Stain vs Paint (Which One Do You Need?)

When it comes to finishing wooden surfaces, you usually have two options to choose from; stain or paint. So what’s the difference between both finishes?

The difference between stain and paint is that paint has more paint particles and pigments in its formula while stain is mostly solvent. Due to the high ratio of solids to liquids, paints are thicker than stains.

Asides from that, paints due to their thick nature usually stay on the top layer of the surface or wood. Stains on the other hand usually penetrate and soak into the surface given the thin nature of the finish.

The need to penetrate the surface makes stain ideal on porous surfaces like wood while paints can be used on any type of surface. But that’s not all. This post reveals more about the differences between stain and paint. So let’s dive in.

What is Stain?

What is Stain?

Stain also called wood stain is a finish that is commonly used on wooden surfaces. Stains generally have a very simple formula as the finish is gotten from the combination of solvents, paint pigments, a binder, and dye.

The dye and paint pigments give color to the finish, the binder holds all the particles together and the solvent or liquid (either water or oil) carries all of these compounds. In this formula, the solvent has the highest amount often reaching 60% of the stain.

The high level of solvent or liquid makes stain have a light or thin flow. Due to the thin flow, stains usually penetrate and soak into the wood to set.

The high amount of liquid also means that stain is usually not bold or vibrant which explains why stains give a transparent finish. Since the stain doesn’t have many pigments, the texture and wood grain underneath the stain is usually visible even after the stain has dried.

So what is a stain used for? Let’s find out.

What is Stain Used For?

  • Stain is used to enhance the color of wood
  • Stain reveals the wood grain and texture
  • Wood stain is also used to tint other wooden finishes
  • Stain is used with wood oils to create a glazed finish
  • Stain is commonly used on decorative items and ornaments.
  • Stain also protects the wood.

Next, let’s check out paints.

Related Read: Can You Stain Over Paint?

What is Paint?

What is Paint?

Paint is a finish common on virtually every type of surface and material. There isn’t any particular formula for paints as each type of paint has a distinct formula. For instance, polyurethane paint contains no pigment or color, it’s a clear coat.

Flat paints have no gloss in their formula while enamel paints are very glossy. All of these finishes are paints but each has a different formula. However, there are still many features and similarities that all paints share.

For instance, paints generally have a thick flow. This is because all paints have a higher ratio of solids to solvent. Also, paints stay on the top layer of the wood or surface because paints are designed to penetrate the material.

Paints also have a hard top coat. The top coat can be dry and textured or glossy and slick but it will be hard. Paints also offer good moisture resistance but the finish takes a while to dry.

So what are paints used for? Let’s find out.

What is Paint Used For?

  • Paints are used to make wood moisture-resistant
  • Paints are commonly used over stains
  • Paints are used to protect the wood from scratches and damages
  • Paints are used to hide imperfections and spots in the wood
  • Paints can alter wooden color and appearance.

So is paint better than stain? Let’s find out by comparing both finishes.

Related Read: Can You Paint Over Stain?

Stain vs Paint

To compare paint and stain, we’ll use the features of each finish and see which is superior.

Here is a chart that shows the major differences between paint and stain:

Paint ApplicationEasyAverage
Wood ProtectionPoorVery good depending on the type of paint.
Strength and DurabilityGoodBetter
The FinishDry and transparentColorful and hard
The FlowStains are thinPaints are thick

Next, let’s check out these differences in detail.


In terms of adhesion, stains stick better than paints. This is because, for the stain to stick, the stain has to penetrate the wood fibers. Paints on the other hand don’t penetrate the surface to stick.

Instead, the paint stays on the top layer of the surface. Since stains penetrate the wood, they generally stick well to the wood. Paints on the other hand can be cleaned off the surface especially if the paint wasn’t applied properly.

Wood Protection

Paints generally offer more protection to wood than stains. Glossy paints like enamel and polyurethane offer very good protection to wood as these finishes protect the wood from dents, moisture, and pest damage.

Stains also offer wood protection but not as well as paints. This is because stains don’t form a hard layer on the wood. Instead, the bulk of the stain will be inside the wood and as such, the finish wouldn’t protect the wood from damages, dents, and moisture.

Verdict: Paints offer superior wood protection to wood stains

Dry Time

Paints generally take longer to dry than stains but this depends largely on the type of stain or paint. For instance, water-based paints like chalk and flat paint will dry at about the same time as regular wood stains. However, oil-based paints especially those with a glossy finish like enamel and high gloss paints can take over 6 hours to fully dry.

