5 Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors – (The Ultimate Guide)

What is the best water based polyurethane finish for floors

How it happened and when it happened, nobody knows. But all of a sudden, water-based polyurethane became the go-to finish for hardwood floors.

As a result, leading manufacturers churn out different variations each year, making it hard to decide the best water-based polyurethane for floors.

Hard, but not impossible.

We’ve spent hours researching the best water-based polyurethane for floors. This includes my personal experiences, analyzing previous customer reviews, the official brand websites, and other trustworthy resources.

Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors

The Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors Reviews (Updated List)

Based on our research, here are the best polyurethane for floors.

1. Best for Commercial Applications–Bona Traffic HD

Starting off, we have arguably the most durable water-based polyurethane for hardwood floors. As you can see from the name, it is commercial-grade, meaning it lays on thick and hard. This is a delightful upgrade from a company that can’t stop delivering winning waterborne products.

After Bona made the Traffic, they decided to take their game to a new level with the Commercial HD. It is almost like they sensed the competition was getting too close and so decided to top themselves (but General Finishes begs to differ).

When this finish fully cures, it is scuff, scratch, and chemical resistant. That is very important because water-based polyurethanes have been known to change color when repeatedly soiled by pets.

The one downside about this product compared to the others is the price, as it is twice as much as some of the other options. But given its commercial use, you can’t expect any less. 

This product is also certified by GreenGuard for indoor air quality. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions rate of this finish is very impressive. At 125 g/L, this outperforms all other polyurethanes.

To make the most out of this water-based finish, you need to strain the product properly, or you might end up with chunky white residue on your floor. Even though it comes with a strainer, Bona recommends adding a layer of fine cloth like a pantyhose to filter small particles better.

PROS

  • Scuff, scratch, and chemical resistant
  • Dries quickly
  • It can be used on a wide range of floors
  • Very low VOCs

CONS

  • Quite pricey
  • It needs an extra level of straining



2. Best for High Traffic Areas–General Finishes Water-Based

Sale
General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat, 1 Gallon, Satin
  • Plastic Gallon Jug - due to an metal can shortage, product may come in a plastic jug instead of a metal container
  • The hardest, most durable consumer polyurethane top coat on the market today
  • Dry Time Between Coats is only 1 to 2 Hours
  • Interior use only

For a very long time, General Finishes made the hardest and most durable water-based topcoat on the market. But since the arrival of the Bona Traffic HD Commercial, General Finishes may have lost its place. Of course, they still insist theirs is the most durable.

Whether it is or not, this is still an exceptional product with so many worthy features. The first thing that users will appreciate is the fast-drying time. You can apply the second coat in as little as 1 hour (in optimal conditions), which is ridiculously quick, even for a water-based polyurethane.

This topcoat comes with a UV stabilizer, which prolongs the life of the finish and also prevents the wood underneath from becoming darker.

While this water-based topcoat dries clear, General Finishes recommends that you don’t use it on bright white paint. Many users have reported their white painted furniture began to yellow after they applied this coat.

In their defense, this is not the only waterborne product that has had this report. Some theorize it is a chemical reaction of some sort. Whatever the reason is, just steer clear.

Previous users are also debating whether the poly can be used on chalk paint. Some have gotten great results, while others haven’t. The key takeaway is to ensure you follow the manufacturer’s directions when applying this product.

PROS

  • Very fast drying time
  • Has UV stabilizer
  • Very hard and durable finish

CONS

  • It should not be applied over white paint
  • Quite expensive



3. Best Hybrid Polyurethane–Minwax 710330000 Poly

Minwax 710330000 Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane, gallon, Satin
  • Lower in odor than traditional solvent-based polyurethanes
  • Protects and adds beauty to interior wood surfaces including woodwork, furniture, doors, cabinets and floors
  • Dries quickly
  • Cleans up easily with warm water
  • Recommended uses: woodwork, furniture, doors, cabinets, floors

At first glance, the name of this product is quite confusing. What does it mean to have a water-based, oil-modified polyurethane? Better yet, what kind of outcome can you expect?

