Wood Oil vs Wood Stain (Which One is Better?)

When in need of a wood finish, you’ll need to choose between a wood stain and wood oil. So, what’s the difference between both wood finishes?

The difference between wood oil and wood stain is that wood stain is a colorful finish that alters wood color while wood oil is a transparent finish that reveals the texture and natural grain of the wood.

Wood oils are also thicker and they offer more durability and protection to the wood than wood stains. You should also know that wood oils can be used over already stained wood because wood oils are sealants. However, wood stain can’t be used over oiled wood because it is not a sealant and will not stick.

This post reveals more differences between wood stain and wood oil including a guide to figure out which of the two finishes is needed on your woodwork. Let’s dive in.

What is Wood Oil?

What is Wood Oil?

Wood oil refers to several natural and synthetic oils used to coat and achieve a glossy finish on wood. Wood oils have different formulas – Tung wood oil is gotten from the nuts of the Tung tree. Linseed oil is gotten from the Flax plant, and Danish oil is a combination of Tung oil, Linseed oil, Varnish, and solvents.

One feature of all wood oils is that they are clear finishes. When dry, wood oils become a transparent film on the wood – This transparent film highlights the natural grain of the wood.

Of all the finishes used on wood, wood oils are amongst the most durable. The transparent film that the finish gives is durable and able to withstand light dents, scratch marks, and scars. Some wood oils like Tung oil can even be used on outdoor wood because the wood is flexible and resistant to weather and temperature changes.

It’s also common for wood oils to have additives and solvents in their formula. These additives are used to reinforce the finish and to make the wood oil dry faster.

What is Wood Oil Used For?

  1. Wood oils are used to protect wood from damages.
  2. Wood oils can be used over an existing finish to preserve the finish.
  3. Wood oils help to highlight and reveal the natural beauty of wood.
  4. Wood oils are used to achieve a high-gloss and reflective finish on the wood.
  5. Wood oils are used to make wood water-resistant.

Next, let’s check out wood stain and its uses.

What is Wood Stain?

What is Wood Stain?

Wood stain refers to commercial products used to change wood color. Wood stains contain a large volume of pigments or colors which allow the wood finish to tint and change wood color.

There are two types of wood stain; oil-based wood stain and water-based wood stain. Water-based wood stains are dissolved in water while oil-based wood stains are dissolved in light oil and sometimes, a petroleum-based solvent like mineral spirits.

You should know that wood stains are not weather-friendly meaning that you can’t use this finish on outdoor furniture or exterior walls. If you are to use wood stain outdoors, you need to seal the finish with exterior polyurethane or a type of varnish.

If exposed to sunlight, the UV rays will fade the wood stain color. Wood stains penetrate wood when applied and offer little protection to the wood. If used in a busy area, wood stain will fade since it’s not durable.

What is Wood Stain Used For?

  1. Wood stain is used to change the color of wood.
  2. Wood stains can revive the appearance of antiques and old wood.
  3. Wood stain is also used as an undercoat before applying a sealant.
  4. Wood stain is used on indoor wood and wood décors like frames, trims, and wood handles.
  5. Wood stain can be used to tint clear finishes so they dry to display color.
  6. Wood stain is common on hardwood like oak because the wood is porous and wood stain can penetrate better.

So, is wood stain better than wood oil or is it the other way around? To know which of the two finishes is better, let’s compare them.

Wood Oil vs Wood Stain

To compare wood stain and wood oil, we’ll use the features of each wood finish and see which finish comes out on top.

Let’s check out these differences and more in detail.

Dry Time

How long does the wood finish take to dry?

Wood stains dry faster than wood oils because wood stains are thinner and don’t contain as many oils as wood oils.

Wood stains don’t have as many oils, solvents, and additives as wood oils. As such, wood stains dry faster. Wood stains also cure (or dry fully) faster than wood oils. This is because wood stains cure based on evaporation and this takes place within a few hours. Wood oils cure based on oxidization and this takes days.

On average, you can recoat a water-based wood stain in 2 hours and it would take 12 hours for the entire finish to dry. An oil-based wood stain will dry for recoat in 4 hours and the entire finish will dry in 24 hours.

Regardless of the type of wood oil, you’ll need to wait at least 12 hours before a recoat. Linseed oil for instance takes 24 hours to fully dry for a recoat. The entire wood oil finish takes at least 3 days to cure. So, while you are waiting to recoat wood oil, the wood stain is already dry.


How durable is the wood finish?

Wood oil is more durable than wood stain because wood oils dry harder and are stronger.

Durability refers to the wood finish’s capacity to withstand dents, gouges, scratch marks, and impact. The durability of the wood finish also determines how long the finish will last.

Wood oils are more durable than wood stains because wood oils dry stronger and harder. As such, the hard finish can withstand damage better than wood stain. Also, wood oils take longer to dry which means that the particles have more time to solidify than wood stains.

The presence of additives and solvents in wood oils also makes the finish more durable than wood stains. On average, wood stain will last 1 year at best on a busy surface while wood oils can last up to 10 years.

Water Resistance

How well does the finish repel moisture?

