Interior use
• UV stabilizer
• Easy to apply
• Highly durable
• Low VOCs
• Greenguard certified
• 2-3 hours dry time
• Satin sheen
• Easy to clean
• Low odor
• Clear finish
Premium Option
General Finishes QTHS
General Finishes QTHS
• 1-2 hours dry time
• Interior use
• UV stabilizer
• Easy to apply
Editor’s Choice
Bona Mega Wood Finish
Bona Mega Wood Finish
• Highly durable
• Low VOCs
• Greenguard certified
• 2-3 hours dry time
Budget Option
Minwax 710330000
Minwax 710330000
• Satin sheen
• Easy to clean
• Low odor
• Clear finish

Reviews of the Top Polyurethane Finishes for Floors

1. Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish

The Bona Mega excels in high-traffic indoor settings and is ideal for homes and businesses. We found that the product dries rapidly and is ready for another coat in about two to three hours. 

It’s a long-lasting substance that will shield your floors from wear and tear, animal stains, scratches, and even melted snow. You can apply the Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish even in the dead of winter, and it will still dry in a reasonable amount of time, unlike its oil-based counterpart. 

Due to its low odor production and GreenGuard Indoor Air Quality Certification, Bona Mega is an excellent choice for households with children and pets.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

2. General Finishes QTHS High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat

We first noticed and enjoyed how quickly the General Finishes QTHS dries. In ideal conditions, a final coat of water-based polyurethane can be applied in as little as an hour. The UV stabilizer in this topcoat will keep the wood beneath it from darkening and keep the finish looking good for a lot longer. 

Using the General Finishes High-Perforamance Topcoat is simple. Apply the stain with a staining pad, smooth roller, or synthetic or foam brush, staining pad, or roller. 

You should apply the General Finishes at a temperature of no more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a humidity of no more than 50 percent to get the best results.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

3. Minwax 710330000 Water-Based, Oil-Modified Polyurethane

The Minwax 710330000 is a water-based oil-modified polyurethane that only takes two hours to dry, so you can apply a second coat as soon as it dries. 

This Minwax polyurethane dries clear, offering a subtle sheen while also being low-maintenance and simple to clean. Apply it on days when the temperature won’t exceed 77 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity won’t exceed 50%.

A further advantage of its hybrid nature is its adaptability to various implementation methods. You can use a lambswool applicator, a foam brush, or a synthetic bristle brush. It is also easy to clean up using warm water.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

4. Bona Traffic HD Commercial Semi-Gloss

When completely cured, the Bona Traffic HD coating is impervious to abrasion, scratching, and chemical breakdown. This is critical because pets’ repetitive soiling can cause water-based polyurethanes to alter their color.

GreenGuard has also validated the low chemical emissions of this water polyurethane in buildings. This coating has extremely low volatile organic compounds emissions. Due to its low thickness, this polyurethane is simple to use. No globs or streaks appeared on our workspace after applying it.

You can reapply polyurethane layers in just two hours, and sanding is safe to make the surface smooth. As a result of how quickly it dries, you may complete your flooring in one day.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

5. Varathane 230131 Crystal Clear Floor Finish

The polyurethane produced by Varathane meets all the standards for a high-quality, water-based product. The fact that it can withstand heavy use in busy areas is its greatest strength.

If you give the finish enough time to dry and harden, it will be more resistant to scuffs and scratches due to the aluminum oxide nanotechnology in its formula. Unlike other water-based polyurethanes, the Varathane 230131 polyurethane was developed to highlight the natural wood color and grain.

This water-based polyurethane is shiny and clear when dry, making it a popular choice for newly laid wooden floors. 

What We Like

What We Don't Like

6. ZAR 32512 Water-Based Polyurethane

The floor and furniture are protected from abrasion, scuffing, and other damages thanks to this poly’s quick drying time. It also has minimal odor, and its scratch-resistant formula doesn’t react with most common home chemicals.

It brings out wood’s natural beauty and resilience, and it has an exceptionally low emission of solvent vapor which meets the industry’s environmental requirements. When dry, it’s perfectly safe for kids and pets and needs warm water for cleanup. 

