Oil-Based Poly vs. Water-Based Gym Floor Finish

Oil-based vs. water-based sports floor finish

There are so many options when it comes to hardwood floor finishes when you’re finishing a sports floor. One of the most basic choices comes down to whether you’re going to use oil-based poly or a water-based finish.

Or perhaps you think it’s just not possible to finish a gym floor with a water-based product! Let’s put that myth to rest and give you an overview of the pros and cons of using each type of finish on a sports floor:

Oil-based gym floor finishOil-based poly vs. water-based sports floor finish


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Lasting durability — Oil-based polyurethane finishes are renowned for their durability. The consensus typically is that water-based finishes just aren’t as durable as oil-based finishes. A floor coated in an oil-based poly finish also doesn’t have to be recoated as frequently as one coated with a water-based finish.

Traditional appeal — This type of finish will give you a traditional appearance because it’s been used on so many floors for so many years. As of right now, the simple fact is that oil-based polyurethane finishes are the industry standard, especially when it comes to gym floors. However, water-based alternatives are gaining traction in the market.

Longer dry time in between coats — When applying an oil-based finish to a floor, you typically have to wait (more than 12 hours and for many products 24 hours) in between coats. Depending on the product, the final cure for an oil-based polyurethane can take up to a full 30 days, before which time the finish is extra susceptible to marring. This can be a long time for some people, especially when you’re dealing with sports floors that may endure a lot of heavy use before the finish is fully cured.

Slight amber tint — Most oil-based finishes add an amber tint to the floor. Some people prefer oil-based finishes for this reason, since it adds a richness to the floor’s appearance and a depth to the wood grain. If you’d rather preserve the original color of a white maple floor, a water-based finish is your best bet, as they tend to go on clear.

Water-based gym floor finish

Applying wood floor finish with roller

Less VOCs — Water-based finishes contain less VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than your typical oil-based polyurethane finish. When working on a floor near a vulnerable population (such as a gym floor in a school), this is vital to consider because you’re impacting the health of the people around you with the products you apply to the floor.

Goes on clear — If you want to preserve the initial appearance of your floor, water-based is the way to go because it applies in the form of a clear coat over the floor, as opposed to oil-based products’ often slightly amber tint. This is helpful in a situation if you are planning to paint courtlines on the floor, because you won’t have to worry about the color of the finish conflicting with the paints in the future as the finish ages.

Dries more quickly but more coats needed — You only have to wait about 2-3 hours in between each coat of water-based finish. The overall cure time is also shorter than with oil-based poly finishes. Water-based finishes often take about a week to fully cure as opposed to a month with poly-based. However, you have to apply more coats of it a water-based finish to give the floor an appropriate level of durability––often, as many as four or five coats are recommended. Note that we strongly recommend only applying two coats of water-based finish in one day to achieve the most thorough cure.

Consumer popularity and expansion of options — As consumers increasingly see the importance of taking an eco-friendly approach to the floor installation process, manufacturers are responding by offering new water-based products. For example, Basic Coatings offers StreetShoe, which is a line of extremely durable water-based finishes. These products are especially great for gym floor applications because they achieve a 90% cure in 24 hours and they can hold up to a lot of wear and tear. The StreetShoe 275 variety has a lower VOC count and can be recatalyzed after the initial use.

More eco-friendly — Water-based finish is considered more eco-friendly than oil-based finish because they emit less VOCs. Some manufacturers like to take the sustainability of their products one step further than that––for example, Vermont Natural Coatings makes the packaging of their already eco-friendly PolyWhey products 100% recyclable. Additionally, in situations where the finish uses a single-component formula (such as PolyWhey), it has a shelf life of up to a year after you open it, meaning that there’s less waste involved in using it.

Which one do you prefer?

Weigh in in the comments below. No matter which team you’re on, we can provide. We carry both water-based and oil-based sports floor finishes.

Click here to browse our selection of gym floor finishes from manufacturers like Basic Coatings, Bona, Vermont Natural Coatings, and more.

4 thoughts on “Oil-Based Poly vs. Water-Based Gym Floor Finish

  1. Wade Shipman

    I have a question about stripping the floor. I’ve seen where many people use a sanding disc with their buffer to ‘sand’ the floor before applying new wax or sealant, are there other options besides sanding? For example years ago we used a non-water based product to strip the gym floor first and then mop it down with the same product to produce a clean floor ready for new wax or sealant. Do you know of any product like this that can be used?

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      Hi Wade,

      Thanks for your question.

      Typically a urethane coated wood gym floor is screened with a buffer so it can be recoated with urethane. Normally gym floors that are wood are not waxed.

      The process of mopping finish normally refers to an acrylic wax, most of the time this type of product is used on VCT tile floors. Acrylic wax and water base urethane are often confused

      but acrylic wax is stripped and re-applied with a mop, while a water based urethane is screened or sanded and applied with a t-bar.

  2. Dale Chabino

    i’m curious to know if either of these products would be suitable for a butcher block counter top that is NOT going to have a great deal of food touching it, especially within about 90 days of applying. The wood is beech and perfectly sanded with 400 grit. If so, what would be the recommended method of application?

    1. City Floor Supply Post author

      Hi Dale,

      I have a butcher block Island table that we use as our kitchen table and I put Street Shoe NXT on it. It is great for clean up and has been wearing really well.



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