When Minwax came up with what many thought was a crazy idea, they happened to strike the perfect balance between the quick drying of water-based polyurethane and the added glow of oil-based polyurethane.

In just two hours, this product is dry and ready for a second coat. Unlike some of its competitors, however, you need to sand it before applying the next coat. It also needs at least three coats.

Even though this topcoat dries clear, you may not want to use it on light-colored hardwood. Just like an oil-based polyurethane, it will add a bit of an amber tint to lighter colors, though not to the same degree as an actual oil-based poly.

Some people actually like the Minwax for that reason, because it makes the beauty of the wood pop.

Another benefit of being a hybrid is that it can be applied with a broader range of tools. You can use a synthetic bristle brush, a foam brush, or a lambswool applicator. All of these can also be easily cleaned with warm water when you’re done, making this a very convenient product.

PROS

  • It can be applied with a wide range of tools
  • Quite affordable
  • Dries quickly
  • It has little odor

CONS

  • It needs to be sanded between coats
  • It changes the color of light woods



4. Best for Residential Use–Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish

Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish Satin 1 Gallon
  • An oxygen-crosslinking polyurethane (OCP) waterborne formula.

Next, we have another popular product from Bona, but a more pocket-friendly version. However, just because the Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish is cheaper than the Traffic HD doesn’t mean it is ineffective.

The Bona Mega is perfect for interior use and is excellent for high-traffic areas in residential and commercial buildings.

As you would expect from this manufacturer, this product dries quickly, ready for a recoat in 2 to 3 hours. It is also a very durable product that will protect your floors from scuff marks, scratches, animal stains, and melting snow.

Speaking of snow, you can apply this waterborne poly during the winter, and it still dries relatively quickly, which is something you can’t get from oil-based polyurethane.

Bona Mega is also certified by GreenGuard for indoor quality, and it emits very little odor, making it convenient to use in homes with kids and pets. Unlike the Commercial version, this is a one-component finish, so it is not sold with a separate hardener. Instead, it relies on an oxygen-crosslinking polyurethane (OCP) formula to deliver its outstanding results.

Another great thing about this product is that it comes in four sheens, which is rare for a water-based polyurethane. You can get it in gloss, semi-gloss, satin or extra matte.

PROS

  • Easy application
  • Low odor
  • Quick-drying time even in winter
  • Comes in four variants

CONS

  • Not as scratch resistant as cheaper brands
  • Makes white floors yellow



5. Best Value for Money–RUST-OLEUM FBA 230031 Varathane

RUST-OLEUM FBA 230031 Varathane Gallon Gloss Waterborne Diamond Floor Finish, 1
  • The product is Gallon GLS WB FLR Finish.
  • Elegant design and Finish
  • The product is manufactured in United States
  • Varathane Gallon Gloss Waterborne Diamond Floor Finish
  • Water-based finish for hardwood floors

Finally, we come to another household name that delivers exceptional durability yet at an affordable price point.

Varathane is known for creating great finishes that stand the test of time, are easy to apply, and are fast drying. This product ticks all of these boxes and then some.

When applied, you get a crystal-clear finish that makes you forget that you had to apply four coats to get there. However, given how quickly it dries, the extra coat might not be a problem.

Rust-Oleum suggests you wait for the first coat to be dry and hard to the touch. This can take anywhere from an hour to four, depending on your location and how well you follow the instructions.

Given that this water-based polyurethane has superior scuff, adhesion, and scratch resistance, you would expect there to be very few negative reviews, and you’ll be right. The most common bone of contention is that the can says it is ‘No Odor”.

For the sake of those new to polyurethanes, it is important to clarify that no odor means it is considerably less than most oil-based and water-based polyurethanes. It is not actually odorless. So, you’ll probably need to keep the room ventilated and wear a respirator when applying it.

The only other negative is that you should avoid using it on white paint, as it causes discoloration. However, as mentioned previously, this is common with most water-based polyurethanes.

PROS

  • Very little odor
  • Quick-drying time
  • Easy to clean
  • Superior scuff, adhesion, and scratch resistance

CONS

  • It shouldn’t be used on white or pastel paints
  • Requires at least four coats



How Reliable is Water-Based Polyurethane?

