Waterlox vs. Polyurethane For Hardwood Floors

Last Updated on October 6, 2017 by Kristi Linauer

This week, I’ve had several people ask me why I chose to use polyurethane on my hardwood floors when I refinished them this time after singing the praises of Waterlox for the last three years. So rather than answering all of those people individually, I thought I’d just gather my thoughts and put them in a post for those of you who are considering Waterlox based on my recommendation.

First, let me make it very clear that I was never paid by Waterlox to use or promote their product. I spent weeks prior to us closing on our house researching various products for sealing hardwood floor, and I decided on Waterlox. I ordered my products online and paid full price just like anyone else.

So let me break down the pros and cons based on my personal experience for each of these products.

waterlox vs. polyurethane for floors

The pros of using Waterlox on hardwood floors

I was drawn to Waterlox initially for three reasons. First, it’s a tung oil product, and tung oil has been used to seal hardwood floors for a very long time. With Waterlox, you get the benefit of the beauty of a floor finished with tung oil, plus the long-wearing durability of the hardeners that they use in their proprietary mix.

Second, Waterlox is a penetrating sealer, so it really gets down into the wood to protect it. The first coat basically soaks right in, and part of the second coat does as well, so you’ll find that the sheen of the finish is very uneven at that point. It’s not until you build up the finish with a minimum of three coats that you’ll get an even sheen on the floor.

Because it’s a penetrating tung oil product, you really do get a different look and feel from it than you get with a polyurethane, which just sits on top of the wood and forms a plastic-like coating on the wood. It’s a quality that’s hard to explain, and you probably can’t even tell the difference in pictures, but in person there’s definitely a difference. This is what my entryway, living room and music room floors looked like back in September 2013 right after I finished them with Waterlox.

DIY refinished hardwood floors - original 65-year-old oak floors were hidden under carpet for 30+ years

But ultimately, the thing that made me choose Waterlox three years ago is that ability to repair scratches without having to refinish the whole floor.

You can read more about that here.

The reason that’s possible is because when you add a new layer of Waterlox over an old layer, the new layer basically reactivates the old layer, and the two chemically bond together as one layer. Because of that, you can also recoat your entire floor with a new coat of Waterox without having to sand first (as long as you’ve never used any kind of waxy cleaner on the floor). Just move out all of your furniture, spot sand any scratches if necessary, clean the floor with TSP, add a new coat, and your floors will be good as new.

So the ability to do spot touchups was the final (and most important) selling point for me.

The cons of using Waterlox on hardwood floors

The main con to using Waterlox on your floors is simply the amount of time it takes. Each coat takes 24 hours to dry before recoating, and you need a minimum of three coats. Once you have applied all of your coats, you need to be gentle with the floors for at least seven days. I’d personally recommend only foot traffic (with clean socks) during that time. They say you can replace furniture and rugs after 7 days, but the last time I did a recoat on my living room and entryway floor

…I waited the seven days to replace the rug and furniture, and the rug still left marks all over my floor. So I’d recommend waiting even longer — two weeks if possible. But even at that, Waterlox takes 30-90 days to fully cure, so during that time, you need to be relatively careful with your floors.

Another big drawback with Waterlox for me, and one that I found over the last three years that I really didn’t want to live with, was the orange color it turned my red oak floors. Waterlox has a very definite amber color to it when it’s first applied, and it turns even more amber over time. But of course, the way it affects your floor depends completely on the type of wood. If you have a type of wood that’s just naturally beautiful on its own, and doesn’t need any kind of stain to make it pretty, AND that has a natural color that can stand to be warmed up a bit with an amber tone, then it’s perfect. For my taste, that would be something like mahogany or walnut. Waterlox looks gorgeous on those woods.

But if you’re using it on lighter wood, like my red oak, or white oak, or pine, etc., then there will be a definite orange undertone. Some people like that and are fine with it. I learned after three years that I’m not one of those people. 🙂

You CAN use Waterlox with stain. There are two options for that. You can either stain the wood first, allow it to dry completely, and then add the Waterlox on top. OR, you can mix stain with your first coat of Waterlox and then follow up with two coats of clear Waterlox.

