The Best Water-Based Polyurethanes for Floors of 2022

When it comes to putting a durable finish on your floors without disrupting your entire life, quick-drying water-based polyurethanes are the way to go.

By Tom Scalisi | Updated Jun 2, 2022 8:51 AM

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The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option

Photo: depositphoto.com

Hardwood floors add beauty and value to a home, but they’re expensive. Treat them like the investment they are. Whether made of oak, bamboo, maple, or a variety of other species and materials, 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 this guide can help. It covers the top considerations to keep in mind and reviews some of the best options available.

  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
  4. UPGRADE PICK: Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish
  5. BEST HIGH-TRAFFIC: Varathane Clear Gloss Floor Finish
  6. BEST FOR SUNNY ROOMS: Minwax Helmsman Water Based Spar Urethane
The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option

Photo: depositphoto.com

What to Consider When Choosing the Best 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 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, the space in front of the couch or a hallway will have much more traffic than the living room corner. In busy areas, use a high-traffic formula to ensure lasting power.
  • 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, making it require more frequent refinishing.

Areas that don’t see much sunlight or traffic can 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 and Smell

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 some 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 an 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.

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

Drying and Curing Time

Most floor finishes require more than one coat (three is actually 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. 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 poly, 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 poly; 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.

Our Top Picks

This background on the best water-based polyurethane for floors should help shoppers understand how to choose the right product. To help streamline the process even more, refer to the following list. It includes some of the best options on the market as well as the shopping considerations to keep in mind when comparing them.

Best Overall

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option: General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat
Photo: amazon.com

For a hard, durable polyurethane, check out General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat. This product is available in gallon, pint, or quart sizes. This finish contains a UV stabilizer to protect the coating from intense UV rays on the floor’s surface.

Applying General Finishes is straightforward. Simply use a synthetic or foam brush, staining pad, or roller with a smooth finish. Each coat dries in 1 to 2 hours. General Finishes recommends applying this water-based polyurethane at a temperature no greater than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity.

Product Specs

  • Coverage Area: 125 to 150 square feet
  • Finishes: Satin, flat, gloss, and semi-gloss
  • Ease of Application: Easy
  • Curing Time: 1 to 2 hours

Pros

  • Durable
  • UV stabilizer
  • Multiple sizes and finishes
  • Easy to apply

Cons

  • Don’t apply over light paint
  • Not suitable for outdoor applications

Get General Finishes polyurethane for floors at Amazon, Sears, or Walmart.

Runner-up

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option: Minwax Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane
Photo: amazon.com

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

This finish 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 it, simply use a synthetic bristle or foam brush, or a roller, and use thin coats.

Each coat should take 2 hours to dry, after which Minwax suggests lightly sanding it with 220-grit sandpaper, removing the dust, and applying another coat. Floors coated with this Minwax product are ready for light traffic in 24 hours, furniture in 72 hours, and rugs in 7 days.

Product Specs

  • Coverage Area: 125 square feet
  • Finishes: Gloss, semi-gloss, and satin
  • Ease of Application: Easy
  • Curing Time: 4 to 6 hours

Pros

  • Eco-friendly
  • Multiple sizes
  • Multiple application types
  • Ample quantity

Cons

  • Apply in a well-ventilated area
  • May take 4 to 6 hours to cure
  • Requires 3 or more coats

Get Minwax polyurethane for floors at Amazon, Ace Hardware, or Sears.

Best Bang for the Buck

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option: Minwax Polycrylic Water-Based Protective Clear Finish
Photo: amazon.com

Minwax’s polycrylic water-based protective finish offers a lot in an inexpensive package. This product protects interior wood surfaces from 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, it hardens fully in just 24 hours. Cleanup is easy, requiring warm water and a bit of soap.

Product Specs

  • Coverage Area: 62 square feet
  • Finishes: Flat, ultra-flat, gloss, semi-gloss, and matte
  • Ease of Application: Moderate
  • Curing Time: 24 hours

Pros

  • Durable
  • Multiple sizes
  • Low-odor formula
  • Easy to apply

Cons

  • May require sanding between coats
  • Takes some time to dry
  • Provides less coverage area than similar products

Get Minwax polycrylic polyurethane for floors at Amazon, Ace Hardware, or Walmart.

