If you’re reluctant to have a detail and comparative discussion to find out which is best, it’s better to say that water-based polyurethane is the best finish for hardwood floors right now, though not unquestionably.
As we have seen from our experience that users sometimes become hesitant about which polyurethane to use on hardwood floors, and they do not always find experts to suggest them. For durability, professionals have long recommended oil polys for floor finishing, though they contain more VOC’s. But now, they are gradually getting fond of water based polyurethane for more safety and reliable durability.
Some waterborne options, for example, Bona Traffic HD, or Bona Mega, and Rust-Oleum have snatched the attention of industry experts and users recently. This article will help you understand more about water based polyurethane as floor finish.
Why Use It – Is Water Based Polyurethane Good for Floors?
Both oil and water based polyurethanes are smart floor protectors. But why do waterborne models are gaining more popularity over time? Simply because – easy application, fast dry, easy cleanup, eco-friendliness (low odor & VOCs), quick curing, no yellowing, very clear and shiny, natural beauty enhancement, and reliable durability.
These are a few of those qualities that played the role in making water-based polyurethane one of the best hardwood floor finishes . Although some say oil polys should be preferred for long durability, a few high-tech waterborne polys are challenging to their oil-borne counterparts at this point.
What is Waterborne Polyurethane?
Considering the content, we mean Waterborne Polyurethane Dispersions (PUDs). These are the coatings and adhesives using water as the primary solvent. Low VOCs and fast curing are their excellence with properties identical to solvent-based formulas. They are air-dried coatings and adhesives with applicability to flexible and rigid substrates like floors, fabric, plastics, leather, metal, paper, and shoes.
Top Water Based Polyurethanes – Shortlisted and Reviewed
We have an integrated research approach for every topic to analyze the product and bring the reality out of the box. In light of this, we learned that while waterborne polyurethane is good for many floors, historically it has never been considered the best finish for high-traffic spots. Oil-borne polyurethane, acid-cured finish, or aluminum oxide finish are preferred for the purpose.
However, with the advancement of technology, we have recently come across some excellent waterborne polyurethanes, specially designed for and effective in high-traffic spots. As of now, water polys are suitable to most of the floors. Choosing the right option for the specific floor is the tricky thing. However, the following shortlist (all are reviewed at the end of this article) will help you find the answer to the question “which is the best water based polyurethane for floors?”.
- Best Overall – Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish
- Best for High Traffic – Bona Traffic HD
- Long Lasting – Rust-Oleum Varathane
- Best Indoor (Bestseller) – General Finishes High Performance
- Best Indoor & Outdoor – Deft Water-Based Oil-Modified
- Fastest Curing – Minwax Ultra-Fast Dry
- Best for Natural Beauty – Varathane 200241H
- Best Single Coat – Rust-Oleum Triple Thick
- Best Marine – TotalBoat Gleam Spar Varnish
- An Exceptional One – Duraseal Water Based
Pros and Cons of Water-Based Wood Polyurethane Finish
The final step in finishing a wooden floor is applying polyurethane to protect and beautify the surface. The sheen may be chosen based on your preference, but choosing the type of finish demands justification. Like every wood finish, water-based polyurethanes have some advantages and disadvantages.
- Among positives, it includes eco-friendliness, health safety, fast dry time, clear outlook, wood grain and beauty visibility, and reliable durability.
- The negatives it contains are unavailability of rich amber glow, more transparent and prone to show the scratches, fewer solids, less lifespan, and a little expensive.
Indoor or Outdoor: Where to Use Waterborne Polys?
It is always better to apply water solvents for indoor wooden tasks, including floors. If it is an area with too much gathering, you can use high-grade water-based formulas. But when it comes to outdoor wood projects, we recommend oil-based solvents with high UV-resistance, aluminum oxide finish, or moisture-cure urethanes, considering the conditions.
What’s the Most Durable Finish for Hardwood Floors?
The Aluminum Oxide is the most durable finish for hardwood floors, a single application of which may last up to 25 years. For high-traffic floors or any surface that requires maximum protection against tear and wear, aluminum oxide is the best solution. It requires minimum maintenance throughout life, but touch up and refinishing is tough.
Dry Time, Curing Time – Water Polyurethanes
Regular dry time in between coats for standard waterborne urethanes is 2 hours to 4 hours. When the solvent is formulated with the fast-drying feature, in no way, it takes more than 2 hours. More precisely, the fastest-dry waterborne solvent takes 1 hour to less than 2 hours.