The ZAR 32512 combines superior durability and the ability to protect rare and exotic woods like Brazilian walnut, teak, and many others. We like that it is manufactured under all applicable laws and standards regarding volatile organic chemicals.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

7. 1 qt Deft DFT257 Clear Water Based Polyurethane

Deft specializes in quick-drying polyurethane and lacquer but offers a wide variety of floor treatments. During our water-based polyurethane reviews, the Deft DFT257 poly protected wood floors from damage thanks to the additional layer of protection. 

It is scratch- and scuff-proof and can withstand heavy foot traffic and the scraping of furniture legs. This water-based Deft option is self-sealing, so there’s no need for primers or sealers between coats. It has no smell and dries rapidly. 

The surface’s longevity can also increase compared to oil-based polyurethanes. Additionally, it protects outside surfaces against the damaging effects of the elements, including chemicals and sunlight.

What We Like

What We Don't Like

When To Use Water-Borne Polyurethane

When deciding on a water-based polyurethane, it’s important to consider its intended use first. The gloss and durability of the poly will depend on the room’s location.

Although there are a lot of water-based polyurethanes, some are better suited to locations with heavy foot traffic. The kitchen, foyer, and hallways are a home’s most heavily used spaces in a home.

It is also important to consider the floor’s location while deciding on a sheen or luster.

Is Water-Based Polyurethane Reliable as a Floor Finish?

You may have heard that water-based poly is not as robust as oil-based poly if you have read blogs or seen different woodworkers discuss polyurethane.

This may have been true in the past, but it certainly isn’t today. Indeed, oil-based poly is more substantial than its water-based counterpart, but they are quite rigid once dry. When fully cured, they provide similarly high levels of protection against scuffs and scratches.

Polyurethane for Floors Buyer’s Guide

Durability

The durability of a polyurethane product is crucial since it directly affects how long it will last. Compared to varnish or oil-based polyurethane, the lifespan of water-based polyurethane is shorter at 3–5 years of maximum shine and performance.

Color, Appearance, and Smell

Odor levels from water-based polyurethanes are often lower than those of oil-based alternatives. However, some choices may have VOCs, so it’s best to apply them with the windows open and a mask on. [1]

The greatest water-based polyurethane floor finishes are available in a range of sheens, or degrees of glossiness, that produce a stunningly lovely surface for walking on. 

When it comes to flooring, satin polyurethanes are the best option. These polyurethanes have a subtle sheen but hold up better to heavy foot activity than their less durable counterparts.

They make the floor better to walk on while not being too rough or unpleasant to the touch and provide greater grip than a high-gloss surface.

Application

The application of the best water-based polyurethanes for floors is similar to oil-based or external wood treatments. Paint rollers, floor roller sleeves, or brushes can all be used to spread the product on floors for do-it-yourselfers. Some things to think about before you begin:

Sheen

Many water-based polyurethanes include finishing ingredients that, once cured, impart a gloss or shine. Several sheen levels ( satin, matte, gloss, semi-gloss, and high-gloss) are available for some products.

refinishing kitchen floor with Bona Mega

In contrast to the term “flat,” which is used by some businesses, “high gloss” is used by others when marketing glossy products.

In general, the higher the shine, the more light that bounces and the more flaws it reveals. The gloss isn’t a reliable indicator of longevity.

Although not all of our products include a glossy appearance, they all come equipped with the rest.

Gloss

A finish that results in a high shine and reflective appearance. With this finish, it will not require reapplication for ten years.

Semi-Gloss

This is the optimal choice for low-traffic places or rooms frequented only by adults who choose to go shoeless.

refinishing hardwood floor

Satin

A finish is characterized by a smooth, silky appearance with a slightly matte (not glossy) look. It is suitable for high-traffic locations.

Matte

It is ideal for heavy foot traffic areas because it conceals wear and tear.

Drying and Curing Times

Since most floor treatments need multiple coats (the bare minimum is three), the amount of time needed for each coat of water-based polyurethane to dry is an important consideration when making a final decision.

The drying time between coats of a few practical formulations is as little as an hour. Some may need a lot more curing time.

Different products have different final curing times. For instance, polycrylic cures more slowly than polyurethane but dry much faster after application.

refinishing hardwood floor

Typically, these finishes only need a few hours to dry between applications but can take several days to cure. The typical cure time is 24 hours for moderate traffic and 72 hours for furniture. It will likely take an additional week or two for the finish to cure fully.

