Myths and Comparisons Between Water-Based and Oil-Based Finishes

Many people would, without a doubt, agree on the fact that hardwood flooring brings so much beauty, cosiness, and elegance to every home. A big part of the appearance of hardwood flooring and the atmosphere it creates plays the finish of the floor. Besides enhancing the wood's beauty, the main mission of the wood floor finish is ensuring protection and preservation of the initial condition and appearance of the floor will last for years.

Therefore, a layer of high-quality finish is necessary. However, there are a few options when it comes to wood floor finishes and you may be wondering how to choose the right one for your floor. There are two popular types of finishes most of the wood floor owners opt for - water-based and oil-based. There are some distinct differences between these two we will share more about below in order to help you make the best decision for your project.

How oil-based and water-based finishes differ - main aspects.

Drying Time

No matter the type of finish of your choice, a couple of coats are necessary for the best results. At least two coats of finish will ensure lasting and hard-wearing protection for your floor. However, there is a significant difference between the drying time of water-based and oil-based finishes and this is something you need to keep in mind, depending on how soon you want to use the floor. 

In a nutshell, water-based finishes are thinner, which means they take less time to dry completely. With a couple of coats of water-based finish, you will be able to walk on the floor within up to 6 hours, which means you will be able to use the room on the same day of refinishing the floor. Much different than water-based finishes, oil-based ones are significantly thicker and a single layer of them takes around twelve hours to get dry, which means you need to wait overnight for two layers to dry out and you to be able to use the room. 

A common myth is that the longer the finish takes to dry, the better and stronger protection it ensures. In fact, drying time has nothing to do with the protective power of the finish. Both oil-based and water-based provide lasting and hard-wearing protection. Both types of finishes create a protective barrier that preserves the natural state of the wooden floor while deflecting scratches, dents and marks on the surface of the floor.


Many people associate the process of the finish application with a really strong smell. In fact, there is no way to avoid the smell completely, no matter what type of finish you are using for the floor. However, water-based finishes are known for having a less intense odour, unlike polyurethane finishes. Water-based finishes have the least smell out of all finish options on the market, which makes them overall safer for the household. 

In comparison, oil-based finishes have a significantly stronger smell. During their application, using a respirator is necessary and good ventilation in the room should be ensured. You will find out that the smell stays for longer in the house. Overall, it is recommended for the family to leave the house when specialists apply oil-based finishes. Pets should not be left in the house too. When applying a water-based finish, respirators are not necessary and everyone can remain in the house during the process. 

Of course, you need to keep in mind that besides not very pleasant, the strong smell is definitely not the issue. When it comes to wood floor finishes, what can be particularly dangerous and harmful is the high content of VOC's. VOC's are emitted into the environment and can also be the trigger of different health issues and allergic reactions. When it comes to VOC's, normally water-based finishes contain fewer amount of them.

There is a common myth that the fewer VOC's in the water-based finishes make this type of wood floor finishing products an eco-friendly choice. Fewer VOC's are definitely a selling point that water-based finishes benefit from, however, it does not make water-based finishes an environmentally friendly choice. In addition, water-based finishes do not last as long as oil-based finishes, which means you need to reapply them more often. 


The thickness and hardness is a very important factor you want to consider when choosing the right finish for your hardwood floor since the main purpose of finishes is being strong and hard-wearing enough to protect the wooden floor. Of course, the thickness and hardness of a finish highly depend on how many layers of it are applied on the surface of the floor. You can assume that more layers of water-based finish will be required for achieving better thickness since this type of finish is thinner. However, usually, you won't need more than two layers in low traffic areas of your home. 

A common myth is that oil-based finishes are the best choice for high traffic areas since they are thicker. In fact, oil-based finishes are still a great choice for areas of your home that are used a lot, but still, if you want to opt for water-based finishes for high traffic areas and ensure lasting and hard-wearing protection, you can do so, simply make sure there are more than two layers applied. However, keep in mind that even a lot of layers of a thick finish will not protect the floor from all sorts of issues and imperfections. Therefore, make sure to protect your floor as much as possible and avoid potential risks for the floor to be damaged.


Of course, the cost of a product is a very important factor whenever you are making the decision what type of finish to choose, especially if you are working with a more limited budget. In general, water-based finishes tend to be significantly more expensive than oil-based finishes. In addition, you need to consider that water-based finishes should be renewed more often as they do not lose as long as oil-based finishes, which adds up even more to the overall price of having a floor finished with a water-based product.

A common myth is that paying more for your wood floor finish means you are getting better quality. In fact, you get what you pay for can be said of wood floor finishes too. Suspiciously low prices usually mean poor quality. However, there are still a lot of great quality products that won't break the bank and cost you a little fortune. So if you are on a tight budget, make sure to make good research before you rush to buy a product with the promise of great quality, long-lasting and hard-wearing power.