Curing is a different thing. Do not confuse drying with curing. Curing means being fully ready for use. Standard curing time for waterborne polys is between 24 to 72 hours, mostly dependent on temperature, humidity, weather, wood, and application process. But if you ask the safest benchmark for curing, we say 5 to 7 days.
How long does water based polyurethane last?
By “Durability” of polyurethane, we mean its performance (life) against scratch and peel. A mid-grade water-based poly is less durable than oil-based alternatives – 2 to 4 years at best. But if you apply high-grade water urethanes (expensive too) like Bona Traffic HD or Duraseal, expect significantly high durability- from 10 to 20 years.
How many coats of water based polyurethane should I use?
3 coats are standard for water-based polys, as long as it’s not a thicker poly like Rust-Oleum Triple Thick. For high-traffic spots, four or five coats are great. It is alright to apply a maximum of four coats in a day, considering the drying speed.
What’s the best applicator for waterborne urethanes?
Brush is the most suitable and used polyurethane applicator amongst all. But an enormous availability will probably feel you confused about what brush to choose. Fortunately, any brush with enough (dense) soft bristles such as Pro Grade Soft Bristles is a good choice for applying waterborne solvents.
Do you need to sand between coats of water polyurethanes?
Not always, but at least half the time, you will require to sand the coat of a waterborne solvent before applying the next one. Where the wood object has a smoother surface or the urethane has decent self-leveling, sanding may not be essential.
Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish – Best Overall
If you roam deep down the web researching this topic, you will notice that many sellers, experts, and product analysts have included this Satin floor finish from Bona on top of their list of best water-based polyurethane for floors! They have done so after adequate research and verification of its usefulness, not without reason or for the sake of paid marketing. We tried to cross-check the facts and finally have decided that it is good enough to get attention for specialty on floor-use, eco-friendliness, easy-applicability, durable performance, and overall value for the money, despite being a mid-grade product in this category. Thus, it is unlikely that experts could have recommended anything else when they have Bona Mega Floor Finish!
Much can be said, but we have basically included the most critical points. As said, it offers the best bang for your bucks, and all customers can afford it, even those with a lower budget. But the manufacturer did not compromise with quality to keep the price lower, though most products of this brand have 30% to 40% higher prices. You will get the intended outcome for sure unless you mess up while applying.
This polyurethane made following the tested and proven waterborne-formula is an oxygen-crosslinking agent, where the crosslinker is the atmospheric oxygen. Naturally, you don’t have to worry about mixing and toxicity, making it safe for kids and pets. It produces nearly no odor and causes insignificant or no breathing problems to the applicants. Although mid-grade, it offers a reliable result on high traffic floors too. But, we suggest using Bona Traffic HD or Bona Traffic for high traffic spots if you have no budgetary issue.
With a damn high refinishing quality, it will give your floor a bright, soft look like a brand new floor, even if it is too old. The floor will be non-slippery. If you don’t know – many call the Bona Mega best at revamping old floors.
You will feel no hardship to apply the solution on floors, as the instructions are pretty much straightforward. If you apply this, you don’t need to use any additional polish to shine the floor (but you are always free to apply wood floor polish to keep it shinier at any time later, and for that, you can consider the Bona Hardwood Floor Polish).
With this Bona Mega, you have an opportunity to choose from an array of options, such as satin, clear satin, gloss, semi-gloss, and extra matte. The waterborne polyurethane finish has no wasted finish – this claim from the manufacturer is quite right. And, it will probably impress you that it has a long pot life, pretty much eternal! It stays longer on the floor if appropriately applied, and you can avoid refinishing or refurbishing your floors often, which will save your time and money simultaneously. However, giving a full guarantee will be wrong in terms of high-traffic spots, and in that case, product number 3 of this list is the best solution.
Right way to apply Bona Mega
As already said above, the manufacturer’s instructions regarding application are straightforward. It is better to apply more than one coat, while three coats offer the best output. Start with removing moisture or humidity from the area where the polyurethane will be applied to the floor – don’t keep the doors and windows closed. Wear socks instead of shoes, as using shoes will leave marks on your floor permanently.
