I didn't know that water-based polyurethane was available as an alternative to oil-based until I saw it today at the store. I am refinishing a vintage stair banister and some surrounding trim. I wonder if I can expect equal (or better) outcomes if I use that or should go with the good old that has proven in the past in similar applications.

  • What's the "oil-based-paint" tag for?
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 16:10
  • @MonkeyZeus don't be pedantic
    – amphibient
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:02
  • I'm not, the tag is misleading for anyone that likes to target and answer questions about oil-based-paint. Might not be a huge issue on DIY but it's a huge faux pas on Stack Overflow.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:05
  • There is no oil based poly tag
    – amphibient
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:12
  • At 300 rep you can create new tags yourself. Don't let my pedanticism stop you :-)
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:16

4 Answers 4


I've been prejudiced toward oil based polys for years, but having used water based polys on some projects that weren't all the important, I've been impressed. Water based is much less toxic, easier to clean up, more environmentally friendly and actually does a pretty good job. Seems to dry quicker and more solidly than oil based. It also seems to sand easily between coats. Being water based, it does tend to raise the grain on the first coat, but that's easily sanded down with fine sandpaper. I won't be using oil based poly anymore.


Because you used the word "vintage" I assume you care a little about the historic value and/or appearance of this, and while it's very much a matter of taste, I'd make a few recommendations:

  1. Water-based is much easier to work with and, unless it's for a floor, kitchen table, or such, I don't like using oil-based.
  2. Oil-based has a different look that you might find more "historical", and even more so if you use laquer or shellac instead of poly.
  3. Experiment on an inconspicuous area if you can.
  4. Join the Facebook Group "Historic Home Renovations". Post pictures there of your existing woodwork. Ask the question. The group is full of people who've done this many times and will recommend very specific products and brands (which is generally frowned on here).

I don't recall where I read this but oil-based polyurethane tends to build up gunk as the years go on. This is from humidity and people touching the finished product.

Apply 2 coats of oil first and then 1-2 coats of water for a durable gunk-free finish. I recently did this for some handrails and it came out great! Never apply in reverse; don't put oil poly on top of water poly.

Oil poly has always been revered as more durable so this gives you the best of both worlds.

Oil poly is useful for bringing out an amber glow in unstained wood.

The only downside of using just water poly is that if you don't stain the wood beforehand then it just has a cold and lifeless finish.

I refinished a bedroom floor 2 years ago and used 4 coats of water poly after staining and I really have no concerns about its durability.

  • Your comment about the cold finish is probably dependent on wood species. I've been using water-based satin poly on some white oak, and it comes out absolutely beautiful. When I used the same on pine, I would agree, it did not great. Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 16:17
  • @PhilippNagel "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" familyhandyman.com/article/…
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 16:21
  • That's a lot of coats, how about 1 oil, 1 water?
    – amphibient
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 16:47
  • @amphibient That's totally up to you. If the wood is thirsty then the first coat of oil will just get absorbed into the wood and you won't have a protective layer of poly until the second coat. Also if the grain raises then you'll want to sand it down lightly (220 grit) and re-apply. If your poly is riddled with bubbles then you'll want to lightly sand them down and re-apply. One coat of water poly will probably be fine if you do the oil properly. Judge the project as it progresses. Sounds like you're new to wood staining.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 16:58
  • 1
    @amphibient oil-based or water-based stain? If water-based then your only option is water-based poly, fyi. Yes, staining would seal up some of the pores. Apply the first coat of poly, let it dry, touch it and judge for yourself.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:07

If I have a choice I will always choose the water-based sealer over the oil-based one. Years ago when water-based polyurethane entered the market it may have not preformed as well compared to it's counterpart.

I've found it can't be differentiated from oil once it has cured. The sheen's are exactly the same.

There is less toxic VOC's from water-based sealer.

Water-based sealers dry quicker thereby allowing more coats in less time.

There easier to apply because their less viscous. They "level" better so brush strokes are less noticeable.

Lastly, they clean-up with soap and water. There's no need to wash your hands with petroleum-based cleaner.

  • Use a barrier cream and things don't stick to your hands anyway - a professionals trick...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 14:38

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