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Two products used to beautify (and sometimes protect) wood are Danish oil and wood stain. Learn more about their similarities and differences by reading this article. We’ll also reveal the major differentiating factor between Danish oil and wood stain, and explain the best applications for each type of finish.
What Is Danish Oil?
Danish oil is a liquid wood finishing product that contains drying oil, varnish, and solvents, usually mineral spirits.
It is applied to dry, clean wood for a variety of reasons.
Danish oil darkens the color of wood without changing it’s hue. Once the finish dries, wood treated with Danish oil has a slightly shiny satin finish. It can repel water and protect wood from minor impact damage.
Danish oil products are long oil blends, meaning there is about twice as much oil as varnish in the mixture. What kind of oil, what solvents are added, and what polymers are used is dependent on the manufacturer of the product. Unless you make it yourself, it is not possible to know exactly what is in your Danish oil.
The oil used to formulate Danish oil finishing products is usually boiled linseed oil, although tung oil is another likely possibility. These oils penetrate into the surface of the wood through its pores, sealing them against moisture.
The varnish contained in Danish oil forms another layer of protection, creating a film-like barrier that sits on top of the wood. Varnishes are made from resin dissolved into oil. They harden in two separate phases. In the first phase, the solvents evaporate, and the finish loses its moisture.
The second phase is called ‘curing’, and takes considerably longer — about 30 days. Curing is a chemical hardening process that bonds the molecules of the varnish more tightly together. For this reason, furniture treated with Danish oil is more vulnerable to scuffs and scratches before the curing process is complete.
Even when cured, Danish oil is not usually used to treat wooden floors, because of this tendency to scuff. The barrier created by the varnish is thinner than, for instance, polyurethane. It can’t stand up to foot traffic and heavy furniture.
Instead, Danish oil is more popularly used to finish spindles on exterior decking and porches or to protect wood handled kitchen utensils. Apply an outdoor wood sealer to preserve highly trafficked areas.
While brush application is possible, Danish oil is usually worked into wood with a clean, lint-free rag. After allowing the oil to penetrate the wood, any excess oil is thoroughly wiped off with a clean cloth.
Burnishing the surface will create a shinier finish. The application time depends on the formulation of Danish oil you’re using. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for details.
What Is Stain?
Stain is a penetrative substance used to change the color of wood. They contain pigments or dyes, dissolved or suspended in a liquid. This liquid is commonly referred to as the ‘vehicle’.
Pigments are larger particles that do not dissolve into the vehicle. Rather, they are held in place or suspended by the viscous liquid. When left on the shelf, the pigment particles tend to settle near the bottom of the container, and must be stirred before use.
Pigments come in a powder form, while dyes are usually soluble salts. Dyes fully dissolve into the vehicle, leaving behind no particles large enough to settle at the bottom of the can.
Stains can contain only dyes, only pigments, or (most common) a mix of both. A pigment-only stain will have trouble penetrating fine-grained woods, necessitating the addition of a binder to help it cling to the wood’s surface.
Most commercially available stains contain both pigments and dyes, plus binders.
- Stains with more dye than pigment are generally marketed as ‘transparent’ or ‘semi-transparent’.
- Stains with more pigment than dye are usually labeled ‘solid’, ‘semi-solid’ or ‘opaque’.
However, there is no standard labeling system, so it’s not possible to predict how a specific formulation will react to the wood you’re using. For this reason, test swatches are highly recommended when working with stain.
While stains don’t generally offer much protection from impact or moisture, they do help protect wood from one kind of damage: UV light. The pigments and dyes in stain act as a UV blocker, protecting the wood underneath from fading.
Danish Oil vs Stain
Danish oil and stain have a lot in common, but there are important differences between them as well.
Both Danish oil and stain are penetrating products that change the color of wood and are difficult to remove.
Both stain and Danish oil penetrate into the pores of the wood, sinking below the surface to form a flexible but impermeable barrier.
While untinted Danish oil darkens wood without changing its color, tints can be added if desired, altering the color of the workpiece.
Stains are tinted by definition, and are used primarily to change the color of wood.
Both Danish oil and stain take roughly 3-6 hours to dry to the touch. Depending on whether you opt for water-based or oil-based stain, the time can be a bit longer. But in general, both products dry relatively quickly.
Difficult to Remove
Both Danish oil and stain are more difficult to remove than clear, film-forming finishes. Harsh chemical strippers penetrate the wood, breaking the bond between the wood fibers and the oil finish. Then, the old finish must be scraped away. Even after such treatment, stubborn patches are likely to remain.
Rubbing fine-grain steel wool against the direction of the grain may or may not banish these difficult patches. Removing the material through abrasion using a power sander or sanding block is the only sure way to remove all traces of stain or Danish oil.
It is possible to remove the top coat finish without removing the stain, but it is very difficult and tedious.
These two products affect wood differently. Stained wood is less protected but more flexible than wood treated with Danish oil.
Danish oil contains varnish, which forms a surface-level barrier on top of the wood. Stain does not. Learn more about the differences between varnish and stain.
Danish oil protects wood from moisture and impact damage. Stain does not. Stain protects wood from fading under UV light. Danish oil doesn’t.
Stained wood is more flexible than wood treated with Danish oil. The hard film formed by Danish oil inhibits the expansion and contraction of wood somewhat. Stain does not create this hard film.
Major Differentiating Factor
The big difference between Danish oil and stain is their respective protective qualities. Or, in the case of stain, the lack of protective qualities.
Stains color wood. As a byproduct of that function, they also provide some protection from UV rays. Stained wood is no more resistant to moisture or impact damage than unfinished wood.
Danish oil forms a barrier that sits on the surface of the wood and penetrates into the grain, blocking out moisture and providing some protection from scuffing and scraping.
When to Use Danish Oil
Use Danish oil to protect wooden cooking and serving utensils. This finish is food safe when fully cured and resists moisture damage. Wait for the full cure period of 30 days to elapse before eating off these implements.
Danish oil can be used for exterior wood furniture and construction. Because it is not as durable as other film-forming finishes, it’s use is usually restricted to low-traffic areas like the spindles of a deck rail.
When to Use Stain
Use a stain containing mostly dye when you want to deeply color fine-grained woods, or when maintaining the appearance of the wood grain is desirable.
Use a stain containing mostly pigment when you want to deeply color coarse or open grain woods, or to obscure the grain of the wood you are staining.
Staining exterior furniture or decking will provide protection from the sun, but an additional film-forming finish such as polyurethane is necessary to protect the wood from moisture and impact damage.
Which Is Better, Danish Oil or Stain?
Danish oil is better at protecting wood.
Stain is better at changing the appearance of wood.