I would like to know if water-based polyurethane is as hard a finish as oil-based poly. If so, which brands are recommended?
I have heard mixed info on this, but I have recently switched to water-based poly almost exclusively. It seems the same to me, although I don't make bartops. I really like that it dries to the touch in under 10 minutes.
I have all brands and, using a brush, they all seem very close(including the el-cheapos). Hydrocote has one that "ambers" a little, like oil-based.
I usually tint the first coat of water-based poly with Trans-Tint amber liquid dye to give it some color.
If you are going to use a waterborne I recommend Varathane; it is a floor finish which does not become cloudy and seems to hold up pretty well to abrasion, but not chemicals or liquor -- like all waterbornes.
There are waterbornes which are just as good as their solvent-based counterparts; what's missing is the acceptance of the users of these products, who must adjust their systems and techniques when switching to water-based products.
By the way, these high-durability, water-based polys are not products you can buy at the hardware store. At least, not yet.
Like all tools and materials, some brands are better than others. I can tell you that I have seen and have run some tests on a variety of coatings, and there are definitely waterborne polys on the market that equal the performace of their oil-based cousins. There are also some that clearly fall below the typical oil-based poly.
Another respondent made mention of cross-linked waterbornes. These typically perform on par with their equivalents, i.e., acid cats and conversion varnishes. Again, there are quality differences between brands, and some are outstanding.
For whatever reason (and there are many) the quality and endurance range of waterborne poly coatings is currently wider than that of the oil-based ones.
Incidentally, the waterborne revolution in the U.S. was led by the flooring industry, and some of the best products still come out of that sector.
Comment from contributor C:
As the previous writer points out, the waterborne polyurethane revolution was pioneered by the wood flooring industry. I would also note that the top of the line waterborne wood floor finishes cannot be bought in a retail store and I doubt they will ever be available in that location. Therefore, I would be very hesitant to use anything that came out of a box store. Waterborne finishes are much more expensive and have a high learning curve. Invariably, the complaints ususally are a result of poor application or working with waterborne finishes in the wrong parameters.
Since I live in Georgia, I am not under any pressure to use the more expensive waterborne products. However, I use nothing but waterborne products because of the exceptional durability, phenomenal drying and curing times and because they make for a much safer and healthier work environment. I feel very confident that in years to come, the question most contractors will be asking is why it took them so long to put these products in their product line. They are worth every dime you pay for them.