Maintenance or Cleaning Needs

Polyurethane is a great material to use as a floor finish since it is so simple to maintain. 

Hardwood floors can be mopped thoroughly without fear of harm if they have been coated with poly; just be careful not to apply excessive soap or water.

Keep the surface free of debris and dust that could scrape the poly since this could cause premature wear. Doing the sweeps regularly ought to do the trick. A coat of floor wax can bring it back to life if it has lost its luster.

Price and Coverage

The maximum coverage of the best water-based polyurethane for floors varies greatly amongst the many 1-gallon cans and containers available.

basement with hardwood flooring

Calculate the cost of finishing an area by multiplying the square footage to be coated by the number of coats you plan to apply.

You may sense the poly’s protective qualities and price by looking at both. Those that produce a thick, long-lasting coating tend to be more expensive, especially per square foot. If you don’t have to reapply as frequently, you could save money in the long term.

Pot Life

The usefulness of poly over its “pot life means the amount of time you can store it in a sealed container.

Most water-based polyurethanes can be stored for up to a year, although certain varieties require adding hardening agents before you can use them.

Your Environment and Location

Whatever the room’s function or surroundings, it’s important to choose a finish that suits them. Both interior and exterior surfaces may require coating. However, not all polyurethanes are weather-resistant.

floor with polyurethane finish

Further, some finishes can withstand heavy foot activity while others can’t. You’ll then be able to select a product that’s ideal for your specific needs.

Pros of Using a Water-Based Poly for Your Floor Finish

Quick Drying Time

The first and most important benefit of water-based poly is that it can dry much faster than oil-based polyurethane. 

Polyurethane is made from petroleum; this is unheard of. Fast-drying oil-based polyurethanes still need at least four hours to cure fully; thus, a water-based polyurethane will dry in a day or two.

It is possible to put three or four layers of waterborne finish in a single day because of the short drying time.

In addition to the three coats, oil-based finishes typically require one daily application. Using a water-based method can cut your work time in half, and most products won’t require three coats.

Sanding Between Coats Isn’t Always Required

Sanding in between poly coatings is a time-consuming and annoying step in the process. It will take longer because you must allow the layer to cure before sanding it.

Sanding an entire business or residential floor is a lot of work and can be discouraging. Fortunately, water-based polyurethanes don’t have this issue.

Due to the water-based poly’s superior adhesion, you can apply the next layer while the prior one is still slightly moist, provided the surface is clean.

Abrading is often necessary between coats of oil-derived polyurethane to improve adhesion. However, even if sanding isn’t necessary, you shouldn’t take the chance.

Less Odor

If you’re dealing with oil-based polyurethane, a respirator is a must. Even if working in a well-ventilated area, the stench can be so strong that it makes some individuals sick.

You can only use water-based polyurethane if you can’t bear the scent of other options.

Some oil-derived polys don’t have a particularly pungent odor, but even those don’t come close to competing with water-based polys.

Low VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been linked to various health problems. The terrible reality is that they can be found in so many common household items that avoiding them is next to impossible.

However, we can take steps to lessen our vulnerability. One approach is to switch to water-based polyurethane from oil-derived varieties. This contributes to the gradual elimination of oil-based polyurethanes in the manufacturing sector.

The new rules state that no product can emit more than a specified amount of volatile organic compounds into the home. 

Not Prone to Color Change

Water-based polyurethane will dry clear and stay clear for the finish’s life, except when sprayed over white paint. In contrast, oil-based polyurethane has a distinct amber color when dry and gradually turns yellower with age.

This means it will not alter the wood’s natural luster, even if you use a light-colored hardwood floor. It’s the same with black wood. Because of this, water-based polyurethane is the superior choice.

Cons of Using Water-Based Polys

Pricey

The high cost is the main drawback of water-based polyurethane. Water-based finishes can be twice as expensive per can as oil-derived versions. However, in most cases, the price difference is minimal.

While this is true, water-based polyurethane has more advantages. Here, you can save money by using an option that doesn’t require any sanding before use. As a bonus, you’ll be able to move on to other projects sooner.

The use of water-based poly could be less expensive than utilizing petroleum-based poly in some circumstances.

Reduced Stain-Resistance

In comparison to oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane is superior in many aspects. Its durability has improved since then. The only issue is that it doesn’t repel stains very well.

