July 24, 2024

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8 Best Water-Based Polyurethanes for Floors (2024 Guide)

14 min read

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Options

Photo: depositphoto.com

Hardwood floors add beauty and value to a home, but they’re expensive and can be hard to maintain with both low and high foot traffic. That being said, you’ll want to treat them like the investment they are. Whether made of oak, bamboo, maple, or a variety of other species and materials, your 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 which product will last the longest is a challenge, but we assembled this guide to help. We also spoke to flooring experts who lent us their in-depth knowledge on the best ways to protect wood floors. We cover the top considerations to keep in mind and review some of the best options currently on the market.

  1. BEST OVERALL: General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat
  2. RUNNER-UP: Minwax Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane
  3. BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Minwax Polycrylic Protective Clear Finish Topcoat
  4. UPGRADE PICK: Bona Mega Polyurethane Wood Floor Finish
  5. BEST HIGH-TRAFFIC: Varathane Water-Based Clear Gloss Polyurethane
  6. BEST FOR SUNNY ROOMS: Minwax Helmsman Water-Based Spar Urethane
  7. BEST COVERAGE: Rust-Oleum Parks Pro Finisher Clear Polyurethane
  8. BEST FOR LIGHT FLOORS: Minwax Ultimate Floor Finish
The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors OptionsThe Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Options

Photo: depositphoto.com

How We Chose the Best Water-Based Polyurethanes for Floors 

To get a better understanding of what specifically to look for, we interviewed Rotem Eylor, the CEO and Founder of Republic Flooring based in California. He says that “flooring that is lighter in color, like light wood floors, are better suited for water-based polyurethane because it dries more clear and won’t darken the appearance of the color.” His advice to shoppers is to “Consider the lightness of the floor, how fast you need it to dry, your experience with using water-based polyurethane, maintenance upkeep and cost. Generally it is more expensive than oil based.”

With this in mind, we researched the most sought-after water-based polyurethanes for floors in their respective categories. During our research, we discovered that the best options are determined by their coverage, finishes, ease of application, curing time, and the other special features included with top brands.

As we searched for the best water-based polyurethane for floors, we found that the most popular products among users provided between 62 and 600 square feet of coverage area in matte, flat, ultra-flat, crystal-clear, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes. Additionally, our top picks are easy to apply with a brush, roller, or staining pad.

While most of these top floor finishes require multiple coats, each has a fast curing time of 2 to 24 hours (although one does take 7 days to fully cure) for a scratch-, abrasion-, and scuff-resistant finish, even in high-traffic areas. Plus, select picks are safe for indoor/outdoor use, contain ultraviolet (UV) blockers, are no-odor or low-VOC formulas, or are eco-friendly.

Our Top Picks

This lineup of the best water-based polyurethane products for floors includes some of the best options on the market in a variety of categories. Keep reading through for more information on high-quality polyurethane floor finishes, as well as the shopping considerations to keep in mind when comparing them.

Can of General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat on a white backgroundCan of General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 500 to 600 square feet per gallon
  • Finishes: Satin, flat, gloss, dead flat, and semi-gloss
  • Ease of application: Easy
  • Curing time: 21 days

Pros

  • Durable enough to take wear and tear while protecting hardwood floors
  • UV stabilizer prevents yellowing and keeps light-colored floors looking great
  • Multiple sizes and finishes allow users to choose the best option for their needs
  • Easy to apply, allowing users to finish or repair floors without hiring a professional

Cons

  • Not suitable for outdoor applications; must be used only on interior wood surfaces

For a hard, durable polyurethane, check out General Finishes high-performance water-based topcoat. This finish, available in gallon, pint, or quart sizes, contains a UV stabilizer to protect the coating from intense UV rays on the floor’s surface and prevent yellowing or ambering.

Applying General Finishes is a straightforward process. Simply use a synthetic or foam brush, staining pad, or roller with a smooth finish. Each coat dries in around 2 hours. General Finishes recommends applying this water-based polyurethane at a temperature no greater than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity. Keep in mind that it’s not suitable for outdoor applications, as this is an indoor-only polyurethane.

Get the General Finishes water-based polyurethane at Amazon or Walmart.

