Two of the most common types of finishes for hardwood flooring that are currently in use are water-based polyurethane and oil-based polyurethane. While water-based polyurethane finishes were much less durable than oil-based ones in the past, advances in manufacturing technology have made them equal to each other—both do a stellar job of protecting your hardwood floors.
Although they now offer the same durability, some important differences do remain. If you're having trouble deciding between an oil-based polyurethane finish or a water-based polyurethane finish for your hardwood floor, read on to find out what these differences are.
Color: Oil-Based Polyurethane Adds an Amber Tint
When an oil-based polyurethane finish is applied to hardwood flooring, it gives the floor a slight amber tint, and this tint intensifies over time. Water-based polyurethane finish is completely clear and does not affect the color of the hardwood at all.
While it may seem minor, the difference in coloration makes a large impact on the appearance of your hardwood floors. The amber tint of oil-based polyurethane finishes pairs well with darker hardwoods, such as Brazilian cherry. It gives them a deep, luxurious sheen.
On the other hand, it doesn't work as well for lighter woods such as ash—the amber tint actually ends up transforming them into a jaundiced yellow color, which only worsens with time. For lighter wood, it's best to stick with a water-based polyurethane finish.
Another consideration is that oil-based polyurethane has traditionally been the most common type of finish used by professional refinishing contractors. Because of this, the amber tint is usually what people expect to see in hardwood flooring.
Water-based polyurethane finishes on darker woods can sometimes appear cold in comparison. This may be an important factor for you if you're planning on selling your home before refinishing your floors—buyers may expect the amber tint of an oil-based polyurethane finish.
VOC Content: Oil-Based Polyurethane Has More VOCs than Water-Based
Another major difference between oil-based and water-based polyurethane finishes is their volatile organic chemical content. Oil-based polyurethane finishes have a much higher VOC content than water-based ones, and in fact, cannot even be applied to a hardwood floor without wearing a respirator. You can even find zero-VOC water-based polyurethane finishes available in hardware stores.
Many homeowners have become increasingly concerned about the presence of VOCs in their homes. High levels of VOCs in a home can lead to decreased indoor air quality. While your hardwood flooring isn't the only potential source of VOCs within the home, you may wish to opt for a water-based polyurethane finish if indoor air quality is a major concern.
Cost: Water-Based Polyurethane Is Much More Expensive Than Oil-Based
Finally, there is a very substantial cost difference between water-based and oil-based polyurethane finishes. Water-based polyurethane finishes—the high-quality ones you will want to use to protect your hardwood flooring—are about four times more expensive than oil-based polyurethane finishes. If you're refinishing a large amount of floor space, this cost difference can quickly add up.
However, you should also consider that finishes for hardwood flooring typically last around ten years depending on the level of traffic they receive. When spread out over ten years, a difference in up-front cost to choose a water-based polyurethane finish is much less significant.
While you can apply both types of finish to your hardwood flooring by yourself, it's a good idea to have a hardwood flooring refinishing service do the job. They can ensure that your finish is applied evenly to the floor and that your coats of finish have completely cured before the next one is applied. If you don't wait until a polyurethane finish has cured before applying a new coat, the new coat will begin to form cracks—if you don't want to risk it, hire a service such as Alpine Wood Flooring Inc.