Animals can damage water-based polyurethane finishes, which are unsafe for pets and children. But you can protect yourself by researching polyurethanes online and investing in higher-quality alternatives.

More Coats Required

Water-based polyurethane enhances wood grain; therefore, it requires more applications than oil-derived polyurethane. Because of this, you may require additional coats to achieve a uniform appearance.

When this occurs, sanding in between coats may be required. However, the poly’s quick drying period makes it more effective than oil-based polyurethane.

Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane

Improved resistance to physical wear has led to the widespread adoption of water-based polyurethanes as a floor finish. When compared to oil-derived alternatives, water-based poly provides less protection and has a shorter lifespan.

However, formulas have been upgraded, giving most water-based poly the same durability as it counterpart; they also provide damage resistance, making them appropriate for high-traffic areas.

The fact that it dries in a lot less time adds to its popularity among homeowners. Drying time for oil-derived poly can be rather lengthy; plan on waiting at least four days before allowing traffic or placing furniture on it.

Most water-based polyurethanes cure completely in 24 hours, allowing for sanding and recoating in as little as two. Since this process may be started and completed in a single day, the floor is safe for regular usage the day after refinishing.

Because of the higher concentration of volatile organic chemicals in oil-based polyurethane, it is more hazardous to breathe.

It produces a much stronger stench when applied and allowed to dry within the home. Because oil-based solutions require more time to dry, the lingering aroma might last for many days, up to a week.

Tint

Most polyurethanes are designed to serve as clear coats that do not alter the color or look of the wood when applied.

However, some people choose to add a surface tint, which is typically a yellowish hue. While this isn’t normally an issue with bare wood, some people may not appreciate how a lighter wood hue turns yellow with time.

Unfortunately, floors that are white or very light in color. If your floors are even slightly yellow, people will assume they are dirty. 

Texture

Oil-based polyurethane is far more substantial and will produce a thicker layer to protect your wood floors. This is good if you need something that will last and be exposed to a lot of foot traffic. You should use three applications of oil-based polyurethane.

Coatings formulated with water will dry more quickly than those formulated with oil, but they will be tougher. Four coats are recommended if you choose a water-based finish and are concerned about high-traffic areas.

Odor

Polyurethane made from oil smells very different from other materials. Even after applying it for some time, you may still be able to see the results.

A person should not stay in the house during the application process or for a few days following. While others find the smell offensive, some can handle it.

As the VOC content of water-based polyurethane is substantially lower than that of the oil formula, it also emits much less of an odor. This is likely your best bet if you intend to stay in the house during the renovation.

Dry Time

Polyurethane made from oil smells very different from other materials. Even after applying it for some time, you may still be able to see the results.

A person should not stay in the house during the application process or for a few days following. While others find the smell offensive, some can handle it.

As the VOC content of water-based polyurethane is substantially lower than that of the oil formula, it also emits much less of an odor. It is likely your best bet if you intend to stay in the house during the renovation.

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FAQ

Are water-based polyurethanes prone to scratches?

Water-based polyurethanes can be more prone to scratches than oil-based polyurethanes. It is because the water-based versions tend to have a softer film build, which abrasions can more easily damage. However, this can vary depending on the specific product and its application.

Can I find a wipe-on water-based poly?

Yes, you can find wipe-on water-based polyurethane products. These products are typically called “wipe-on polyurethane” or “wipe-on poly.” They often come in a gel or liquid form and are applied using a clean cloth or applicator pad.

Can you apply water-based polyurethane without brush marks?

It is possible to apply water-based polyurethane without brush marks, but it may require some practice and attention to technique. It’s also worth noting that using a foam roller or a spray gun to apply the polyurethane can help achieve a brush mark-free finish.

Can I use rollers to apply polyurethane on floors?

A smooth roller dampened in mineral spirits can be used for an even polyurethane coating. The sections that are out of reach still need to be brushed.

How often should you refinish your wood floors?

This task is only necessary every 7-10 years; even then, it may not be necessary. The amount of traffic on your floors is the critical variable here.

Our Top Pick For a Polyurethane for Floors:
Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish

Our team’s pick for the best water-based polyurethane for floors is the Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish

Not only does it do a great job of keeping hardwood safe from the elements, but it also withstands the constant movement of animals, people, and dining room furnishings. It also dries quickly, making tasks less time-consuming and easier. 

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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