If you have read several blogs and watched different woodworkers talk about polyurethane, you may have heard water-based poly is not as durable as oil-based polyurethane.

While this was once the case, it is no longer valid. Oil-based polyurethane is indeed thicker than water-based, but they both dry hard. Once cured, the level of scuff and scratch resistance they offer is about the same.

It then becomes a matter of how good the product is.

So, does that mean both types offer the same benefits? Not quite. Each type has its pros and cons, and understanding these will help you make an informed decision.

Advantages of Using Water-Based Polyurethane

Fast Drying Time

Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors
Image courtesy of Resin-expert

The first and arguably most significant advantage water-based polyurethane has over oil-based polyurethane is that it dries considerably faster. All of the products we reviewed can be dry and ready for another coat in as little as two hours, while some have been known to be dry in one.

This is unheard of for oil-based polyurethane. Even the super fast-drying oil-based polyurethanes aren’t dry for at least four hours, and that will be considered slow for a water-based polyurethane.

With such a quick turnaround, you can apply three or even four coats of a waterborne finish on the same day. Oil-based products, on average, can take only one coat a day and also need three coats. So, water-based allows you to finish the job in a third of the time.

You Don’t Always Need to Sand Between Coats.

One of the most frustrating parts is having to sand between coats of polyurethane during application. You first need to wait for the coat to dry, then sand it, which delays the project even further. In addition, having to sand a large floor space, whether residential or commercial, is labor-intensive and disheartening.

Thankfully, that isn’t a problem for most water-based polyurethanes, especially with the Bonas.

You can apply the next coat while the previous one is still a bit moist, as long as the surface is clean because water-based poly tends to adhere better.

Oil-based polyurethane typically needs to be abraded so that each coat sticks better. Still, even when a product doesn’t require sanding, it’s not worth the risk.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why water-based polyurethanes have become more popular.

Low Odor

Working for hours while wearing a respirator can be uncomfortable, but that is the best option when working with oil-based polyurethane. The smell can be so overpowering that some people said it made them dizzy, even in a well-ventilated room.

If you can’t stand strong smells, then water-based polyurethane is your only option. Some products like the Varathane and Bona Traffic HD are almost odorless, but even the others are not nearly as strong as oil-based alternatives.

A few oil-based polyurethanes don’t give off a strong smell, but they still can’t compare with these.

Low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are notorious for causing a wide range of medical conditions, including cancer. It is unfortunate that so many household products contain them, so they are virtually impossible to avoid.

However, it is possible to limit our exposure. One way to do that is to use water-based polyurethane instead of oil-based polyurethane. In fact, this is one reason why oil-based polyurethanes have been slowly phased out by manufacturers.

New regulations require household products not to exceed certain levels of VOC emissions. These levels can easily be met with water-based polyurethane.

Does not Change Color Over Time

What you get is what you see with water-based finishes.

Unless when applied on white paint, water-based polyurethane dries clear, and it remains clear for the lifespan of the finish. This is very different from oil-based polyurethane, which dries with an amber hue, and gets more yellow over time.

This means that if you are using a light-colored hardwood floor, the natural brightness of the wood won’t change when you apply water-based polyurethane. The same goes for dark-colored woods.

This makes water-based polyurethane the more dynamic option of the two.

Disadvantages of Using Water-Based Polyurethane

It is More Expensive.

The major knock against water-based polyurethane is the price. Cans of water-based topcoats can be as much as two to three times more expensive than oil-based alternatives. However, the difference is usually just a few dollars.

However, water-based polyurethane makes up for this in other ways. If you choose a product that doesn’t need sanding, you’ll save money here. You also get to finish the task significantly quicker, meaning you can move on to the next task.

With the proper application, therefore, using water-based poly could actually be cheaper.

Not as Stain Resistant

Water-based polyurethane has exceeded oil-based poly in many ways. Now, it might even be more durable. But the one thing it can’t seem to get right is stain resistance. 

When animals go to town on water-based polyurethane, it changes the color of the finish. Of course, this isn’t true for all products, but it is the case with a sufficient number. As such, some people argue that this type of polyurethane is not pet or child-friendly.

