Checked and updated on April 8, 2021 by Aaron Barnett
Staining is the process of applying protective and decorative stain to a wooden surface. Wood stain is usually made out of three main ingredients – a binder, a carrier or solvent, and a pigment.
When choosing which stain to use, you’ll usually have to choose between water-based stain vs oil-based stain. There are a few differences, but both have the same general purpose. So which one to choose? Read on to find out!
Where to apply stain?
Before we go into the nitty-gritty of oil-based vs water-based stain, let’s first take a look at where stain should be applied. There are a lot of benefits to staining that will ensure that your woodwork or outdoor wood has both a nice finish and enough protection.
Both stains are perfect if you don’t want to paint over wood and just bring out its beautiful and natural grain with a hint of color. Some common applications of stains are:
- Wooden decks
- Wooden furniture
- Wooden cabinets
- Wooden trims
- Wooden ceiling beams
What is an oil-based stain?
So what’s oil-based vs water-based stain? Oil-based wood stain is the original and most popular type of wood stain. It’s well known for its high durability and high wood penetration depth that ensures that moisture is sealed out.
It is commonly made using linseed oil, a non-toxic oil and wood preservative that is then thinned by mineral spirits. These spirits are petroleum-based solvents and have a strong and distinct smell.
Application of oil-based stains should only be done outdoors with good air circulation.
What is a water-based stain?
Water-based stain is a recent technological advancement in wood stain tech.
Water-based stain is easier to use, as it drys faster, and is more environment-friendly. It uses water as a thinner instead of solvents which makes it have little to no smell in comparison.
While still protecting and coloring wood. Water-soluble aniline dyes are mixed in with the water-based stain. These are powdered dyes that bring out great color when dissolved in water.
An important thing to note when using water-based stain on the wood is to duly prepare the surface and make sure that it’s as clean as possible because it tends to dry quickly.
Advantages & disadvantages
When it comes to choosing between oil or water-based stains, it’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of each type.
- Oil-based stain is perfect for when you want to penetrate the wood all the way through.
- Oil-based stain tends to last longer and has higher durability compared to water-based alternatives.
- It also gives a brighter and more natural finish that brings out the beauty and grain of the wood.
- Water-based stains are new but have become quite popular because of their wide assortment of colors. This is all thanks to the water-soluble aniline dyes in the stain mixture.
- Water-based stain is quick-drying and does not emit as many toxic odors compared to oil-based stains.
- One disadvantage of water-based stains, however, is that they are less resistant and chip quickly because they do not set in the wood quite as deeply as oil-based stains. Instead, it forms a protective film over the wood.
- Since it dries quickly, bubbles and dirt can get under the stain which can lead to unsightly spots.
When to use a water-based stain?
Use water-based stain if you want a colorful finish that still reveals the natural grain of the wood. Wood, though can be durable, gets damaged over time and will eventually need repair. When repaired, new-part replacements often cause mismatches in appearance and even coloration.
Water-based stains can help cover this up by effectively coating the surface in a uniformed color. Water-based stains are better options for working indoors as they don’t smell and don’t require much help in drying, where less protection is needed.
When to use an oil-based stain?
Oil-based stains are perfect if you want high durability and low maintenance. They’re great for bringing out the natural appearance of wood as they are less opaque when used to color.
Oil-based stains penetrate deeply and lock out moisture from the wood which prevents it from rotting paired with wood tanalisation. If you want to stain structural wooden parts, go with oil-based stains to limit the need for regular maintenance as well as to avoid a more tedious pre-stain phase.
Comparing oil vs water-based stain
On finishing and appearance
Generally, oil-based stains are less impactful in terms of color but are better if you want to achieve a more natural brighter look. In contrast, water-based stains are more vibrant and emphasized, but also make the wood look artificial. The natural look of oil-based stains is a bonus if you’re using cedarwood because its finish mimics that of natural cedar oils.
On durability and performance
Oil-based stains are more durable than water-based stains because they penetrate deeper into the wood. This makes it highly resistant to light scratches and warping and nullifies most minor types of damage. Water-based stains are prone to chipping and would need regular maintenance as it bonds to mainly just the surface of the wood.
So between oil-based vs water-based deck stain, you must now have an idea of what to choose.