So why didn’t I do that this time around?

Well, in mind, once you start adding stain to the equation, you lose the main benefit that sold me on Waterlox — the easy spot touchups. I’m not saying it’s impossible. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But let’s take my particular floor for example…

I stained my floors with 50/50 mix of Dark Walnut and Special Walnut. That was pretty, but not quite dark enough for me, and I wanted the color evened out some. So if I had been using Waterlox, I would have added some stain to my first coat of Waterlox to even out the color and darken it a bit. Then I would have added two more coats of clear Waterlox.

Repairing any scratches and gouges in that floor would be a multi-day process — first the stain, then the stain/Waterlox coat, and then clear Waterlox over that. There’s nothing easy about that, so the addition of stain kind of ruins the main benefit of Waterlox in my mind.

And since the main benefit was gone with my addition of stain, I had little or no motivation to go through the long process of waiting 24 hours between coats, applying three coats, waiting two weeks to replace furniture, etc.

So this time around, I went with polyurethane…

The pros of using polyurethane on hardwood floors

I used Minwax Super Fast Drying Polyurethane For Floors in a satin finish. It’s an oil-based polyurethane. (I still don’t quite trust water-based polyurethanes.)

The main advantage of using polyurethane is the dry time/cure time of the product. The poly that I used dried and could be recoated in four hours. That means you can completely seal your floors in one day. Staining and polyurethaning can be completely done in two days. TWO DAYS. You can walk on it with socks in just a few hours. You can place furniture on it after 72 hours and rugs after 7 days. It takes 7 days to fully cure. That’s a fraction of the time that Waterlox takes to fully cure!

Polyurethane is also the industry standard for hardwood floors. Yes, it’s probably because of the convenience of the fast drying and cure time, but it wouldn’t be the standard go-to sealer for hardwood floors if it was absolutely terrible, right?

The cons of using polyurethane on hardwood floors

I’ve pretty much already mentioned the cons, but let me sum them up.

First, polyurethane is basically like coating your floors in a layer of plastic. It’s not really a penetrating finish, and just sits right on top of the floor. It does have a different look and feel to it than a natural tung oil finish (or any other wax or natural oil finish), but if you haven’t experienced both, you wouldn’t ever notice that.

Second, polyurethane is kind of finicky when it comes to recoating. Some polyurethanes have a window of time during which you can recoat without having to sand first. With the Minwax poly that I used, that window of time was 12 hours. If I waited longer than 12 hours, I would have had to sand the floors before recoating. The reason for that is that the individual coats of polyurethane don’t bond together to become one coat like Waterlox does. The layers of polyurethane are literally just individual layers. So if you let the first coat dry/cure too much, then you have to sand it to give that coat some “tooth” for the next coat to grab onto. If you don’t sand between coats, the polyurethane could literally peel off in layers in time. And what a headache that would be!

But again, you have to read the label. Not all polyurethanes are created equally. The one I used had a window of time that didn’t require sanding before recoating. Other polyurethanes will always require sanding between coats no matter how long you wait.  So READ THE LABEL and understand the requirements before starting.

And finally, if you do decide to recoat the floor in your room with polyurethane, it will ALWAYS need to be sanded first. You can do what’s called a “screen and recoat” which basically just scuffs up the surface of the polyurethane without taking off so much of the finish that it will affect your stained wood. Once the whole surface is screened, you can add a new coat of polyurethane.

Since I just finished my floors a few days ago, I can’t really compare the durability of the two products. Time will tell. But in the meantime, I’m really enjoying the fact that I no longer have orange floors.

refinished red oak hardwood floors - living room

Now just a word about Minwax. 🙂

Several of you asked, “Why did you use Minwax stain on your floor when you’ve said so many times that you don’t like Minwax?”