Upgrade Pick

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option: Bona Mega Wood Floor Finish
Photo: amazon.com

DIYers who don’t mind spending more for 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, providing ease of use and increased performance.

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.

Product Specs

  • Coverage Area: 600 square feet
  • Finishes: Gloss and semi-gloss
  • Ease of Application: Easy
  • Curing Time: 7 days

Pros

  • Improved flow and levelling
  • Professional-grade finish
  • Contains low volatile organic compounds
  • Ample quantity

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Takes time to fully cure

Get Bona polyurethane for floors at Amazon, Sears, or Walmart.

Best High Traffic

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option: RUST-OLEUM Varathane Gallon Gloss Floor Finish
Photo: homedepot.com

High-traffic areas are susceptible to scrapes, scratches, dulling, and other undesirable marks. Varathane floor finish features a no-odor formula that resists scuffs, abrasions, and scratches to help protect floors.

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). Give it about 24 hours to completely cure. This formula emits no odor.

Product Specs

  • Coverage Area: 400 to 500 square feet
  • Finishes: Clear
  • Ease of Application: Easy
  • Curing Time: 24 hours

Pros

  • Resists scuffs, abrasions, and scratches
  • Ample quantity
  • No-odor formula

Cons

  • Comes in only 1 size and finish

Get Varathane polyurethane for floors at The Home Depot, Sears, or Walmart.

Best for Sunny Rooms

The Best Water Based Polyurethane For Floors Option: Minwax Water Based Helmsman Spar Urethane
Photo: amazon.com

The sun can be the worst enemy of hardwood floors near large windows. Minwax Water Based Helmsman Spar Urethane can beat standard polyurethanes at protecting the finish from intense sun. 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 4 hours to dry, at which point a light sanding and cleaning are required before adding another coat. After the final coat, the finished surface needs 24 hours before normal use.

Product Specs

  • Coverage Area: 125 square feet
  • Finishes: Gloss, satin, and semi-gloss
  • Ease of Application: Moderate
  • Curing Time: 24 hours

Pros

  • UV blockers
  • Moisture-resistant
  • Multiple sizes and finishes
  • Suitable for indoor and outdoor use
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Requires sanding and cleaning between coats
  • Some users report yellowing

Get Minwax Helmsman polyurethane for floors at Amazon, Ace Hardware, or Walmart.

Our Verdict

For a reliable water-based polyurethane for flooring, we recommend General Finishes Topcoat. This pick comes in multiple sizes and finishes, including semi-gloss, satin, flat, and gloss, with a built-in UV stabilizer to protect your finished floors from the sun. Alternatively, for a budget-friendly product, Minwax Polycrylic Finish is a low-VOC formula that comes in flat, ultra-flat, gloss, semi-gloss, and matte and dries to form a durable coat on wooden flooring.

How We Chose the Best Water-Based Polyurethanes for Floors 

We researched the most sought-after water-based polyurethanes for floors in their respective categories. 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.

While searching for the best water-based polyurethane for floors, the most popular products among users provided 62 to 600 square feet of coverage areas in matte, flat, ultra-flat, crystal clear, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes. Moreover, our top picks are easy to apply with a brush, roller, or staining pad.

While most of these top products require multiple coats, each has a fast curing time of 2 to 24 hours (although one takes 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 UV blockers, are no-odor or low-VOC formulas, or are eco-friendly.

FAQs

All this new information about choosing the best water-based polyurethane may have uncovered some new questions. In the following section, we list a collection of some of the most common questions along with their answers about water-based polyurethane.

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

Experts recommend three coats of water-based polyurethane at minimum, but applying four coats is typically best.

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

Many of the best polyurethanes require sanding between coats. Use 220-grit sandpaper, and clean the floor thoroughly between coats.

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 7 days.

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 still require brushing.

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.