oil vs water-based color difference

Is Oil Based or Water Based Finish Better on Wood Floors?

When it comes to choosing what type of finish to use for your floor it’s important to know the facts, but the facts can be confusing when you can ask 10 wood floor guys and they all tell you the finish they use is the best and you shouldn’t use anything else. So is an oil-based or water-based finish better on wood floors? Here is some unbiased, objective information about oil vs water-based finishes for wood floors. Believe it or not, this is a vast topic. The purpose of this article is to give a cursory overview. I realize this requires making some generalizations. If you have more specific questions feel free to reach out. 

Color of Wood Floor Finishes

Color is one of the most apparent differences between the two finish options, as demonstrated in the featured image above. Water-based is your finish if you want a light floor that won’t “yellow” over time. To deepen or enrich the natural beauty of medium to dark floors, you may choose an oil-based product. If you want to make your floor look raw or unfinished, the only option is water-based. 

Cost of Wood Floor Finishes

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “so and so says he’s been using oil for 35 years and you’ll never find a better finish!” I smile to myself and think, “that’s because so and so will never spend the money to buy a gallon of water-based finish.” Depending on the type, water is 2-3 x’s more expensive than oil-based. If your contractor sells labor and materials separately, you have an opportunity to save money going with oil. Usually, however, guys just want to convince you that theirs is the best and hope you never realize that it’s also the cheapest. 

Scratch Resistances of Wood Floor Finishes

Oil’s scratch-resistance is low compared to water, period. Most people find this counterintuitive because they are conditioned to think about oil and water-based paint and most think oil is better. It stinks really bad so it must be more durable right? No, not right. If you don’t believe me, finish a board with oil-based poly and one with water-based then perform your own scratch test. 

Chemical Resistance of Wood Floor Finishes

It becomes important here to differentiate between the different types of water-based finishes. They can be categorized as good, better, and best.  I place single-component water-based finishes in the good category. This just means you apply the finish to the floor without adding anything. Two-component water-based finishes are in the better and best categories. These finishes consist of a Part-A and Part-B that mix together before you apply them to the floor. Oil is much more chemically resistant than single-component water. Oil is probably more chemically resistant than 90% of the water-based finishes in the 2-component category, but 2-component water is almost comparable in this area. What does this mean for you? If pet urine is part of your life, or you spill a lot of acidic stuff in your kitchen and it sometimes sits a while before you clean it up, then an oil or 2-component water-base finish is what you’ll need.

Polymer Build of Wood Floor Finishes

Oil builds more so it looks like there is more finish on your floor, but is generally softer and less scratch-resistant than water-based. Water has a thinner mil-thickness to its finish layers so it can leave the floor looking “thirsty” rather than a smooth glass-like surface. Both looks can be desirable depending on what you are trying to achieve. 

Dry-time of Wood Floor Finishes

There’s no comparison here. Water generally takes 2-3 hours to dry and 4-7 days to fully cure. Oil generally takes 12 hours to dry and 14-30 days to fully cure. If the contractor rushes dry times with oil, then it’s possible the floor will never cure because there are solvents trapped under layers of finish that cannot be released. 

The smell of Wood Floor Finishes

There is also no comparison here. I love walking into a freshly coated oil-based floor and feeling my eyes start to bleed from the lingering fumes, just kidding. Oil-based smells bad, and the fumes linger for a long time. Typically this means you will need to evacuate the space for at least a few days. The fumes from water-based are mild to undetectable. Many water-based finishes are UL GREENGUARD air certified. This is a fancy way of saying it’s not considered harmful for you to inhabit the space while the finish is applied. 

Sheen Options of Wood Floor Finishes

Both finish types are available in a spectrum of sheens including flat, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. Generally speaking though, oil-based is shinier. A satin oil will have a higher sheen level than satin water does. If you want a really glossy floor, oil might be the way to go. 

Hopefully, this helps you make a decision on what finish is best for you and your home. It’s important to note that these aren’t the only types of finishes available either. I like to keep all the different finishes as tools in my arsenal to help people achieve their desired outcome and turn their vision into a reality. It’s always a good idea to spend some time and effort on the front end of a project to make sure you’ll love your floors for years to come.  

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