Wood Oil vs Wood Stain (What’s The Difference?)

You can choose wood oil or stain if you need a wood finish. But, what’s the difference between these two wood finishes?

The main difference is that wood stain is a colorful finish that alters the wood color. In comparison, wood oil is a transparent finish that reveals the wood’s texture and natural grain and protects it.

Wood oils are thicker and provide better coverage and durability. Some types of oils can be used over stained wood. However, you can’t use stain over oiled wood. 

Wood Oil

What is Wood Oil?

Wood oil refers to several natural and synthetic oils that coat and give wood a glossy finish.

Different types have different formulas. For instance, Tung oil is gotten from the nuts of the Tung tree, Linseed oil is gotten from the Flax plank, while Danish oil is a combination of both.

All wood oil types are clear finishes, meaning they form a transparent film that highlights the surface underneath when dry. This transparent film also protects the surface and helps it to withstand dents, scratch marks, and scars. For instance, you can use Tung oil outdoors since it has a flexible and weather-resistant finish. 

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 it dry faster.

You can use wood oil:

  1. To protect the wood from damage.
  2. To get a high-gloss and reflective finish.
  3. Over an existing finish to preserve it. 
  4. To highlight and reveal the natural beauty of wood.
  5. To make a surface water-resistant. 

Wood Stain

What is Wood Stain?

Wood stain contains a large volume of pigments (or colors) that tint and change the wood color. There are two types; oil-based and water-based wood stain. The water-based type is dissolved in water, while the oil-based stain is dissolved in light oil or petroleum-based solvent such as mineral spirits. 

Wood stain will penetrate the wood and alter its color, but it won’t protect it. So, this finish isn’t weather or moisture-resistant and should be used only indoors. To use it outdoors, you must seal it with exterior polyurethane.

You can use wood stain:

  1. To change the color of the wood.
  2. To revive the appearance of old surfaces. 
  3. As an undercoat before applying a sealant.
  4. On indoor or decorative wooden surfaces. 
  5. To tint clear finishes.

Wood Stain vs Wood Oil

To compare both finishes, we will use their similar features and see which one is better.

Dry Time

Wood stains dry faster than wood oils. That’s because they have a lighter flow, don’t contain as many oils, and dry (cure) based on evaporation. On average, you can re-coat water-based stain in 2 hours and oil-based stain in 4 hours. However, it takes 12-24 for both types to dry fully.

On the other hand, wood oil takes up to 12 hours to dry enough for a re-coat. For instance, Linseed oil takes 24 hours to fully dry (cure). Raw Linseed oil takes months to dry fully (cure) because it isn’t formulated with drying agents.


Wood oil is more durable and stronger than wood stains. Because they take longer to dry, the particles have more time to harden and compact. Also, the presence of additives and solvents makes the finish more durable. On average, it will last 1-10 years, based on how much the surface is used.

On the other hand, wood stains offer minimal protection. That’s because they aren’t formulated with extra additives that make the finish durable or resistant to moisture. 

Water Resistance

Wood oils are more water-resistant than wood stains. That’s because the particles in wood oils are tightly packed, making it almost impossible for water to penetrate its finish. Also, they have small particles that become airtight easier.

On the other hand, wood stains have larger particles filled with pigments. So, there’s more space for water to penetrate through the coating. Water-based stain especially has low water-resistant and is water-soluble.

Wood Protection

Wood oils offer superior wood protection compared to wood stains. That’s because they have a glossy finish that repels moisture and protects the surface from dents, scratches, or scars. In addition, they also have good water resistance.

On the other hand, wood stain offers poor wood protection because the finish isn’t water-resistant or durable. 

Indoor or Outdoor use?

Since wood stain has low durability, you can only use it on indoor surfaces. Wood stains are ideal for interior woodwork like furniture, trims, doors, cabinets, and shelves. If you use it outdoors, the finish will get washed off from rain or other weather elements. To use it outdoors, seal it with a waterproof or exterior sealant.

On the other hand, you can use wood oils indoors and outdoors since the finish is durable. Also, most wood oils are reinforced with additives, such as UV blockers, that help the finish thrive outdoors.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Wood oil is easier to clean and maintain because its finish repels stain and prevent them from sticking. It has a glossy, slick, and water-resistant finish — the slick texture of the finish prevents dirt, grease, or oils from sticking over it. You can also clean the wood oil finish with a damp rag.

On the other hand, wood stains don’t have a slick texture, and stains (or dirt) can stick easily over the finish. This means you will be cleaning the finish frequently, which can wash off the entire finish.

The Finish

Wood stains have a stain and colorful finish, while wood oils have a glossy and transparent finish. Wood oils have a high level of oil and gloss in their formula, so when the finish dries, it becomes shiny and reflective. Also, their finish is clear and transparent since they don’t have paint pigments.

On the other hand, wood stains have many paint pigments that produce a colorful textured finish.

Here is a chart that identifies the major differences between these two finishes:

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 stain are both great finishes. But, they have different qualities and features. For instance, wood stain is used to alter the wood color but not protect it. In comparison, wood oils will reveal the texture of wood and protect it.

The one you need depends on your taste, needs, and type of wood. 

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