The Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Stairs 

By thewoodmeter •  Updated: 06/17/23 •  6 min read

A wooden staircase significantly increases the aesthetic value of a home. It has that sleek and modern feel that carpet flooring can’t provide. As a homeowner, ensuring that your stairs are well-protected is essential. 

Polyurethane is one of the most popular finishes for wooden stairs. It acts as a protective plastic coat that keeps your stairs safe from scratches, scuff marks, water and chemical damage.

To enjoy the benefits of this finish, you must choose the right brand for your stairs. You don’t want to choose polyurethane that will dent, peel, or scratch easily.

In this article, we’ll discuss in depth the best water-based polyurethane for stairs. So be sure to read on to the end. 

Best Anti-Slip Polyurethane For Stairs

Best Overall
Bona Traffic Anti Slip
$170.00

Bona Traffic anti-slip is the industry standard for durability and safety when it comes to non-slip polyurethane for wooden stairs. This high-quality product is a lacquer-formulated polyurethane that boasts all the desirable features of Bona Traffic HD, with the added benefit of anti-slip agents. The anti-slip agents in Bona Traffic anti-slip provide superior traction and slip resistance, making it an excellent choice for stairs in homes with children, pets, or anyone who wants to feel confident walking up and down the stairs.

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Your safety and that of your loved ones matter. That’s why Bona designed a polyurethane finish that reduces the risk of accidental slips. 

Like other Bona products, this polyurethane has excellent build, flow, and leveling properties and can be applied using a roller or a T-bar. 

Quality comes with a price tag on it. This polyurethane is more expensive than most water-based polyurethanes. 

Pros

Cons

Best Water-Based Polyurethane For Stairs – Editor’s choice

Editor's Choice
General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat,
$45.00

General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat is one of the most durable finishes available on the market today. It's easy to apply with a T-bar, brush, roller or spray. has fast drying times allowing multiple coats within the day.

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It comes with a UV stabilizer that protects the finish from breaking down in sunlight. The stabilizer also protects your stairs from fading. 

The downside to this product is that it yellows when applied on white-painted surfaces. The manufacturer also warns that light-colored paints may also experience yellowing.

Pros

Cons

Best budget-friendly Water-Based Polyurethane for Stair

Budget Pick
Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane
$23.97

Varathane ultimate water-based polyurethane is another suitable finish for wooden surfaces. It offers maximum scratch resistance and does an excellent job protecting wood from wear and tear. This polyurethane is popular for its fast drying times. It dries to the touch in 30 minutes and allows a recoat in 2 hours. Additionally, it is easy to use and cleans up well with soap and water. 

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It is available in gloss, a sheen that leaves your stairs looking clean and polished. It also dries clear and has excellent stain resistance. All these features allow the natural beauty of wooden stairs to shine through the finish.

Pros

Best Poly for Stairs 

Bona Mega ONE Satin
$101.99 ($0.80 / Fl Oz)

Bona Mega One is a water-based wood finish with an oxygen-crosslinked formula. The formula makes this product easy to use. It has exceptional build, flow, and leveling properties. If you apply it correctly, you’ll get a clean, smooth finish.

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Pros

Cons

Best Wipe-On Polyurethane For Stairs 

Water-Base Wipe-On Polyurethane
$25.99

While wipe-on poly may not be suitable for full projects it's still very ideal for small projects. This poly is also great for touch-ups and maintenance as it is the easiest poly to apply and dries remarkably fast.

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The downside to this product is that it requires more coats since it is thinner than regular polyurethane. It also tends to cause yellowing when applied to lighter woods like pine

Pros

Cons

Different Types of Polyurethane

There are two types of polyurethane finishes, oil-based polyurethane and water-borne polyurethane.

Oil-based polyurethane uses mineral solvents as the base for carrying polyurethane solids. On the other hand, water-based polyurethane uses water as its base. 

A while back, oil-based polyurethane finishes were the industry standard for durability. However, in recent years, water-based polyurethanes have proved to be just as durable as oil-based polyurethane finishes. 

Let’s see how the two products compare.

1. Eco-Friendliness 

Oil-based polyurethane contains more volatile organic compounds than water-based polyurethane. Prolonged exposure to these VOCs can have severe effects on health. On the other hand, water-based polyurethane finishes contain fewer VOCs and are therefore safer. 

Oil-based finishes have a pungent smell, you and your pets should vacate the house during the application process.

On the other hand, water-based polyurethane has a non-offending odor and allows you to remain in your house during the application process. 

Verdict: Water-based polyurethane is safer and less toxic 

2. Drying Times 

Although oil-based polyurethane requires fewer coats than water-based polyurethane, it takes longer to dry. One coat of oil-based polyurethane can take up to 8 hours to dry. That means it can take up to 2 days to complete 3 coats of this finish. 

Water-based polyurethane is popular for its fast-drying times. With each coat drying in 2-3 hours, it is possible to complete your finishing project in a day. 

Oil-based polyurethane takes around 30 days to cure while water-based polyurethane cures in 7 days fully.  

Verdict: Water-based polyurethane dries and cures faster than oil-based polyurethane.

3. Ease of Application 

Water-based polyurethane dries faster than oil-based polyurethane. As a result, it is much harder to work with than oil-based polyurethane. The fast drying times mean you don’t get a window to repair any mistakes that arise during the application process. 

Since oil-based polyurethane takes longer to dry, it is easier to do repairs if you notice some mistakes. 

Additionally, water-based polyurethane has a thinner consistency than oil-based polyurethane. It, therefore, requires more coats than its oil-based counterpart.  

Verdict: Oil-based polyurethane is easier to apply than water-based polyurethane

4. Color 

Water-based polyurethane has a cloudy white color before application. After application, the polyurethane dries clear, a feature that allows the natural beauty of the wood to shine through. The finish remains clear and doesn’t darken or turn yellow over time.

Oil-based polyurethane has an amber hue to it. Its color tends to conceal the natural beauty of wood. Instead, it gives the wood a rich, golden glow that intensifies with time. In some cases, oil-based polyurethane darkens over time.

Verdict: Water-based polyurethane does an excellent job of highlighting the natural beauty of wooden stairs. 

Summary: The Best Water-Based Polyurethane for Stairs 

Polyurethane has all the features of an ideal finish for wooden stairs. Once cured, it acts as a plastic coat that protects wood from water and chemical damage. Some of the best water-based polyurethane for stairs include:

General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat-Best Overall Water-Based Polyurethane For Stairs

Bona Traffic Anti-Slip Polyurethane – Best Anti-Slip Polyurethane For Stairs

Rust-Oleum 200041H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane – Best Value for Money

Recommended reading

Best way to apply water-based poly
Non-Slip Polyurethane for Wooden Stairs
Best water-based poly for high-traffic areas

thewoodmeter

We are a team of woodworking experts specializing in floor and wood finishing. In thewoodmeter we share floor installation and floor finishing hacks and how-tos.