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Oil vs. Water-Based Stain: Which One You Need (And Why)?

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Staining is one of the most critical aspects of a woodworking project. It determines the appearance and durability of a workpiece.

While there are many types of wood stains, woodworkers face a hard time choosing between oil-based vs water-based stains. To understand this dilemma, it’s important to know what a stain is and what it does.

Oil vs. Water-Based Stain

The selection between oil-based or water-based stains depends upon the woodworker’s preference. However, certain factors must be considered too. For instance, the time-frame of the assignment, type of finish, and maintenance. You also need to consider the type of wood, previous wood treatment, and weather exposure.

Oil-based wood stains are preferred for covering wood that will be exposed to elements like wind, rain, and sunlight. This type of stain is designed to withstand harsh conditions.

Talking about the duration, if you have some time at hand and you want nothing but the best, go for oil-based stains. But if you need to deliver the product quickly, water-based stains should be your go-to solution.

As for the budget, oil-based stain costs more than water-based stain. So if you have the resources, you can opt for oil-based stains.

What is a Wood Stain?

A wood stain is a type of finish applied to wooden objects to alter their appearance. In some cases, stains are also used to enhance the durability of wood.

It is applied at the end. Based on your selection, the pigment changes the color of wood adding to the overall look. You can pick from several shades but typically stain colors resemble those that of natural wood. Some common options are pecan, oak, and walnut. Using a wood stain helps bring out the characteristics of the woodworking artifact you’ve created. So, always use a stain that works well with the piece or surface you’re going to apply it on.

Remember that some woods are not very absorbent. So it may take a lot of sanding and staining to achieve the desired outcome. To pick the right type of stain, you must keep in mind the purpose of your project. What do you expect from the staining process?

Is your goal to change the color, enhance the grains of protecting the wood from damage?

Once you’ve decided that, you’re ready to choose between the various stain types.

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What are the different types of stains?

There are three readily available variants of stains, they are:

  • Oil-based stains
  • Water-based stains
  • Gel stains

Out of the three, oil-based and water-based stains are widely used by woodworkers and cabinetmakers. So, we’ll see what makes them the most-used products and which of the two is best for the task you have at hand.

1. Oil-based Stains

This type of stains penetrates deeper into the wood and doesn’t dry easily. This is mainly because of the linseed base that is used to manufacture oil-based stains. In some cases, a mixture of linseed oil and varnish is used as the base of an oil-based stain. This combination gives it a longer dry time and makes the application process a breeze.

Oil-based stains are easy to wipe off if you apply too much by mistake. What differentiates the oil-based stains from the rest is the fact that they use mineral spirits as thinning agents. These stains also leave a more vivid and richer color than the water-based variants.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages in detail now.

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Advantages of Oil-based Stains

  • Even finish

Since oil-based stains require more time to dry, some may consider it a drawback. But this allows you to wipe off any excess stain before it sets providing a more even finish.

If you have some time then it is best to opt for oil-based stains to get the best finish.

  • Deeper penetration

The linseed oil formula lets oil-based stains penetrate deeper into the wood. This ensures that you get more long-lasting protection for the wooden surface or piece.

If you’re looking for more protection against the elements, then oil-based stains will a great addition to the wooden surface. This is especially important when you’re coating wooden walls and objects that are outside and more exposed to water or sunlight.

  • Extremely durable

If you’re looking for a wood stain that lasts longer, oil-based stains are the best option for you. Although the dry time is longer than other varieties of stains, their stay makes them worth the wait. Also, oil-based stains are easier to refresh so they’re a popular choice among professionals.


  • Slow drying

As mentioned previously, oil-based stains are slow drying. When working on urgent products, you should steer clear of using an oil-based stain.

Some varieties take a day to dry while most take at least three days to dry completely. This is mainly because of the linseed oil present in its formula.

  • Susceptible to mold/mildew

Unfortunately, the resins in oil-based stains make it prone to mold/mildew. If you’re considering using these stains, be prepared to deal with mold and mildew at some point.

However, this can be avoided by proper maintenance of the product and refreshing it from time to time.

Now, let’s move on to the next type of stain that is water-based.

2.Water-based Stains

Honestly, water-based stains are not as popular as oil-based stains. But, hear us out–they are very handy to have in your workshop. For certain projects, these should be your go-to wood stains. They don’t need any mineral spirits as a thinning agent. You can simply mix water in the mentioned ratio and you’re ready for application.

Similarly, the cleanup is pretty straightforward too as you can use just water to clean it up. They’re ideal for use under water-based finishes as they don’t bond well with oil-based ones. However, it is possible to use water-based stains on oil-based finishes if the previous layer has dried completely. It is risky, but not impossible.

Why would you use a water-based stain over an oil-based variant?

Look at the advantages and disadvantages in the next section and you’ll find the answer to this question yourself.

Advantages of Water-based Stains

  • Quick-drying

Unlike oil-based stains, water-based stains are quick drying. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of time for a project. Water-based stains are perfect in these situations.

When working on projects with a smaller budget, you can replace oil-based stains and use water-based stains instead. You’ll save time and money simultaneously.

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  • Mold resistant

Don’t want to deal with mold and mildew?

Go for water-based stains. You’ll never need to get rid of these two menaces if you’ve used a water-based stain on the product. Most of these stains have certain additives that prevent the development of mold and mildew.

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  • Easy to clean

Remember how you needed a special thinning agent to clean up oil-based stains?

Well, water-based stains are much easier to deal with because all you need is water to clean it up. This makes water-based stains a convenient option when it comes to staining.

  • More environment-friendly

If like us, you’re worried about the impact of oil-based stains on the environment, water-based stains are much better. They don’t emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) neither do they produce a lot of harmful fumes and odors.

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  • Difficult to use

Water-based stains raise the grain of the wood and dry fast. This makes them more difficult to use than oil-based stains.

For example, if you are painting a larger object, the stain will dry by the time you are finished applying it.

  • Offer less protection

Water-based stains are not deep penetrating, so they don’t offer a lot of protection against the elements for the wood. If your priority is keeping the wood well-preserved, we don’t recommend going for water-based stains. Oil-based stains are much better when it comes to protection.

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We’re a team of engineers, contractors, technicians, and woodworking experts who use power tools daily and share fact-based information, tips, and recommendations. At thetoolgeeks.com, we debunk myths about power tools and share methods to use them effectively.

The Tool Geeks Team

We're a team of engineers, contractors, technicians, and woodworking experts who use power tools daily and share fact-based information, tips, and recommendations. At thetoolgeeks.com, we debunk myths about power tools and share methods to use them effectively.

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