Open the pot, get the satin finish, mix nothing such as water, and apply the first coat to the floor using the best quality floor finish applicator. You can consider several options for the purpose, such as brush, roller, t-bar, pad, or foam. To dry, it may take at least 2 hours if you apply airflow, or a few hours more. It is very unlikely for the floor to be smooth after the first coating. Take a 400-grit screen & orbital pad, and sand for a while once the first coat is ready. Apply a second coat then, and for some floors (based on wood type and condition), this should bring the ultimate result. If it still does not look perfectly smooth, sand again before applying the third coat – things are perfect now!
Having no additive, whatever you chose from the array of options of this polyurethane, it will no way discolor the original color of woods (floors); instead, we notice it enhances the wood appearance with extra glimmer. Our experiment shows you can get it ready to walk within five hours of applying the last coat, although 24 hours should be your entry point. But, wait at least one week and let it fully cure before you start living inside the room or moving furniture on the floor.
How much area can you cover by 1 gallon Bona Mega?
Although the manufacturer says it can cover 600 square feet, we would say that the coverage is actually 500 to 600 square feet, or even rarely (due to the age, location, and structural nature of some floors) less than 500 square feet. We applied it on a light maple wood floor in a store room, which is more than 33 years old and had been neglected for years. It was close to 70-degree Fahrenheit when we applied, and our experience was a little different. We had to use 1 gallon to cover 504 square feet in the first coating and later used 1.2 gallons to give the next two coats, which may take some more less in your case.
We didn’t see any significant shortcomings. There were no bubbles left after brushing. And as said initially, we didn’t feel any eye burning or breathing difficulty for having low VOCs. Curing took the normal time described above.
It’s true that there are few complaints about curing this particular polyurethane of Bona that it remains relatively soft even after the prescribed time, resulting in scratches on the floor coating. We thought it was actually the result of not maintaining the right humidity or partial failure of following the instructions.
There is one more complaint that it does not last long. Actually, you will never get durability like Bona Traffic from it. The Rust-Oleum, second best choice in our list, is also more durable than this one. Where it is said that it is a mid-grade product, how do you expect commercial-grade durability from that! So, we think this kind of complaint is certainly not expected if you use it for less-traffic spots.
You can expect better returns than you expect from the Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish in proportion to the price you are paying. It is the best floor polyurethane unless you need a high-traffic solution. And one thing that we did not say yet, we know from experience that it is multipurpose, meaning you can use it for many other wood-related purposes even if you buy it for the floor.
Bona Traffic HD Commercial Floor Finish – High Traffic Spots
When it comes to heavy-duty, we believe you should straightly go for this one – Bona Traffic HD, the successor of Bona Traffic, with advanced features and an added pricing. While making our list, we were stuck in this place for a long time, wondering why we would actually put it at number 3, where it has all the qualifications to be number 1! In fact, it is the best polyurethane for hardwood floors in any condition when many hardwood floor finishes can not ensure the desired durability in high-traffic areas, such as restaurants, retail stores, and classrooms. But the fact is – most places are not high-traffic, and it’s not mandatory to apply heavy-duty and expensive thing where it is not necessary. In the end, budget and area-specific utility was the point of consideration for what we have placed it at number 3 instead of 1.
With the highest durability among the existing options, it belongs to commercial-grade polyurethane. It is a 2 part product – polyurethane and hardener. When you mix the hardener in it, the solution becomes ready to be damn hard and super durable when dried. It looks more natural and cleaner, similar to that of Rust Oleum Varathane, when applied compared to other heavy duty agents. But it has less coverage than the previous two. With 1 gallon, you will probably cover an area between 250 to 350 square feet. However, it is also recorded that, based on the desired coat-thickness, some finished 1 gallon for only 200 square feet or even went up to 450 square feet.
As it rarely tends to get yellow, it is the best choice for maple-wood floors, along with white and gray wash stains. It should be your first choice if you want to ensure maximum lightness in your oak floors. Not only is it the least-yellowish, but also it contains the lowest possible VOCs, less than 125 in specific (if you don’t know the Bona Traffic has less than 150). It has less odor, but not entirely odorless. It has received the GreenGuard certification means it is safe for children, pets, and the entire environment.
It dries faster, as it is applied after mixing with hardener. With proper humidity and airflow, 4 hours should be enough as the drying-interval between two coats. And, within 24 to 48 hours, the floor should be fully ready – strong and scratch-proof. After that period, you can even move furniture and other heavy objects. Bona Traffic HD is available in several forms – satin, semi-gloss, and extra matte.
