Hardwood floors add beauty and value to a home. They’re warm and cozy, providing a look like nothing else can. But they’re expensive, so treat them like the investment they are. Whether made of oak, bamboo, maple, or a variety of other species and materials, hardwood floors need protection—and that comes from the best water-based polyurethane.
With so many flooring finishes on the market, though, it can be difficult to decide which is the right one for your particular situation. Knowing what product will last the longest for a given situation is a challenge, but this guide will help. It covers the top considerations to keep in mind and reviews some of the best options available.
- BEST OVERALL: General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat
- RUNNER-UP: Minwax Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Minwax Polycrylic Water-Based Protective Clear Finish
- UPGRADE PICK: Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish
- BEST HIGH-TRAFFIC: RUST-OLEUM Varathane Gallon Gloss Floor Finish
- BEST FOR SUNNY ROOMS: Minwax Water Based Helmsman Spar Urethane
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors
Whether the job is finishing a new floor installation for the first time or refinishing existing floors, choosing the right water-based polyurethane is important. The following sections will point out some of the most important considerations to keep in mind when shopping for these products. Be sure to read each section carefully to make an informed decision.
Durability and Longevity
One of the most important factors to consider is a polyurethane product’s durability, since it has a direct effect on its longevity. Typical water-based polyurethane will last about 3 to 5 years at its maximum shine and performance, compared to a varnish or oil-based polyurethane’s 7 to 10 years. But that depends on a few considerations:
- High-traffic areas will wear down much faster than areas of the floor that rarely see action. For example, the space in front of the couch or a hallway will see much more traffic than the living room corner. It might be best to go with a high-traffic formula to ensure lasting power in busy areas.
- Polyurethane of any variety on floors in front of very sunny windows will wear down much faster than in a shadier room. The sun’s UV rays break down the material, requiring more frequent refinishing.
Areas that don’t see much sunlight or traffic can last even longer than the typical 5 years.
Sheen and Appearance
The best water-based polyurethane for floors comes in a few different levels of shininess, also known as sheen. Floor refinishers have a choice between high gloss, gloss, satin, and even flat polyurethanes in some situations.
Going along with the durability aspect, satin polyurethanes are typically ideal for flooring applications. These polyurethanes offer just a bit of shine, but they’re less likely to dull in areas where people walk. Also, the traction they provide over a high-gloss finish makes the floor safer to walk on without feeling rough or unpleasant under bare feet or socks.
Ease of Application and Smell
Water-based polyurethanes are simple to apply. DIYers can apply the product to their floors with a paint roller, a roller sleeve designed for floors, and a brush. Still, there are some tips to keep in mind:
- The floor needs to be sanded smooth before applying the polyurethane (and often between coats).
- If the surface has received oil-based polyurethane in the past, it will need to be sanded off completely before applying a water-based polyurethane.
- It’s important to ensure that the floor is completely clean before applying the polyurethane. Otherwise, the finish will be rough and unattractive.
- On recently stained floors, ensure the stain is dry. Otherwise, the polyurethane and stain will mix and become cloudy.
- Most water-based polyurethanes need to be used within specific temperature windows for proper drying and adhesion. This is typically between 70 and 80 degrees, but each product is different, so check the label.
Water-based polyurethanes also feature less intense odors than oil-based options. With that said, it’s still a good idea to open windows for plenty of ventilation and to wear a mask during application.
Drying and Curing Time
Most floor finishes require more than one coat (three is really the minimum), so drying time between coats is a major factor in choosing the best water-based polyurethane. Some of the most convenient products feature drying times between coats as short as 1 hour. Others might take much longer, crushing the workflow.
Final curing time differs among products. For example, polycrylic dries very quickly after applying but can take longer than polyurethane to cure. Typically, these finishes might take only a few hours for drying between coats, but curing usually takes days. Most products are suitable for light traffic after 24 hours, and furniture after 72 hours. The finish probably still won’t reach its total cure for another week or two.
Cleaning and Maintenance
One of the biggest benefits of finishing flooring surfaces with polyurethane is that they become very easy to clean. With a coat of poly, even wood floors can take a good mopping without damage. Just be sure not to use too much water or soap, and the floor will be fine. That also comes in handy when cleaning brushes between coats.
When it comes to maintenance, keeping the surface clean from dust and dirt that will scratch the poly underneath is paramount. Otherwise, those particles will dig into the poly and wear it down. A regular sweeping should be all it takes. Also, a bit of floor wax can help restore some shine on a surface that might look a little past its prime.
Our Top Picks
With that background on the best water-based polyurethane for floors, understanding how to choose the right product becomes a bit easier. To help streamline the process even more, refer to the following list. It consists of some of the best options on the market and shopping considerations to keep in mind when comparing them to one another.
