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 or a water-based stain. So, what’s the difference between both types?

The main difference is that oil-based stain uses oil (natural or synthetic) as its solvent. While water-based stains use water as their solvent. The difference in solvents makes both stains have different qualities. 

Oil-based finishes take longer to dry, so the coating has more time to harden and compact. This gives it improved protection. 

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. They usually have thick consistency and flow because of their oil-based nature. This also makes them have a slower dry time. 

Oil-based stains have the hardest finishes. Since it dries slowly, the particles have more time to cure and harden, helping the finish become super hard. They also have a glossy finish. 

The stain is used on furniture and floors that experience heavy usage, foot traffic, and weight because it can handle the extra weight and tension. It is known to seep deeply into wood grain giving the finish improved adhesion.

Pros

  • It 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.
  • When dry, it forms a glossy top layer that repels water. 

Cons

  • Harder to clean – You need to use mineral spirits to properly clean it. 
  • Takes longer to dry. 
  • Last less and you must re-coat it often. 

You can use oil-based stain:

  • For outdoor use.
  • If you want to switch dark colors.
  • To fill and cover holes and cracks (A paint primer is better).
  • For protection and durability.
  • To prevent damage to wood.

Water-Based Stain

What is a Water-Based Stain?

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

It can be easily applied using a paintbrush or a spray gun. Some painters even use a cloth to wipe on the stain. Water-based stains also dry hard but the top layer is usually prone to pet claw marks, pencil marks, and sharp edges. It produces a dry and textured finish that can be re-coated without sanding.

These stains also reveal the best color. This is why they are commonly used for changing the color of the wood grain. Some DIYers even use it as a wood dye.

However, water-based stains have a flaw. It isn’t weather-resistant which means you can’t use it outdoors.

Pros

  • Fast dry time. 
  • It’s easy to clean it up — you can clean it with soap and warm water. 
  • Prevents moisture build-up on wood.

Cons

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

You can use water-based stain:

  • For indoor surfaces.
  • For a light coat.
  • As a base coat.
  • As wood décor and other surfaces that wouldn’t experience much use or tension.
  • If you want to apply multiple coats. The thin nature of the stain means you can apply more coats.

Water-Based vs Oil-Based Stains

To compare both finishes, we’ll use the same features and see which one is better:

Solvent

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

The Dry Time

Water-based stain dries faster than oil-based stain because it uses water as their solvent. For the stain to dry, the solvent must fully evaporate from the coating. Since water evaporates faster than oil, water-based stains will dry faster.

On average, it water-based stain 30 minutes to dry enough, and 24 hours to fully dry. While oil-based stain takes 1 hour to dry enough for a re-coat, and 3 days to fully dry.

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

Scratch Resistance

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

Since water-based stain has a dry and textured finish, its finish is easily affected by scratches and marks.

Strength and Durability

Oil-based stains are stronger and more durable than water-based stains. This is because oil-based stain takes longer to dry, so the particles have more time to harden and compact. Since its finish is stronger, it can cope better with scratches, dents, and chipping making it last longer.

Finish Type

Oil-based stains have a glossy finish because of the high oil content in their formula. While water-based stains give a dry and textured finish, but their finish is more colorful. 

Water-Resistance

Oil-based stains are water-resistant but water-based stains aren’t. This is because it has a glossy finish that repels moisture. Since water-based stains have no glossy sheen, they can easily absorb water.

Indoor or Outdoor Use?

Both finishes can be used outdoors or indoors. But, water-based stains are more common indoors because they dry faster and aren’t durable enough to withstand weather elements. 

On the other hand, oil-based stain has a glossy finish and can withstand weather elements for longer. So, you can use it outdoors. 

Cleaning and Maintenance

Both finishes are easy to clean. To clean water-based stains, use a rag dampened with water. Oil-based stains don’t require much maintenance since they don’t attract dust or dirt.

The Cost

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

Application

Water-based stain is easier to apply because it has a lighter flow, and if you accidentally spill it, you can easily wipe it out.

The oil-based stain has a thicker flow, so it’s harder to control it. But, it offers better surface coverage. 

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

Final Words

In summary, both finishes are great and each has its own pros and cons. It’s recommended to use water-based stain for indoor and decorative items since it doesn’t offer much protection. While you can use oil-based stain for outdoor surfaces since they have a glossy finish an is more durable.

Tony Adams
Tony Adams

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about,

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