Fair question. First, I’ve never had a problem with Minwax oil-based polyurethane. It’s always been my go to polyurethane. I’ve used it for well over a decade, and I’m always pleased with the look and durability of it.

But as far as the stain goes, yes, I have been incredibly frustrated with Minwax stain in the past. But really, it’s not so much the stain as it is the wood that I generally use. Minwax is a penetrating stain. If you leave any of that stain built up on the surface of the wood, you need to wipe it off or it’ll take a very long time (sometimes days) to dry.

Penetrating stains are perfect for woods that are naturally beautiful — again I go back to walnut and mahogany since those are my favorites. Well, when was the last time you saw me make a project out of walnut or mahogany? Ummm…never. Those woods are incredibly expensive, so I generally stick with pine. Cheap pine. Well, in my humble opinion, pine isn’t a pretty wood. It has a lot of grain that turns an awful yellow/orange color when you use a penetrating stain on it. So for that reason, I never could get Minwax stains to look good on pine. (That’s my opinion, of course. Many people love the grain in pine. I’m not one of those people. 🙂 )

So since Minwax + pine never worked for me, I had to find other options. My favorite was Rust-Oleum wood stain (which I believe has been discontinued, unfortunately), because it wasn’t a penetrating stain. It was somewhere between a regular stain and a gel stain — not quite penetrating, not quite gel. But the point is that I could literally “paint” the stain onto the surface and cover up as much of the grain as I wanted, and even with the stain built up on the surface, it would still completely dry within hours. Gel stains are very similar, but most that I’ve tried are way too thick for my liking.

All of that to say that my issue has been less with Minwax stain and more with the fact that I’m generally building with cheap pine that looks awful (again, in my opinion) unless the grain can be at least partially disguised with a product that sits on the surface of the wood rather than completely soaking in and highlighting all of that grain.

My floors are red oak. And while they have loads of grain in them, oak grain doesn’t turn yellow/orange when stained. It turns dark, and I’m okay with that. I actually like oak grain on a floor, especially an old floor like mine.

So anyway, those are my thoughts on Waterlox vs. polyurethane, and also on Minwax stain. If you have your own Waterlox vs. polyurethane experience and thoughts, I’d love for you to share them so that people searching for this information can hear others’ experiences.

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  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Good information. I’m getting ready to seal my oak floors and I’ve been researching products also. I was seriously considering the polyurethane because of the fast drying time. We just don’t have time for the long curing time of the other products. Thanks for the review. It helped me make up my mind.

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      February 9, 2019 at 6:10 pm

      I had this same experience with Waterlox on hickory- way too yellow for my taste, although I like it’s protective penetrating properties. I’m at a loss of what to try with hickory.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Great post. My own experience with wood has been limited to furniture, old pieces handed down through the family. After “scrubbing” off the old wax layers, and sanding, I always finished them with tung oil. I didn’t know Waterlox contained tung…now all your posts make sense. Thank you.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 11:04 am

    I thought your Waterlox floors were pretty but using the stain with the poly makes them look very rich. Thank you for the information.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 11:28 am

    What a long and thorough answer…great help to many who are thinking of doing this….

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Very informative. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Carla from Kansas
    February 3, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Will this poly turn yellow over time?

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      February 3, 2017 at 11:52 am

      It depends on the wood/stain color that it’s used on. Any oil-based clear coat will change color over time. But the color difference over time will depend on the species of wood and/or the stain color. In my bathroom, I used oil-based Minwax polyurethane over the stained wood (pine) countertops. They were very dark to begin with after staining. I’m sure the color has changed in the 18 months since it was polyurethaned, but there’s no yellow to it at all. Where you’ll see the yellowing over time is on lighter woods, like unstained pine. Those will turn more amber over time.