However, you can guard against this by reading reviews and buying better-quality polyurethanes.

Requires More Coats

How many coats of polyurethane is enough? Water-based polyurethane needs more coats than oil-based polyurethane because it raises the grain of the wood. As a result, you often need more coats to get a smooth finish.

When this happens, you may also need to sand between coats. However, due to the fast-drying time of the poly, it is still more efficient than oil-based polyurethane.

How to Choose the Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors

As you can see from the pros and cons, there is a lot to desire and to be wary of when choosing water-based polyurethane. Even though all of the options we provided are some of the best on the market, the following tips will help you choose the right one for you.

The location of the hardwood floors

The first thing to consider when choosing a water-based polyurethane is where you are going to be applying it. The location of the floors will tell you the strength of the poly you need and the sheen.

All water-based polyurethanes are indeed durable, but some are better suited for high traffic areas, such as the Bona Traffic HD Commercial and the General Finishes topcoat. High traffic areas are kitchens, entryways, and hallways.

For living rooms, studies, and low-traffic areas, you probably don’t need to spend the extra cash on these two.

The location of the floor will also help you choose the right sheen or luster. The four options are

  • Matte – suitable for high traffic areas, as it will hide any wear and tear better.
  • Satin – Like Matte, Satin is great for high-traffic areas.
  • Semi-gloss – Best for low traffic areas such as rooms used by adults not wearing shoes
  • Gloss-It makes the wood look shinier, and since it won’t see a lot of traffic, you won’t need to refinish the floor for at least a decade.

Some companies call matte flat, and some sell gloss as high gloss.

The higher the sheen, the more light it reflects and the more imperfections it shows. What the sheen doesn’t do is determine durability.

Not every product has a gloss finish, but they all have the rest.

VOC emissions

If you are concerned about your health and the environment, you should prioritize choosing a low emissions product. All polyurethanes are recommended to display the VOC level, although some companies try to hide them.

From our list, Bona Traffic HD has the lowest with 150 g/L. General Finishes flat sheen comes second with 170, which is just marginally less than the satin (172) and the semi-gloss (173).

Price

After you have narrowed down the best product for the usage area and the one least harmful to your health, the next logical step is to look at the costs.

It is crucial that this isn’t first because it can lead to disastrous consequences. As good as the Minwax is (the cheapest of the lot), it is not suited for commercial use. And as great as the Traffic HD is, it is a waste of money for a low traffic pad.

Besides the location and emissions, there isn’t much that separates these products, so anyone you choose will be excellent.

Drying time

If we were comparing oil-based polyurethanes or water-based polyurethanes from all over the market, this would be higher than the price.

But when you are comparing the best of the best, there really isn’t much to evaluate here. All of them deliver exceptional drying and curing time.

General Finishes has a slight advantage because it can be dry in as little as an hour, but so can the Minwax. However, even the slowest of the bunch can be ready for a recoat in three hours, which will still allow you to apply three coats in one day.

Ease of application

Whichever product you buy will be relatively easy to apply. But you can still learn how to apply water-based polyurethane to hardwood floors.

What sets them apart is if you need to sand between coats, how many coats you need, and the tools you can use.

Varathane requires at least four coats, and you also need to sand between coats. That’s a double whammy! It makes up for this with its superior drying time, but this is still a problem.

The Bona Traffic HD doesn’t need sanding between coats, but you first have to mix the two different components together and then go through the hassle of fine straining it.

Bona Mega does not require sanding between coats, although you can if warranted. It also comes in just one tub, making it the easiest to apply.

Final thoughts on the Best Water-based Polyurethane for Floors

It is so unfair that there can be only one, but the best water-based polyurethane for floors is the Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish. We were leaning towards the Traffic HD, but it is pretty expensive.

The General Finishes is also a worthy contender, but it is also more expensive than Bona Mega and you need to sand between coats.

Even though the Bona Mega only won one category, it performs well enough in the others to be crowned the best.

Let us know what you think of our list, or jump straight to our review of the best oil-based polyurethane for hardwood floors.

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