Water- Versus Oil-Based Polyurethane: What’s the Difference?

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When it comes to your floors, you want the best. They are an investment, after all, and ensuring you understand how to care for them protects that investment for years to come. That includes proper installation, maintenance, repairs, and seal coats, all of which aid in keeping your floors as nice as possible for as long as possible.

Polyurethane products, which comes in multiple varieties, can help you do just that. This quick guide to polys — including the differences between water- and oil-based polyurethane varnishes — will help better understand the items, and how they can be used to protect your next flooring project investments.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a plastic-based resin used in foams. It can be found in decorative columns, door frames, moldings, padded clothing items, refrigerator or freezer walls, thermal insulation panels, upholstery fabrics, window headers, and more. It comes in several densities, too, including low and high, enabling it to give objects the shape or flexibility they need.

In flooring, polyurethane applications run the gamut from cleaning products, construction sealants, and materials for filling spaces or cavities to adhesives, abrasion resistance, and varnishes. The latter comes in primarily water-based or oil-based varieties, each with its own set of application specifications.

Differences Between Water- and Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethane is known in the woodworking world for its distinct odor and longer drying times. Oil is thicker than water, meaning oil-based poly is more durable and lasts longer than a water-based variant. It is also easier to apply, provides a natural finish, darkens the wood, and can give your home’s floors a glossier, shinier appearance.

The downsides are that oil-based poly will cake on brushes, meaning users will need to use a thinning agent to clean them after application. Also, when applied directly, oil-based poly can create such a strong barrier that it almost looks like clear plastic. Mixing it with mineral spirits helps to thin it out without dulling its favorable properties, though, helping create the result most homeowners need.

Water-based polyurethane varnish boasts a lot of the same properties, but with quicker drying time and less of a heavy varnish smell. It is safer for the environment because it contains fewer chemicals, its containers are recyclable, and spills or excess can be cleaned up with water instead of a thinning agent.

The negatives for water-based poly are minimal, including less heat resistance than oil-based varieties and possible damage when overly exposed to liquids. Its thinner properties prevent it from having the plastic effect, it might be easier to see brush strokes once applied, and it needs to be applied more often than its oil counterparts. Because it’s more natural, water-based polyurethanes usually cost more than oil-based polys, too, which is something to consider if you’re a homeowner on a budget.

When to Consult a Professional

If you have questions or concerns about which polyurethane varnish is best for your floors, or whether you should use one at all, call a trusted flooring expert. The last thing you want is to damage your floors or make a decision without feeling comfortable. An experienced flooring professional will walk you through the best options for your home and help you decide on next steps.

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