Can of Minwax Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane on a white backgroundCan of Minwax Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 500 square feet (per gallon), 125 to 150 square feet (per quart)
  • Finishes: Gloss, semi-gloss, and satin
  • Ease of application: Easy
  • Curing time: Up to 24 hours

Pros

  • Eco-friendly water-based formula is oil-modified for durability with easy cleanup
  • Can be applied with a roller or brush and at warmer temperatures than other products
  • First coat dries in 2 hours, allowing users to apply an additional coat quickly

Cons

  • Must apply in a well-ventilated area due to its oil-modified formula

For the superior durability of a traditional polyurethane along with the easy application and cleanup of a water-based formula, this water-based, oil-modified polyurethane from Minwax is durable yet still dries quickly and cleans up with warm water.

The Minwax water-based oil-modified polyurethane has a clear satin sheen, providing just a touch of gloss along with easy cleaning and maintenance. Ideally, apply it on a day no hotter than 77 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity at no more than 50 percent. 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, and Minwax suggests lightly sanding the first coat with 220-grit sandpaper, removing the dust, and applying a second coat. Floors coated with this Minwax product are ready for light foot traffic in 24 hours, furniture in 72 hours, and rugs can be put back in 7 days. Keep in mind that this is an oil-modified product, so it’s best to use in a well-ventilated area.

Get the Minwax oil-modified polyurethane at Amazon (1 gallon), Ace Hardware (1 quart), or Walmart (1 gallon).

Can of Minwax Polycrylic Protective Clear Finish Topcoat on a white backgroundCan of Minwax Polycrylic Protective Clear Finish Topcoat on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 125 square feet (per quart)
  • Finishes: Flat, ultra-flat, gloss, semi-gloss, and matte
  • Ease of application: Moderate
  • Curing time: Up to 24 hours

Pros

  • Affordable price tag allows users to finish floors without a huge investment
  • Low-odor formula means users may be less susceptible to headaches
  • Easy to apply, even for tricky repairs and touch-up projects

Cons

  • Requires 3 coats before the wood surface is completely protected from scuffs and wear and tear

Minwax’s polycrylic water-based topcoat offers an impressive protective finish for an affordable price. This product provides scratch resistance on interior wood surfaces that can be caused by foot traffic and other damage, yet it’s affordable enough to have on hand for touch-ups when needed.

This Minwax product has a satin finish with just the right amount of shine. Follow standard procedures to apply it by using a bristle or foam brush 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 have been applied (typically three, per Minwax), it hardens fully in just 24 hours. Cleanup is easy, requiring only warm water and a bit of soap.

Get Minwax polycrylic polyurethane at Amazon, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, or Walmart.

Bottle of Bona Mega Polyurethane Wood Floor Finish on a white backgroundBottle of Bona Mega Polyurethane Wood Floor Finish on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 600 square feet
  • Finishes: Gloss and semi-gloss
  • Ease of application: Easy
  • Curing time: 7 days

Pros

  • Improved flow and leveling to make the product easier to apply
  • Professional-grade finish that’s durable enough for high-traffic areas
  • Contains low volatile organic (VOC) compounds to prevent reactions and headaches

Cons

  • It does take up to 7 days to fully cure, which is a lot of time for many

DIYers who don’t mind spending more for worthwhile innovation may want to give Bona Mega wood floor finish a try. This product uses a special formula that reacts with oxygen differently from other polyurethanes. This formula flows and self-levels, making it easier to apply and improving its performance over some other products.

This water-based polyurethane dries between coats in 2 hours, and it fully cures in 7 days. It’s easy to apply with standard water-based polyurethane application methods, and it features improved flow, leveling, and build for a professional-grade finish.

Get the Bona water-based polyurethane at Amazon.

Can of Varathane High-Traffic Clear Gloss Polyurethane on a white backgroundCan of Varathane High-Traffic Clear Gloss Polyurethane on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 400 to 500 square feet per gallon
  • Finishes: Clear
  • Ease of application: Easy
  • Curing time: 24 hours

Pros

  • Resists scuffs, abrasions, and scratches making it suitable for high-traffic locations
  • Self-levels for easy application and non-yellowing for a finish that looks good longer
  • No-odor formula dries to the touch in 1 hour for quick follow-up coats

Cons

  • Only available in 2-can sets from some popular retailers, which could be too much for some DIYers

High-traffic areas are susceptible to scrapes, scratches, dulling, and other undesirable marks. This Varathane floor finish was designed to resist scuffs, abrasions, and scratches to help protect floors, yet it boasts a no-odor formula. It’s also easy to apply, thanks to its ability to self-level, and it won’t yellow.

This glossy, water-based polyurethane dries to a clear finish, which is often preferred in new flooring installations. Application requires the same basic steps and tools as other water-based products: Clean the surface, apply the product with a brush or roller, and allow it to dry between coats (which should take 2 hours, though it dries to the touch in 1 hour). Give it about 24 hours to completely cure.

