Oil-Based vs Water-Based Stain (Which One is Better?)

When picking a stain for your wood, you’ll have to decide to go for an oil-based stain or a water-based stain. So, what’s the difference between both types of stains?

Oil-based stains are dissolved in oils. Stains that are advertised as oil-based use either natural or synthetic oil as the stain’s solvent. Water-based stains are dissolved in water, these types of stains use water as the stain’s solvent.

Oil-based stains usually have more additives in the stain coating than water-based stains. The additives are to improve the finish but they give oil-based stains a synthetic formula while water-based stains are more natural than synthetic.

This post reveals more about both stains including expert ways to decide which of the two you should buy. So let’s dive in.

Oil-Based Stains

What Is An Oil-Based Stain?

Oil-based stain is a type of finish where the particles and pigments are dissolved in oils, usually linseed oil. Oil-based stains usually have thick consistency and flow because of the oil-based nature. This also makes oil-based stains dry slow.

However, oil-based stains usually have the hardest finishes. Since the stain dries slowly, the paint pigments have more time to cure and harden causing the finish to be super hard.

Oil-based stains also offer glossy finishes. The stain is common on furniture and floors that experience heavy usage, foot traffic, and weight because it can handle the extra weight and tension.

Oil-based stains are known to seep deeply into wood grain giving the stain improved adhesion.

However, oil-based stains have a flaw. The stains usually have a high volume of chemicals and additives which causes fumes when the stain is applied. 


  • Oil-based stain penetrates the wood better. That makes it easier to apply.
  • It’s durable — since it takes more time to dry, paint particles have more time to bond and become more durable.
  • Repeals Water — Oil-based stains when dry have a glossy top layer. The glossy top layer repleas water. 


  • Oil-based stains are harder to clean. You need to use mineral spirits to properly clean it. 
  • Oil-based stain takes longer to dry. 
  • It has a shorter lifespan — you need to re-coat it more often. 

Water-Based Stain

What is a Water-Based Stain?

A water-based stain is a type of finish where the stain particles are dissolved in water. Water-based stains are usually thin and have a light flow. Since it uses water as its solvent, water-based stains dry quickly, usually within 30 minutes.

Water-based stains also dry hard but the top layer is usually prone to pet claw marks, pencil marks, and sharp edges. The stain can be easily applied using a paintbrush or a spray gun. Some painters even use a cloth to wipe on the stain.

When dry this stain produces a dry and textured finish that can be easily recoated without sanding.

These stains also reveal the best color. This is why water-based stains are common for changing the color of the wood grain. Some DIYers even regard water-based stains as a wood dye.

However, water-based stains have a flaw. The stain isn’t weather-resistant which means the stain isn’t great for outdoor use.


  • Water-based stain takes less to dry, You can re-coat within 30 minutes. 
  • Water-based stain is UV-resistant — it will retain its color for longer. 
  • It’s easy to clean it up — you can clean it with soap and warm water. 
  • Prevents moisture build-up on wood.


  • Not durable — since the stain dries fast, paint particles don’t have enough time to properly bond.
  • Doesn’t penetrate wood as well — there’s always a chance for water-based stains to peel off. 

So is water-based stain better than oil-based stain? Let’s find out by comparing both stains.

Water-Based vs Oil-Based Stains

To compare both stains, we’ll use the features of a good stain and see how both stains fare. 

The Stain’s Solvent (or Base)

Oil-based stains use oils as the solvent while water-based stains use water. The solvent is what gives both stains about 80% of their different features.

The Dry Time

Oil-based stains dry slower than water-based stains. For the stain to dry, the solvent in the stain has to be fully evaporated. Since water evaporates faster than oil, water-based stains will dry faster than oil-based stains.

On average, water-based stains dry enough for recoat in 30 minutes and the whole finish dries in less than 24 hours. Oil-based stains take about an hour before recoat and the stain can take up to 3 days to fully dry.

However, the cure time of the paint has little to do with the solvent and more to do with the atmosphere. So, the cure times of both stains may vary.

Scratch Resistance

Oil-based stains are more resistant to scratches than water-based stains. This is because oil-based stains have a glossy finish. The glossy top coat prevents scratch and claw marks on the oil-based stain.

Water-based stains are easily affected by scratches and marks since the finish is dry and without a natural sheen.

Strength and Durability

Oil-based stains are stronger and more durable than water-based stains. One reason for this is that oil-based stains take longer to dry so the stain has more time to harden than water-based stains.

Since oil-based stains are stronger, the stain can cope better with scratches, dents, and chipping making it last longer than most water-based stains.

Finish Type

Oil-based stains give a glossy finish while water-based stains give a dry and textured finish. The glossy top coat on oil-based stains is there because of the high oil content of the stain.

However, water-based stains often give a more colorful finish than oil-based stains.


Oil-based stains are water-resistant but water-based stains aren’t. Oil-based stains are usually water-resistant because of the top glossy sheen on the oil-based stain. Since water-based stains have no glossy sheen, the stain coating can easily absorb water.

Indoor or Outdoor Use?

Both water and oil-based stains can be used outdoors or indoors. You just have to pick the stain designed for interior or outdoor use.

Water-based stains are more common for indoor use than outdoor use. This is because water-based stains dry fast and have a low volume of paint chemicals or VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

Oil-based stains are ideal for outdoor use where the paint fumes can be easily dispersed. Also, oil-based stains are harder and water-resistant so the stain can thrive outdoors.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Water-based and oil-based stains are very easy to clean. With water-based stains, you can wipe stains with a rag. Stubborn stains can be removed with a damp rag. Oil-based stains don’t require much maintenance since the stain doesn’t attract dust or dirt.

The Cost

Water-based stains are usually cheaper than oil-based stains

UV Light

Water-based stains are more UV-resistant than oil-based stains. The water-based stain will retain its color longer than oil-based stains if in contact with UV lights. 


Oil-based stains are easier to apply than water-based stains. Oil-based stains penetrate the wood better than water-based stains. However, if you accidentally spill oil-based stain then it’s harder to clean up the mess. 

 Water-Based StainOil-Based Stain
The Stain’s SolventWaterOil, usually linseed oil
FinishDry and TexturedGlossy and slick
Water-resistanceNot water-resistantIs water-resistant
Dry-TimeQuick (within 30 minutes)Slower than water-based stains (about an hour)


When Should You Use Water-Based Stains?

  • Water-based stains are perfect for indoor use.
  • Use water-based stains for a light coat.
  • Water-based stains are ideal for wood décor and other surfaces that wouldn’t experience much use or tension.
  • When you want to use a sealant. Since water-based stains don’t have a glossy sheen, you can easily seal them.
  • When you want to apply multiple coats. The thin nature of the stain means you can apply more coats.

When Should You Use Oil-Based Stains?

  • Oil-based stains are ideal for outdoor use.
  • Use oil-based stains when you want to switch dark colors.
  • Use oil-based stains to fill and cover holes and cracks (A paint primer is better).
  • Use oil-based stains for protection and durability.
  • Oil-based stains can help you prevent damage to wood through moisture since the stain is water-resistant.

Can You Use Water-based Stain Over Oil-based Stain?

You can put a water-based stain over an existing oil-based stain as long as the oil-based stain is dry and clean.

Can You Use Oil-based Stain Over Water-based Stain?

You can do this but you have to sand the water-based stain and ensure it is dry.

Final Words

Overall, oil-based and water-based stains are both great stains. Each stain has its pros and cons so ensure to use each stain where the stain can stick.

You should also seal the stain to allow the stain to last longer. Remember to use oil-based stains on areas that might experience moisture as water-based stains aren’t usually water-resistant.

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