Stain vs Paint (What’s the Difference?)

When finishing a wooden surface, you can use stain, paint, or both. But, what’s the difference between stain and paint?

Stain is a penetrating finish that enhances the wood surface but doesn’t protect it. On the other hand, paint changes the color of the wood and protects it (to a degree).

The thick nature of paint will stay over the top layer of the wood, while stains will penetrate the wood’s pores. This means stain can only be applied over bare wood, while paint can be applied over a basecoat.


What is Stain?

Stain or wood stain is a finish that is used over wooden surfaces. Wood stain is gotten from combinations 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 amount of solvent makes it have a light or thin flow. Due to the thin flow, stains penetrate and soak into the wood with ease. Also, the stain isn’t bold or vibrant, which explains why it gives a transparent finish. Also, the texture and wood grain underneath the stain are visible due to the low amount of pigments.

You can use wood stain:

  • To enhance the color of the wood.
  • To reveal the wood grain and texture.
  • You can use it to tint other wood finishes. 
  • Use it with wood oils to create a glazed finish.
  • Over decorative items and ornaments.

Related Read: Can You Stain Over Paint?


What is Paint?

Paint is a finish used on every type of surface and material. There isn’t a specific formula because different types of paint have different formulas. For instance, high-gloss paint has a lot of sheen on its formula, while flat paint has a low amount of sheen. 

Paints will change the color of the wood and protect it to a degree. However, they don’t have many protective additives, so paint won’t last longer than 3-6 months on outdoor surfaces.

There are two types of paint; oil-based and water-based. The oil-based types use oil as their solvent and have a glossy finish, while the water-based paints use water as their solvent and have a dry texture finish. 

You can use paint:

  • To protect the wood (low protection). 
  • To change the color of the wood. 
  • It can hide imperfections and spots on the surface. 
  • You can use it over stains or basecoat (primer). 

Related Read: Can You Paint Over Stain?

Paint vs Stain

To compare these two wood finishes, we’ll use the features of each finish and see which is superior.

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


In terms of adhesion, wood stain stick better than paints. That’s because stains penetrate the wood fibers deep and dry there. On the other hand, paints don’t penetrate surfaces that deep and can stay on the top layer of the surface. This makes them have a weaker adhesion to the surface.

Wood Protection

Paint offers better wood protection than stains. Glossy paints have a glossy finish that will repel moisture and protect the wood from dents and scratches. On the other hand, wood stain has no protective additives and won’t protect the wood.

Dry Time

Paints generally take longer to dry than stains, but this depends on the type of finish. For instance, water-based paints have the same dry time as regular wood stains. However, oil-based 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, and the evaporation and drying will be slower. However, oil-based stains still dry faster than oil-based paints.

Paint Application

Stains are easier to apply than paints. That’s because you can use a paintbrush, spray gun, rag, or foam brush to apply them, and you don’t need much prep work.

On the other hand, applying paints is harder because you must apply a basecoat (primer) first, and you must sand the surface. Also, some types of paints are thick, so you must thin them before applying them. Plus, it takes longer to dry, which increases the time you need to complete a painting project.

Strength and Durability

Paints are stronger and more durable than stains. They can withstand more impact and resist moisture more. Once the paint gets old, the coating will start to peel off. You must clean, sand, and remove the existing coat before re-coating.

On the other hand, wood stain doesn’t last long because the finish isn’t hard or strong. When the stain gets old or varnished, the finish doesn’t peel off or crack, but it will gradually fade. You can easily touch up to revive the finish. 

Moisture Resistance

While both finishes offer low moisture resistance, paint has better moisture resistance than stains. That’s because oil-based paint has a glossy finish that will repel moisture (to a degree). On the other hand, stain soaks into the wood fibers and offers no protection or moisture resistance to wood.

Also, since paint stays over the top layer, it’s harder for water to penetrate the coating and affect the wood.


Wood stain costs less than oil-based paint. That’s because it offers more protection and can change the color of the wood, while wood stain can’t.

To Prime or Not To Prime?

You need a base coat (primer) before applying paint. The primer will cover imperfections and create a smooth layer that the paint can stick to and penetrate.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t apply a primer before staining wood. That’s because stain needs to penetrate the wood fibers to stick, and it’s designed to reveal the wood grain. So, if you apply a primer, the primer will cover the wood grain and won’t allow the wood stain to penetrate the wood deeply.

The Finish

Paints have different finishes; matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, or high-gloss. You can also mix different types of paint to get a unique colorful finish.

On the other hand, the wood stain will deepen or lighten the color of the wood but won’t change or cover it. 

Should You Buy Paint or Stain?

Before deciding which wood finish to get, consider these:

  1. Budget –  Stain costs less than paints.
  2. Durability – Paint is more durable and stronger than stains. That’s because it’s formulated with extra protective additives, while the paint isn’t. So, for high-traffic surfaces, use paint.
  3. Moisture Resistance – For surfaces exposed to constant water, use paint.
  4. Type of The Finish – Stain will enhance the wood color and show the word grain after it dries. On the other hand, paint will cover the wood grain and will change the wood color. 

Final Words

Paint and wood stain are great finishes, but they offer different qualities. Wood stain will enhance the wood color and show the wood grain, while the paint will cover the wood grain and change its color. 

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,

Leave a Comment