Q & A: Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane

PWE151018_Poly500pxQ: I plan to finish a kitchen table with polyurethane for durability. Should I use water-based or oil-based poly?

A: If you’re looking purely at durability, then an oil-based polyurethane is still superior, but only marginally. There used to be distinct differences between water- and oil-based polyurethanes when it came to durability. Today, the differences are fairly minor.

Oil-based poly will be slightly more resistant to scratches, moisture and heat when compared with water-based poly.

So, why use water-based when oil-based offers improved protection? There are three primary considerations: color, odor and drying time. Some woodworkers dislike the yellow cast oil-based polyurethane puts on white woods, such as maple. In general, a water-based polyurethane will not add color to the wood and will preserve the wood’s natural tone. On woods such as cherry or walnut, this can be a disadvantage, because a straight water-based finish can make the wood look cold and uninviting. That’s why finishers often use a seal coat of dewaxed shellac to impart color and warmth before they put on a water-based finish. Another consideration is odor. Water-based polyurethane will give off little if any odor compared to oil-based poly—a real issue if your finish room happens to be in your basement. Finally, water-based poly dries a lot faster, giving dust less time to settle out of the air into your finish.

2 thoughts on “Q & A: Water-Based vs. Oil-Based Polyurethane

  1. Brian

    Have used the water-based finishes and glad of it. They ‘lay’ better, have quicker dry times and are much less restrictive to those with . . . nose sensitivities. Here in our shop we’ve done the research, tested several variations of several brands and now prefer GENERAL FINiSHES, Enduro-Var. A great product.

  2. Lon

    You should list price as a consideration too, since the water-based polys are usually (always?) more expensive. Maybe just a little more expensive in the Varathane brand, but in Minwax the water-based is almost twice the price (48/gal vs 26/gal), and you almost need a second mortgage to buy General Finishes water-based polys (72-98/gal).

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