      • Reply To This Comment ↓
        Marianne in Mo.
        February 4, 2017 at 5:11 pm

        I agree. We once put polyurethane on two unfinished pine chests, and over time, they got more orange. We eventually stripped them and painted them white, but again used poly. Within 3 years we were stripping the yellowed “white” paint and redoing them. At that point, we switched to waxing them. Poly does yellow as it ages!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 11:50 am

    I love your “new” floors; they really are a much richer color. I think this post is a good explanation of the products you use, one being a tung oil and resin lacquer and the other being plastic. In your comments regarding the Minwax stain I noticed you didn’t mention that you seem to be a faithful user of wood conditioner before staining which makes a difference in the outcome.

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      February 3, 2017 at 11:53 am

      Oh yes! I should have mentioned that. I do love my wood conditioner, and it’s even more important with a penetrating stain.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    I think your new floors are beautiful! My hubby does a lot of scroll sawing, also makes small things, jewelry boxes, end tables, etc, and he uses a lot of pine wood (because it’s cheap) and he uses polyurethane over all his stains.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Mrs Mike
    February 3, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Rustoleum stains are now under the Varathane label, with the same color names! You can see this on their web site as well. I recently had a “find” a can to do a touch up. It’s carried by some Home Depots, but they’ll ship it to the store for free if yours doesn’t carry it (which is what I did). Thought you might want to know!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    Such a helpful post, since I have a major flooring project coming up. Thanks for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful reply to all our questions.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Rebecca B
    February 3, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Thank you Kristi for the very informative post! But what is the TSP that you use to clean the floor?

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      February 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      I think it stands for trisodium phosphate. You can get it in the paint department at Home Depot, and I’m sure Lowe’s carries it also. It’s used to clean various things.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Many thanks for clarifying these questions! I never realised that the orange colour of your floors was at least partly due to the Waterlox. As I don’t like orange either, I’ve now ruled out Waterlox as a possibility in the future. It’s a pity because repairing spots would have been great (I try to ignore the spots we’ve inherited with our house and created since living here) but I don’t want that colour and don’t see me waiting for weeks to put furniture back in again either. have a great weekend and do admire your floors a bit more 🙂

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Linda Moore
    February 3, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for you time & effort explaining all of this…it was a great help.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    It’s hard to argue against tung oil. Fine furniture refinishers use it.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 3, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    I completely understand everything in your post. However, I have pine floors (a softwood). I used a stain and then polyurethane in the living room and dining room. It looks good, but damages easily. I painted the kitchen floor (after caulking between all the boards). I am much happier with the durability of the painted floor.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Karen Savage
    February 3, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Very nice post! Thanks for sharing this valuable information!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    February 4, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Great article! Filed for when I get to lay wood floors someday!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    September 21, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    I used Polyurethane and it does NOT sit on top of the wood. It penetrates the wood and leave a really wonderful finish.

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      September 21, 2017 at 5:14 pm

      The singular purpose of polyurethane is to form a protective TOPCOAT on the wood. I now have polyurethaned floors as well, and I can assure you that it sits on top of the wood, which is why you can get a scratch in the polyurethane TOPCOAT without scratching the wood.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    January 12, 2018 at 9:42 am

    I’m a new convert to Waterlox. We just used in on 8 wood french doors, 3 transoms and about 300 board foot of v-groove boards for a ceiling. Awesome stuff. I’ve used other kind of finish and this my new favorite. Very easy to work with. I don’t like sanding between coats or the scratches in other finishes or trying to repair said scratches. My 2nd favorite is lacquer. Applies and wears similar to Waterlox. Waterlox makes a UV product as well, good-by Helmsman Spar. I used Waterlox’s True Tone for my base coat to give the wood some color then top coated with either original or the marine formula if exposed to sunlight. Best stain results I ever got on pine, still some dark areas and reverse grain but no splotches or muddy areas.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 14, 2019 at 9:07 am

    A word for Waterlox for old and historic homes. We chose it because our 170-year-old floors just won’t stand up to complete sanding many more times. We can freshen the Waterlox without removing more wood. Also, there is a depth to a Waterlox finish that you do not see with poly. Our floors are so beautiful that we often have delivery people tell us how great they are. We find the warmth of the tone looks really great with grey walls and white trim, it kind balances the slight golden/orange cast.