Water Based vs Oil Based Wood Stain

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In this article, you’ll learn about the two varieties of wood stain (oil-based and water-based). We’ll teach you their qualities and uses, similarities and differences, and how to choose between them. Read on to discover the major differentiating factor between water-based and oil-based stains, as well which one is better overall. 

What Is Wood Stain?

Wood stains are used to change the appearance of wood, specifically it’s color. They can also be used to obscure unattractive or imperfect grain. Learn more about what wood stain consists of and how it is used in the following sections. 

Wood Stain Qualities 

Wood stains usually contain both pigments and dyes, although pigment-only and dye-only stains are also available.

Can of Minwax wood stain on top of a chair
  • Dyes are a finely ground powder that mixes into the stain base, forming a solution.
  • Pigments are larger particles that do not dissolve. Instead, they are suspended in the stain base. 

The base used for stain can be either water or oil.

Solvents

Stains also contain solvents, which evaporate when exposed to air. As the solvent evaporates, the pigments and dyes bind to the wood and the stain dries.

  • In oil-based stains, a proprietary binding ingredient is added to the stain by the manufacturer, which encourages adhesion of the stain to wood.
  • In water-based stains, acrylic resin forms the bond between wood and pigment or dye. 

Transparency

Stains can be semi-transparent, semi-solid, or solid.

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  • Semi-transparent stains are usually dye-heavy.
  • Solid stains have more pigment.
  • Semi-solid stains are a mix between the two. 

Semi-transparent wood stains alter the color of the wood without obscuring the pattern of wood cells on the surface, which is referred to as the wood’s ‘natural grain’.

When the grain pattern is undesirable or filled with imperfections, a semi-solid or solid stain is sometimes used to cover that up. These products are more opaque than transparent stains. 

Stain differs from other wood finishing products like shellac, varnish, or lacquer, in that its purpose is not to protect the wood. Opaque stains may, however, help block UV rays, leading to less fading of the wood underneath. 

Stain can be applied on top of wood filling products as well. Make sure to buy the best wood filler for stain, as some don’t take the stain as well as others.

Unless the stain you choose advertises that it also contains a sealer, you should not expect stain to protect wood from moisture, mildew, or impact damage. Because of this, stains are usually topped with a clear protective coat like polyurethane

Wood Stain Uses 

Stains can be used on interior or exterior wood, including trim and furniture. Decks and hardwood floors are also candidates for appearance-improving stains. 

Here are the steps applying stain:

Hand stirring a water based tint with a ruler
  1. Mix the stain thoroughly before use. This ensures that any pigments which may have settled at the bottom of the container are evenly distributed throughout the liquid, achieving a consistent color throughout. 
  2. Transfer stain to a clean container or paint tray before applying it, to avoid introducing contaminants into the storage container. It can be applied to wood using a brush, roller, rag, or even with a sprayer.
  3. Work in the direction of the grain, aiming for thin, even coats. Shine a light across the surface to reveal any ‘holidays’, or missed areas of wood. 
  4. Sanding the surface of the wood before applying stain will help the wood accept the colorants evenly.
  5. Multiple coats are only necessary if you’re looking for a darker color. The average gallon of stain covers between 150 and 300 square feet. 

Coarse or open-grained stains absorb stain easily, while fine or closed-grain species are more difficult to stain. Cherry, birch and maple are known for being hesitant to accept stain.

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Another factor that affects the uptake of stain is the tannin content of the wood. Pine, for example, is very low in tannins. It can therefore be difficult to stain pine, despite it’s open-grained cellular structure. 

What Is Water Based Wood Stain?

Water-based wood stain actually contains only a small amount of water. The main ingredient in this type of stain is acrylic resin. The resin holds the dye or pigment. 

Water acts as a solvent, keeping the resin in a liquid form in the can. When exposed to air and the right environmental conditions, the water evaporates, leaving the resin (and the colorants it contains) bound to the surface of the wood. 

What Is Oil Based Wood Stain?

The main ingredient in oil-based stain is oil. Not just any oil can be used to create this wood-coloring product, though. Non-drying oils such as olive oil or mineral oil condition wood, but do not harden or dry.

Instead, drying oils such as linseed oil are used as a vehicle for the pigments and dyes that change the color of wood. 

Oil-based wood stain dries through the evaporation of solvents. The most common solvent found in oil-based wood stain is mineral spirits.