Note: Some retailers only have this polyurethane in 2-gallon sets, which could be more than some DIYers need.

Get the Varathane water-based polyurethane for floors at Amazon or The Home Depot.

Can of Minwax Helmsman Water-Based Spar Urethane on a white backgroundCan of Minwax Helmsman Water-Based Spar Urethane on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 500 square feet per gallon
  • Finishes: Gloss, satin, and semi-gloss
  • Ease of application: Moderate
  • Curing time: 24 to 72 hours

Pros

  • UV blockers prevent fading, yellowing, and damage to wood floors and other wood surfaces
  • The moisture-resistant formula makes it suitable for indoor and outdoor applications
  • Water-based, but it contains special oils that allow the finish to expand and contract

Cons

  • Not specifically made for floors so it may require semi-frequent touch-ups

Sun streaming through large windows can wreak havoc on standard polyurethane floor finishes, but Minwax Helmsman water-based spar urethane can stand up to the intensity. This product’s built-in UV blockers are designed to reduce the graying and fading effects on any material it covers, including flooring.

The spar urethane applies just like a typical water-based polyurethane at an ideal condition of 77 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent relative humidity. Apply the coats with a brush or roller with a smooth cover. Each coat takes around 2 hours to dry, at which point light sanding and cleaning are required before adding another coat. After the final coat, the finished surface needs 24 to 72 hours before normal use. Keep in mind that this product is not specifically made for floors, so it may require more frequent touching-up than other products.

Get the Minwax Helmsman spar urethane for floors at Amazon, Ace Hardware, or Walmart.

Bottle of Rust-Oleum Parks Pro Finisher Clear Polyurethane on a white backgroundBottle of Rust-Oleum Parks Pro Finisher Clear Polyurethane on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: Up to 700 square feet per gallon
  • Finishes: Satin, semi-gloss, and gloss
  • Ease of application: Easy
  • Curing time: 7 days (for 95 percent curing)

Pros

  • Comes in easy-open and easy-pour 1-gallon jugs for user convenience
  • Each jug can cover up to 700 square feet of flooring; suitable for large spaces
  • Seals pores and self-levels to make application to a wood floor easier

Cons

  • Requires 3 coats, but only 2 can be applied on the same day

DIY floor refinishers who want to get the most coverage from their polyurethane will want to consider Rust-Oleum Parks Pro Finisher water-based polyurethane. This protective coat comes in 1-gallon jugs that are easier to open and pour from than standard cans, and each jug can cover up to 700 square feet. It dries in as little as an hour, allowing the user to apply another coat sooner than oil-based finishes.

Pro Finisher polyurethane is designed to fill and seal the pores of hard and softwoods, protecting against chemicals and abrasions. It’s also nonyellowing, so users won’t have to strip and refinish their floors as often. It’s available in satin, semi-gloss, and gloss, with gloss being the more wear-resistant option. It does require a minimum of three coats, however, and only two coats should be applied the same day.

Get the Rust-Oleum water-based polyurethane at The Home Depot.

Can of Minwax Ultimate Floor Finish on a white backgroundCan of Minwax Ultimate Floor Finish on a white background

Photo: amazon.com

Product Specs 

  • Coverage area: 400 to 500 square feet per gallon
  • Finishes: Gloss, satin, semi-gloss, and matte
  • Ease of application: Easy
  • Curing time: Up to 72 hours

Pros

  • Provides a tough, durable finish that enhances light floors’ natural beauty
  • Won’t amber over time, keeping light-colored wood floors looking their best
  • Takes just 2 hours of drying time between coats and doesn’t require sanding

Cons

  • It can be difficult to find, so be sure to order enough for the given application area

Finishing light-colored wood floors takes the right product to avoid ambering and allow the natural look to shine through—and Minwax Ultimate Floor Finish might be just the ticket. This water-based polyurethane hardwood floor finish features a special formula that creates a tough floor finish while also resisting ambering over time, an ideal combination for light wood floors.

Ultimate Floor Finish is easy to apply with a brush or roller. It dries enough for a second coat in 2 hours, and it doesn’t require sanding between coats. This means DIYers can finish the entire floor in one day. Each gallon can cover between 400 and 500 square feet of floor space, and total dry time is between 24 and 72 hours. The biggest challenge is that it can be hard to find anywhere but on Amazon right now, so make sure to order enough.

Get the Minwax Ultimate water-based polyurethane at Amazon or Lowe’s.