On application and setting time
Water-based stains dry faster because they are thinner. However, to get a more even coat, it’s recommended to use a pre-stain wood conditioner so that the stain sets evenly on the surface. Oil-based stains take longer to dry but adhere better. Take care when applying oil-based stains when there are others as they are potentially toxic to pregnant women and children.
Since oil-based stains give a more natural look that ages with the wood, they are also easier to maintain and reapply. Simply apply the stain on spots with chipping and discoloration, no stripping required. In contrast, water-based stains are more tedious to maintain and reapply as you often have to fully strip the previous coat before applying a new one.
Oil-based stains can last up to 3 years with minimal maintenance and retouching. Water-based stains can last as equally long but are not as resistant to scratching and damage. Knowing this is vital when you plan to stain wooden decks as such an application is sure to encounter frequent use and receives heavy wear and tear.
Factors that affect the qualities of a stain
So what are the factors to consider when choosing water-based stain vs oil-based stain? Let’s find out.
Choosing the kind of wood is important. Staining wood will show its grain, having an impact on its appearance which either complements or reduces aesthetics. Cedarwood benefits greatly from oil-based stains as it mimics the finish of natural cedar oils. Avoid using wood with uneven or unsightly grain or ones that show any sign of rot.
In the same way that water raises the fibers on untreated wood, in wood that has been coated with an oil-based stain can suffer blotching and patching because moisture may have a “balloon effect” just under the stained surface causing the stain to not penetrate as effectively.
Previous treatment of wood
Before staining or re-staining wood, consider if it already went through treatment prior. Oil-based stains can easily be reapplied on pieces so long as they’re coated with the same wood stain type. Water-based stains on the other hand require wood to 1st be fully stripped before applying again. Wood treated with urethane must also have the urethane layer stripped to allow the stain to better bond if at all.
Weather is also an important factor when staining wood. Staining wood during a sunny day with low humidity ensures good quality treatment. Staining just after the rain or in relatively high humidity will affect the finish quality as it can possibly lock in moisture that not only leads to blotches, but can also rot the wood from within, or cause timber movement.
So when it comes to patios or balconies, it is best to use oil vs water-based deck stain.
How to prepare wood for staining?
Before staining, it is important to make sure that your target is smoothened. If you need to remove paint, here’s how.
Or consistent if you opt for a ruff sawn finish. Start with a belt sander armed with 100-grit sandpaper to even out the surface and remove milling marks.
After, do a second pass with a half-sheet vibrating sander and 140-grit sandpaper. At this point, the piece is ready for staining.
However, if you are planning to use water-based stains or want a smoother finish, do another pass with a quarter-sheet sander and 180-grit sandpaper.
Vacuum off the dust and make sure that the surface is clean and free from any particles that might get locked in.
And if you want to know if you can sand after staining, check this out.
Best time to apply an oil-based stain
It is best to apply oil-based stains on a dry and sunny day. This is to ensure that the moisture content of wood is low. And faster drying time to avoid a tacky finish. Refrain from staining wood in humid and wet weather. Make sure that you to avoid inhaling harmful fumes.
Best time to apply a water-based stain
Water-based stains are more forgiving in terms of when it’d be best to apply them. Since they dry fast, you don’t need to rely on added heat or prop them up next to a fan. Because water-based stains are also non-odorous, it’s safe to stain even indoors. Because these stains don’t go as deeply as oil-based ones, remember to really even and smooth out the piece/s you intend to coat.
Should you stain on wet wood?
As a general rule, wood should not have moisture content higher than 15% before staining. This is to make sure that the wood does not rot from the inside as staining will lock in moisture and whatever debris was left unremoved. Oil-based stains, in particular, arent as good because of the fact that oil doesn’t really mix with water, thus leading to either a weak hold or a very uneven and discolored application.
Oil-based and water-based stains are both great choices, depending on how and what you’ll use them on. Oil-based stains are recommended for outdoor applications such as fences and decks because of their damage-resistant properties and natural aesthetics.
Meanwhile, if you’re after a little interior creativity and would like some vibrant colors, water-based stains are the way to go. They are also less toxic than oil-based stains and dry faster. Whichever type of stain you choose, the most important thing to take note of is that your piece should be fully prepped before applying a coated finish – fully sanded, planed, and even treated with a pre-stain.
Hopefully, this quick read woke the inner artist inside you and has you all revved up to try your hands at wood staining!
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My name is Aaron, and welcome to Bangingtoolbox.
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