Wood oils are more water-resistant than wood stains. That’s because the molecules in wood oils are tightly packed making it almost impossible for water to penetrate the wood oil finish.

The water resistance of the finish matters when choosing a finish for wood. This is because water damages wood faster than anything so you need good water resistance from the finish. Wood oils are more water-resistant than wood stains and this is due to the nature of the wood oils.

Wood oils have smaller molecules than wood stains. As such, the molecules in the wood oil become airtight when dry so it becomes difficult for water to get through.

Wood stains on the other hand have larger molecules and are filled with pigments. So, there is more space for water to penetrate through. Water-based wood stains especially have poor water resistance because the finish is water-soluble.

Wood Protection

How well does the finish protect wood?

Wood oils offer superior wood protection than wood stains. 

Since wood oils are more durable and able to withstand wood damage, the finish will protect the wood from factors that can damage it.

Dents, scratch marks, and scars will not affect your woodwork because the wood oil finish will take all the damage. Also, wood oils are more water-resistant than wood stains so your woodwork will be protected from water damage.

Wood stain on the other hand will not offer good wood protection because the finish is neither as water-resistant nor as durable as wood oils. So, scratch marks and dents will be visible on the wood.

Indoor or Outdoor use?

Can you use the finish indoors or outdoors?

You can use wood stains on indoor wood but not on outdoor wood because wood stains don’t have weather-resistant properties. Wood oils can be used outdoors and indoors because the finish is more durable and weather-friendly.

Wood stains are ideal for interior woodwork like furniture, trims, doors, cabinets, and shelves. Since wood stain is not very durable, you shouldn’t use it outdoors unless it is sealed with a top coat like exterior polyurethane. If you leave wood stain unsealed outdoors, the finish will fade when exposed to sunlight. Rain and dust will also ruin the finish.

Wood oils on the other hand can be used on indoor and outdoor wood since the finish is durable. Also, wood oils are commonly reinforced with additives like UV blockers to make the finish thrive in exterior environments.

Cleaning and Maintenance

How easy or difficult is it to clean and maintain the finish?

Wood oil is easier to clean and maintain than wood stain because wood stains can’t stick to wood oil but stains can stick to a wood stain finish.

Wood oils have a glossy, slick, and water-resistant finish – The slick texture of wood oils means that grease, oils, and dirt can’t stick to the finish. Whatever stain you notice on a wood oil finish can be wiped off with a damp rag. So, cleaning is easy.

Wood stains on the other hand don’t have a slick texture. Wood stains are textured and dry so stains and dirt can stick easily to the finish. This means you’ll be cleaning the wood stain frequently, so its maintenance wouldn’t be as easy as wood oils.

The Finish

What type of finish do you get?

Wood oils give a glossy and transparent finish while wood stains give a satin and colorful finish.

Wood oil has a high level of oils and gloss in its formula so when the finish dries, it becomes shiny and reflective. Also, since wood oils don’t have color pigments in their formula, the wood oil finish is usually clear and transparent. This is why the finish is used to highlight the natural grain of the wood.

Wood stains on the other hand give a satin and colorful finish because there is a high amount of pigments in the formula. Oil-based wood stains can give you a bit of gloss and color but the finish will not be as glossy as a wood oil finish.

When Should You Use Wood Stain?

  1. You should use wood stain when you want to change wood color.
  2. Use wood stain when in need of an undercoat or when you will still use a sealant.
  3. Use wood stain to beautify wood as you can get different colors.
  4. Use wood stain when working on indoor wood furniture, trims, and doors.
  5. Use wood stain on low traffic areas and wood décor in the home like frames and flower vases.

When Should You Use Wood Oil?

  1. Use wood oil finish when you want a transparent finish to highlight the natural beauty of the wood.
  2. Use wood oil finish when you want to seal an existing finish.
  3. Use wood oils when you want wood protection, especially on medium to high traffic wood.
  4. Use wood oils for water protection on wood.
  5. Use wood oils on outdoor furniture.

Here is a chart that identifies the major differences between wood stain and wood oils:

 Wood StainWood Oil
Dry Time4 hours to recoat, 24 hours to fully dry24 hours to recoat, 3 days to fully dry
Wood ProtectionCan protect wood from light useCan protect wood from heavy use and abuse
Water ResistancePoorGood
Indoor or Outdoor use?Suited to indoor woodCan be used indoors and outdoors
Cleaning and MaintenanceMore difficult than wood oilsEasier than wood stain
The FinishSatin and colorfulGlossy and transparent

Final Words

In summary, wood oil and wood stain are both great finishes to use on woodwork. The one you need depends on your taste, needs, and woodwork.

When you want a colorful or attractive finish, you should go for wood stain because you have a wide range of colors and shades to pick from. However, when you want a protective or shiny finish that will highlight the wood grain, you should use wood oils.

Finally, you should remember that wood stain is not weather friendly. So, if you want to use the finish on outdoor furniture, you should protect it with an exterior sealant.

So, there you have it. Now you know the differences between wood stain and wood oil and which one to use for your woodwork.

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