We are a bit hesitant about what exactly to call it an advantage or a disadvantage that it cannot be used individually without Hardener! To be on the safe side, we are recording it as a downside of Bona Traffic HD. If you sand and screen the floor a bit inappropriately than required, you may end up with a bad result, as this finish seems not to stick well to floors with even a bit contaminants.
Using sanding paper with different grits, from 24 to 100, and screening is challenging if you are not an expert. That means the application is not easy, which you enjoy with many other polyurethanes. But you can still avoid this with the guideline it includes. You should not also believe in the self-level capacity of the Bona Traffic HD. Instead, maintain your own mechanism and care for that. But, we’ve found no downside regarding the product quality.
Bona Traffic HD simply outperforms all polyurethanes, including its predecessor Bona Traffic, regarding strength, fast-drying, wood texture, and of course, durability. No doubt it costs more than others, but it is worth the money. Go through the best floor polyurethane reviews, or ask any flooring professional – you will find they have the same saying! Why then late if some more bucks is no more a problem?
Rust-Oleum Varathane Floor Finish – Long Lasting
We had to start from where we ended up the analysis of our first choice, meaning the versatility. Our second best choice is an absolute allrounder, although we have enlisted it here for having specialty on hardwood floor finishing. Practically, you can apply the Rust Oleum Varathane on any wooden object from floor to ceiling. It is applicable to both interior and exterior floors, while you may consider the Rust-Oleum Ultimate for interior floors.
Being manufactured in the USA, it is quite a favorite choice for those who prefer US-manufactured (originally) products. If you ask experienced carpenters to tell names of their desired water-based hardwood floor finishes, you will most likely get more 80% who will include at least one from Rust-Oleum in their list, and this particular one from that brand shall prevail over others ( saying again, for floor use particularly).
You can approximately cover an area between 450 and 550 square feet with 1 gallon of Rust-Oleum Varathane for first coating, while the second and third will require half of a gallon. The process is pretty much similar to as described above. Furthermore, it comes with such a clear apply-guideline from the producer that you can never mess up while applying. It is pet safe and eco-friendly. Drying time between two coats is quicker around four hours, and you will get a hard-rock floor surface within five to seven days.
The satin waterborne finish offers a crystal clear outlook, keeping the wood texture lively, which will seem more elegant compared to a bit cloudy finish of Bona Mega. In addition, the non-yellowing excellent scuff helps the coat to ensure a glossier result. The abrasion resistance feature prevents easier flow of stains and other household chemicals over the floor. As regards durability, it is superior to other products in this list, including our top selection, but the Bona Traffic. That means you can apply it on high-traffic areas, where instructions say 4 coats. It is also a reliable choice to use on oil-stained paper floors installed over concrete.
We want to let you know what kind of negative experiences users have had before with our observation. There is no denying that this product has received relatively more negative comments (around 10% of all feedback) than the previous one (about 5% of all feedback) to date.
Some found it thinner than several other polyurethanes they had used, such as the Minwax’s Satin Water-based Polyurethane. Yes, they are right with their complaint. But, being thin does not reduce its durability; instead, we’ve noticed it performing pretty decently, though you should use more solution on high-traffic spots. What they tell about flat sheen seems to be not reasonably accurate in our observation.
It’s a surprise to us that some said it’s cloudy (they claimed they followed instructions, including right humidity)! If you can maintain humidity below 85%, this should give you a crystal-like result. But we still want to consider the complaint and tell buyers to be very precise on following the instructions. It is eco-friendly, but some of you might experience odor at the time of or after applying on your floors.
Perhaps you realize that the allegations that it has received from some users are worth ignoring. If you’re a carpenter or expert in this line, probably you will understand how common these allegations are! So, those should not be your deciding facts. Instead, think that the glossy elegance and durability (on high-traffic spots too) you are getting at half the price of our premium choice is merely awe-inspiring! It seems to be the right option for heavy-duty and long-lasting polyurethane at relatively low cost. And with that in mind, we put it in second place. But if money is not a problem, then, of course, go for the third one listed below.
General Finishes HP Topcoat – Best Indoor (Bestseller)
Compared to the options we have discussed so far, the General Finishes High Performance is different. Shortly, the former were just polyurethane, where it is a hybrid of polyurethane and acrylic, though both are water-based. It is unique with brilliant performance tracks, and therefore, is currently the bestseller in its category. Although we have enlisted it for floor-oriented tasks, it is quite a good option for other woodworks like building a table or refurbishing a cabinet.
