Choosing Between Oil- vs Water-Based Polyurethane on Wood

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/16/23 • 

Oil- and water-based polyurethane are durable and offer good protection when applied to wood products. However, they also have their differences, making them great for different uses. In this article, you’ll learn more about these two types of polyurethane, their pros and cons, and their differences. After this, choosing and knowing when to use each should be easier.

What is Oil-Based Polyurethane?

Oil-based polyurethane has been around longer than water-based poly and uses petroleum and mineral spirits as its solvent. It contains up to 50 percent more solids, which makes it more protective. Oil-based poly has a yellow or amber appearance when applied on wood, which might be desired in some applications.

Minwax Fast Drying Warm Satin Polyurethane
$14.97

The Minwax fast-drying warm satin is our go-to polyurethane for weatherproofing or enhancing the appearance of wood products. It goes on smoothly to give a nice semi-gloss appearance. It is durable and easy to apply.

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When fully cured, oil-based poly offers better protection against abrasion, which is why it is a good option for wood floors and other areas where durability is desired. However, it will take longer to dry and fully cure, especially if you want to apply multiple coats.

Pros of Oil-Based Polyurethane

Cons of Oil-Based Polyurethane

What is Water-Based Polyurethane?

Water-based polyurethane uses water as its solvent as opposed to mineral spirits or petroleum solvents. It has a whitish or milky appearance, but once it dries, it is clear. With water-based polyurethane, very little color is imparted to the surface you’re finishing.

Varathane Water-Based Satin Finish Polyurethane
$23.97

This is one of the most recommended water-based poly around. It's easy to apply and has a crystal-clear appearance once it dries and cures. It also dries fast, and you should recoat in 2 hours in normal conditions.

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Water-based poly also offers a hard protective coat, but you will have to apply more coats. However, it dries faster, and you can apply more coats in less time compared to oil-based polyurethane.

Pros of Water-Based Polyurethane

Cons of Water-Based Polyurethane

Oil- vs. Water-Based Polyurethane

Durability

If applied correctly, both oil-based and water-based polys are very durable. However, oil-based poly has a slight edge when it comes to durability because it is softer and thus does not scratch easily. They also contain more solids than water-based poly, which creates a more protective finish. With advancements, newer water-based poly brands are just as durable as oil-based poly. Check out our best exterior polyurethane to protect your wood from different elements.

Color & Appearance

Water-based polyurethane has a whitish/milky color when in liquid form but goes clear over time. If you want to retain wood’s natural color, a water-based poly is your best bet. However, for those of us who like a warm and amber hue, oil-based poly is the way to go. The color of oil-based poly is slightly yellow, which darkens as it ages.

When it comes to the overall sheen, oil-based polys have more shine compared to water-based polys. This means oil-based polys will be easier to maintain but will show more imperfections than water-based poly. Check out our matte vs. satin vs. gloss sheen article for a deeper understanding.

Drying & Curing Time

In the right conditions, water-based polyurethane will take less time to dry and cure. In about 2-4 hours, water-based poly is dry and can take a new coat. However, oil-based poly takes longer to dry, which is around 24 to 48 hours.

The curing times also vary with 24 to 48 hours for water-based poly and about 3-7 days for oil-based poly. Different factors affect the drying time of poly; check out our article on polyurethane drying time for an informative read.

Thickness & Hardness

Oil-based poly is thicker than water-based poly, which is why you don’t need many coats to buildup better protection. However, because water-based poly is thinner, you will have to apply more coats to buildup better protection and durability.

Water-based poly is harder and can take dents but scratches easily. On the other hand, oil-based poly is softer and can take scratches better, but no dents.

Odors/ VOCs Content

Oil-based polyurethane has a stronger odor that can take time to clear up. It is advisable to apply oil-based poly in a well-ventilated area and use proper protective gear because it releases toxic fumes as it is applied due to a higher volatile organic compounds (VOC) content.

Water-based polyurethane has no odors and very low VOC content. While applying water-based poly to larger surfaces like floors, it is completely safe to use in your home. However, with oil-based polyurethane, you’ll need to vacate for a few days to avoid short or long-term health problems.

MWB-Team

Hello there! This is the Make Wood Better Team. Here, we share informative how-tos and guides focused on making wood better. Whether it's finishing wood, maintenance, or restoration, there's something on this website for you to learn and improve your skills.