Those looking for a hard, durable polyurethane should check out General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat. This product is available in gallon, pint, or quart sizes, so shoppers can choose exactly which amount they need. This finish contains a UV stabilizer to protect its coating on floor surfaces from intense UV rays.
Applying General Finishes is straightforward. Simply use a synthetic or foam brush, staining pad, or roller with a smooth finish. Each coat dries in 1 to 2 hours, so users can apply follow-up coats quickly. General Finishes states that the ideal conditions for applying this water-based polyurethane are a temperature of 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity.
Those searching for the durability of a traditional polyurethane while preferring the easy application and cleanup of a water-based product can relax. This water-based polyurethane from Minwax features an oil-modified formula for improved durability while still drying quickly and cleaning up with warm water.
This finish has a clear satin sheen, providing just a touch of gloss plus easy cleaning and maintenance. Ideal application occurs in 77-degree temperatures and 50 percent relative humidity. To apply, simply use a synthetic bristle or foam brush, or a roller, and use thin coats.
Each coat should take 2 hours to dry, after which Minwax suggests a light sanding with 220-grit sandpaper, removing the dust, and applying again. Floors coated with this Minwax product are ready for light traffic in 24 hours, furniture in 72 hours, and rugs in 7 days.
Minwax’s 13333000 Polycrylic water-based protective finish offers a lot to like in an inexpensive package. This product protects interior surfaces from foot traffic and other damage, yet it’s affordable enough to have on hand for touch-ups when needed.
Minwax features a satin finish for just the right amount of shine in most homes. It also requires a standard application process, including use of bristle or foam brushes, or a paint roller with a smooth sleeve. The first coat will dry within 2 hours, at which point Minwax suggests a light sanding and cleaning of the resulting dust.
After the appropriate number of coats for the given application have been applied, it hardens fully in just 24 hours. Cleaning up is just as easy, requiring simply warm water and a bit of soap.
DIYers who aren’t afraid to spend a bit more money for ingenuity and innovation should give Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish some thought. This product uses a special formula that reacts differently with oxygen than other polyurethane, providing easy use and increased performance.
This water-based polyurethane has a lot to offer. For one, the drying time between coats is 2 hours, but the time to fully cure is only 7 days, making it an attractive option. It’s also easy to apply with standard water-based polyurethane application methods, and it features improved flow, leveling, and build for a professional-grade finish.
High-traffic areas are prone to scrapes, scratches, dulling, and other undesirable marks, so it makes sense to use a formula like FBA 230031 from Rust-Oleum. This Varathane floor finish features a no-odor formula that resists scuffs, abrasions, and scratches to help protect floors in busy homes.
This glossy water-based polyurethane dries to a crystal clear finish, which is often preferred for new flooring installations. Application requires the same basic steps and tools as other water-based products: Clean the surface, apply with a brush or roller, and allow it to dry between coats (which should take 2 hours). This formula also emits no odor, so those susceptible to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) should check it out.
The sun can prove the worst enemy of wood floors near large windows. Minwax Water Based Helmsman Spar Urethane can beat standard polyurethanes at protecting the finish from intense sun. This product’s built-in UV blockers reduce the graying and fading effects on any material it covers, including flooring.
The spar urethane applies just like a typical water-based polyurethane. Ideal conditions are 77 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity, and users can apply the coats with a brush or roller with a smooth cover. Each coat takes around 4 hours to dry, at which point a light sanding and cleaning are required before adding another coat. After the final coat, the finished surface needs 24 hours before normal use.
FAQs About Water-Based Polyurethanes for Floors
All this new information on choosing the best water-based polyurethane might have uncovered some new questions. The following section aims to answer those queries, since it’s a collection of some of the most common questions about water-based polyurethanes.
Q. How many coats of water-based polyurethane should I use?
Three coats of water-based polyurethane is the bare minimum to apply, but four coats is typically best.
Q. Do I need to sand between coats of water-based polyurethane?
Many of the best polyurethanes require sanding between coats. This is best done with 220-grit sandpaper, and it requires thorough cleaning of the surface between coats.
Q. How long does it take for water-based polyurethane to dry on hardwood floors?
Most water-based polyurethanes take between 2 and 4 hours to dry between coats. Full cure depends on the product, but it can take from 24 hours to up to 7 days.
Q: Can I use a roller to apply polyurethane?
Yes, but the roller cover has to be smooth to apply the polyurethane uniformly. Any hard-to-reach areas will still require brushing.
Q: Is water-based or oil-based polyurethane better for floors?
Both polyurethanes work well for flooring, but there are a few differences. Water-based polyurethanes dry quickly and exude lower fumes. However, oil-based polyurethanes last longer and require less maintenance.