What to Consider When Choosing a Water-Based Polyurethane for Floors

Whether finishing a new floor installation for the first time or refinishing existing floors, choosing the right water-based polyurethane is important. The following sections point out some of the most important considerations to keep in mind when shopping for these products. Read each section to help make an informed decision.

Durability and Longevity

Since it has a direct effect on its longevity, a polyurethane product’s durability is one of the most important factors to consider. Water-based polyurethane typically lasts about 3 to 5 years at 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 wear down much faster than areas of the floor that rarely see action. For example, a hallway or the space in front of a couch will likely have much more traffic than the living room corner. In busy areas, use a high-traffic formula.
  • Polyurethane of any variety used on floors in front of very sunny windows wears down much faster than in a shadier room. The sun’s UV rays break down the material, causing it to require more frequent refinishing.

Areas that don’t see much sunlight or traffic can see finishes that last 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,” to create a vibrant, beautiful floor finish. Floor refinishers can choose from high-gloss, gloss, satin, and flat polyurethanes.

Satin polyurethanes are typically ideal for flooring applications. These polyurethanes offer just a bit of shine, but they’re less likely to get dull in high-traffic areas. Moreover, they offer more traction than a high-gloss finish, making the floor safer to walk on without feeling rough or unpleasant.

Ease of Application 

Much like oil-based or exterior wood finishes, 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, or a brush. Before starting the project, keep these tips in mind:

  • The floor should be sanded smooth before applying the polyurethane (and often between coats).
  • If the surface has been covered previously with a coat of oil-based polyurethane, sand it off completely before applying a water-based polyurethane.
  • Ensure 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 should be used within specific temperature windows for proper drying and adhesion. The temperature typically should be between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but each product is different. Always check the label.

Odor

Water-based polyurethanes usually have less-intense odors than oil-based finishes. However, a few options may contain VOCs, so it’s a good idea to open windows for ventilation and wear a mask during application.

Drying and Curing Time

Most water-based finishes require more than one coat (three is typically the minimum), so drying time between coats is a major factor when choosing the best water-based polyurethane. Some of the most convenient products feature drying times between coats as short as 1 hour, although others might take much longer.

Final curing time differs among products. For example, polycrylic dries very quickly after application, but it can take longer than polyurethane to cure. Typically, these finishes may take only a few hours to dry 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 it makes them easy to clean. With a coat of polyurethane, even hardwood floors can take a thorough mopping without damage; just be sure not to use too much water or soap.

Keep the surface clean from dust and dirt that can scratch the polyurethane; otherwise, those particles can dig into it and wear it down. A regular sweeping should be enough. If it looks past its prime, apply a bit of floor wax to help restore some shine on the surface.

FAQs

All this new information about choosing the best water-based polyurethane may have uncovered some new questions. In the following section, we provide succinct answers to some of the most common questions that crop up about water-based polyurethane.

Q. How many coats of water-based polyurethane should I use?

Most experts and polyurethane manufacturers recommend three coats of water-based polyurethane at minimum. Some users may choose to apply four coats, but this could lead to lots of sanding and extended curing times.

Q. Do I need to sand between coats of water-based polyurethane?

Many of the best polyurethane for floors require sanding between coats. Use 220-grit sandpaper, and clean the floor thoroughly between coats. It’s best to sweep, vacuum, and use a tack cloth to remove any sanding debris.

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 21 days. Be sure to check each products’ instructions for a definitive answer.

Q. Can I use a roller to apply polyurethane?

Yes, but the roller cover must be smooth to apply the polyurethane uniformly. Any hard-to-reach areas will still require brushing, as the roller may be too big to fit or its round shape may not reach all the way into inside corners.

Q. Is water-based or oil-based polyurethane better for floors?

Both types of polyurethane work well for flooring, with a few differences. Water-based polyurethanes dry quickly and exude fewer fumes. However, oil-based polyurethanes last longer and require less maintenance.

Why Trust Bob Vila

Bob Vila has been America’s Handyman since 1979. As the host of beloved and groundbreaking TV series including “This Old House” and “Bob Vila’s Home Again,” he popularized and became synonymous with “do-it-yourself” home improvement.

Over the course of his decades-long career, Bob Vila has helped millions of people build, renovate, repair, and live better each day—a tradition that continues today with expert yet accessible home advice. The Bob Vila team distills need-to-know information into project tutorials, maintenance guides, tool 101s, and more. These home and garden experts then thoroughly research, vet, and recommend products that support homeowners, renters, DIYers, and professionals in their to-do lists.

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