Additional mineral spirits can be added to oil-based wood stain to thin it, enabling it to be wiped onto wood instead of using a brush. This method requires more coats to achieve the same depth of color as unthinned stain.

Oil-based wood stain dries to the touch in as little as six to eight hours, but can sometimes take up to 24 hours to fully dry. It responds best to moderate environmental conditions: humidity of no more than 70%, with temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. 

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Water Based vs Oil Based Wood Stain

Compare and contrast these two products before making a decision about which one to use on your next wood staining projects. 

Similarities

Both oil and water based stains achieve the same purpose, and they work in similar ways. 

Purpose

Stain, whether oil or water based, is primarily an aesthetic product. It is not intended to provide robust protection against impact or moisture damage.

Mechanism of Action

Both oil and water stains change the appearance of wood by binding pigments or dyes to the wood’s surface. 

Differences

The differences between these two products include their dry time, color, smell, and ease of clean-up. Read on to learn more.

Dry Time

Water-based stains dry more quickly than oil-based stains. Some water-based stains are ready for recoating in as little as two hours. As long as they were applied in appropriate environmental conditions, any water-based stain should be dry to the touch within six hours

Oil-based stains, on the other hand, take a minimum of six hours to dry, often needing eight hours. Name brands like Minwax tend to follow this standard dry time.

However, stain can be somewhat temperamental and is easily affected by weather – some formulations will take 24 hours before they are ready for a second coat or protective finish. 

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Color

Oil-based stains are available in a limited number of colors. Depending on the type of oil used, the stain may amber or yellow as it ages. Most oil-based stains are restricted to browns and greys, with blue making an occasional appearance.

Dining table being prepared to be applied with wood stain

Take a look at our DIY dining table project where we used a charcoal stain on redwood, leaving a blueish coloring.

There are no such color restrictions on water-based stains. They are available in all colors of the rainbow. Acrylic resin doesn’t change color as it ages, so water-based stains remain truer to the original intention of the stainer. 

Smell

Oil-stains are known for being smelly, and for a smell that lingers even after they dry. The smell is due to the evaporation of solvents, which then hang in the air around the stained wood. 

Applying oil-based stains outdoors helps mitigate the smell and preserves your indoor air quality. If you must use oil-based stains indoors, ensure adequate ventilation through fans and open windows to whisk the smell away. Plan to stay out of your home for four or five days after using oil-based stains on hardwood floors.

Water-based stains have a much less noticeable odor that tends to vanish when the resin dries. These kinds of stains don’t contain harsh chemical solvents such as mineral spirits. Instead, they dry through evaporation of water, which doesn’t affect the air quality of your home and shouldn’t irritate your eyes, nose, or throat. 

Ease of Clean-Up

Water-based stains can be cleaned using only soap and water. Removing oil-based stain from brushes, rollers, or your skin requires the use of a solvent. 

Major Differentiating Factor

As discussed above, the solvent most commonly used in oil-based stains is mineral spirits. Mineral spirits are created when petroleum is processed and refined. Like many petroleum byproducts, mineral spirits emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that affect indoor air quality. 

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Exposure to VOCs can have short or long-term health implications. 

Most water-based stains emit low or no VOCs. This makes them safer to apply indoors and around children or pets. 

When to Use Water Based Wood Stain

Use water-based wood stain for interior trim and hardwood floors, because they emit low or no VOCs, maintaining the air quality of your home.

Water-based wood stains are capable of brighter, bolder colors, and tend to retain their color longer than oil-based stains. They also stay true to the original color as they age, making them the best choice when you want bright, long-lasting colors.

When to Use Oil Based Wood Stain

Use oil-based wood stains for exterior decking and trim, when the outdoor elements necessitate the hardiest stain possible.

Oil-based stains penetrate the surface of the wood and adhere to the interior of the wood cells, providing some protection from moisture. They also usually contain mildewcidal ingredients, making them more appropriate for outdoor use. 

Which Is Better, Water Based or Oil Based Wood Stain?

Oil-based stain has a richness and depth that can’t be matched by water-based stains, and the ambering or yellowing that occurs over time can be very attractive on certain woods. 

However, water-based stain is better in almost every other way. It is easier to apply and clean, gives great color, dries quickly, and lasts a long time.

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Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.