The unique polyurethane combined with acrylic gives super toughness, water-resilience, and durability to your wooden floors and other applied spots. As stabilized with UV-resistance mechanism, the crystal clear solution protects paints and stains on your wood structures, in addition to ensuring the protection of wood-underneath. But, never apply the topcoat on white or bright white paints, which may result in yellowing. Light color paints are also free from the risk of getting slightly yellowish because of the substrate’s reaction.
You can cover an area around 400 to 500 square feet with 1 gallon High Performance Topcoat. It is fast-drying (takes 1/2 hours between two coats), non-flammable, and low-odorous, making it a smart alternative to traditional lacquers. But, do not use it on outer objects, as it is built for indoor use only. Last but not least, other than the yellowing complaint, we have nothing significant to identify its downside. Naturally, it has occupied the bestseller position, as it deserves.
Deft Waterborne Polyurethane Finish – Best Indoor & Outdoor
Although we’ve said before that water-based polyurethane offering a color like an oil-based polyurethane could be frustrating for some. The irony is, if you want a water-based polyurethane for outdoor use, it is safer to be oil-modified, primarily because of its UV resistance. That means an oil-modified water-based polyurethane may not be accepted by some users (though that may be compatible to indoor use) who want everything of pure water-based polyurethane (color and other features); but, they do not know that a pure water-based poly is not a right choice for outdoor. And, that’s the reason why we denied selecting an oil-modified option at number 6, as that was for interior use; but, now we are choosing an oil-modified option for this position, as it is for outdoor use.
The Deft Topcoat is built following the new water-based oil-modified technology with a specialty in outdoor functionality and a simultaneous capacity of indoor works. Its UV protection is excellent at weather resistance, particularly the harmful rays that damage the paint and surface of outdoor wooden floors, ensuring longer durability. Added self-priming feature helps a lot, as the user will require no sealer for better adhesion. Although it offers oil-oriented color, the Deft topcoat does not contain much VOCs and odor (don’t forget it is a waterborne solvent), so safe for the environment, pets, and children. Available at satin, gloss, and semi-gloss formation, and it does not make your floor surface yellow unless it contains white paint. Easy-to-apply on both exterior and interior floors, furniture, doors, windows, frames, and other wooden objects with pad, brush, and spray. We found no significant drawbacks of the product but seems to be not freely available, and you may need to wait for days after order.
Use of Waterborne Polyurethane Coatings
We’ve covered the most conventional use of water poly throughout the article – finishing wood floors. But the use is not limited to floors only! It includes leather surface, plastic, textile coating, vinyl coating, film coating, paper coating, graphic art, ball, rope and thread, ink, glass fiber, and overprint varnishing.
Touching Up (Patch) by Water Polyurethane
If the damage (be repaired) or stains are minimal, you may refinish only the damaged part, not the entire floor or respective wooden surface. Sanding down the area, cleaning with solvents (patches), and applying water polyurethane is what you can do. If a complete consistency in color and sheen is your concern, refinishing the entire surface is the only solution.
Waterborne Polyurethane Dispersions: Market Size
According to MarketWatch, the Global Water-Based Polyurethane Dispersions market is getting larger with the support from growing chemical and advanced material industries. The market was expected to reach over USD 2061 million by 2020, which came true. It is further forecasted to grow at a CAGR over 8% for the 2020-2025 period, which is truly immense.
Polyurethane vs. Polycrylic
Either oil-based or waterborne – Polyurethane can be any of the two, while Polycrylic is only waterborne. Polycrylic and waterborne polyurethane have minimal differences, considering the primary solvent chemicals; instead, they are similar in many ways. But regarding durability, some waterborne polyurethane significantly beat the polycrylic solvents.
But, oil-based polyurethane has quite a distinctiveness from polycrylic. Polycrylic dries faster but lasts much less than oil polyurethane. A project being built to last long should use oil-based polys. But if it is necessary to get the project done faster, polycrylic is the right option (be ready to compromise with durability). Polycrylic is less smelly, eco-safe, and does not tend to yellow. So, polycrylic should be your choice over oil-polyurethane, where you consider safety first.
Water-based polyurethane has never been the professionals’ choice. But it’s always been a suggestion from experts who have a serious concern about public health. By the combined effort of every stakeholder and technological advancement, waterborne polyurethane finish has become a massive industry across the world.
And it’s not just about that; it’s about ensuring adequate product quality and effectiveness to provide long-term protection. Now, being a proven savior for any wooden surface, including floors, experts highly recommend it.