The dry time of stains also varies. For instance, water-based stains dry in about an hour while oil-based stains take more hours to dry because the oil has soaked into the wood grain where evaporation and drying will be slow. However, oil-based stains still dry faster than oil-based paints.

Paint Application

Stains are easier to apply than stains. With stains, you can apply the finish using a paintbrush, spray gun, foam brush, rag, or a paint pad. The thin flow of stains also makes it easier and faster to apply the stain as each coat will dry quickly.

You should also know that you don’t need much prep work before applying stains. As long as the surface is clean and grease-free, you can apply a stain on it directly.

Paints on the other hand are a different story. For starters, you’ll most likely need a sealer or primer coating before applying paint. You also need to sand the surface before applying the paint.

Since paints are usually thicker, you sometimes need to thin the paint by mixing it with a solvent or paint thinner. Not to mention that paints dry slowly too. All of these tell you that stains are much easier to apply than stains.

Strength and Durability

Paints are generally stronger and more durable than stains. Paints can withstand more impact and resist more moisture than stains giving the finish a superior advantage over stains in terms of strength and durability. Paints can last several years on wood if properly maintained. Oil-based enamel paint for instance can last over 10 years on wood.

Stains on the other hand don’t last that long since the finish is not as hard or strong as paints. On average, stains will last 6 or 7 years on wood if properly maintained. However, you should know that stains can retain the quality of their finish better than paints.

When stains get old, the finish doesn’t peel or crack off as paint does. Instead, stains will gradually fade and the existing stain can be easily re-stained over to revive the finish. To revive peeling paint, you have to take on another round of sanding, scraping, and priming before the paint is applied.

Moisture Resistance

In terms of moisture resistance, paints win this round flawlessly. Though stains also offer some moisture resistance to wood by filling the pores, the moisture resistance offered is inferior to that of paints.

Since paints stay on the top layer, it is almost impossible for water, solvent, or oils to get to the wood. Oil-based paints also have a glossy sheen that repels water and serves as a barrier between stains and wood.


Stains are usually a pocket-friendly option for finishing your wood. Stains cost about half the price of regular oil-based paints. Some types of paints like polyurethane, varnish, and epoxy paint cost about twice the cost of regular wood stain.

To Prime or Not To Prime?

While applying paint, you need a primer or sealer coating before applying the paint. This is because the primer coating will serve as a smooth undercoat for the paint to bite into and stick.

Stains on the other hand don’t require a primer or sealer coating before being applied. This is because stains need to penetrate the surface to stick and a primer or sealer coating will prevent the stain from doing so.

The Finish

Paints give different types of finishes. You can go for a matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, or high gloss finish. You can also seal the paint with another type of paint to get a mixed finish.

Paints give you a wide variety of finishes to pick from. Stains on the other hand don’t offer that much luxury in terms of the finish. All stains generally give a thin and clear finish.

Should You Buy Paint or Stain?

Choosing between paint and stain can be difficult but here are a few factors to make that decision easier:

The Price Tag

When shopping for a finish, it’s always proper to go by a budget. Since paints are usually costlier than stains, a pocket-friendly finish will be a wood stain.

Strength and Durability

You should keep in mind that paints especially high-gloss oil-based paints will give better strength and durability than wood stains.

So if you are shopping for a finish for your walkway or countertop, paints will be a good option as the finish will protect the surface better. Stains shouldn’t be used on surfaces that will be used heavily as the stain will quickly wear off.

Moisture Resistance

Since paints offer superior moisture resistance, they would be an ideal choice for wood that will see water frequently. These include kitchen slabs and equipment that will be washed frequently.

Do You Fancy Vibrant Colors?

If you fancy vibrant colors, then go for paint because stains are usually dull and transparent. Oil-based enamel paint for instance will give you a bright and colorful finish.

What Type of Wood Do You Want to Finish?

Stains are better suited to hardwood like Oak and Maple because these wooden surfaces are porous. So the stain will easily penetrate and soak in the wood.

Softwood like pine and cedar should be painted because these surfaces aren’t porous so stains wouldn’t penetrate evenly. Paints however will perform well because it doesn’t need to penetrate.

Final Words

In summary, paint and stain or wood stain are great finishes to use on wood. The one you pick depends on your taste, needs, and the type of wood you want to finish.

Remember that stains work well on porous wood while paint is better on sealed wood. Also, you need a primer or sealer coating before you apply paint but you don’t need an undercoat for stains.

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