Difference Between Oil-Based and Water-Based Stain

Whether to stain or paint when your project is ready to be finished is a common question we ask ourselves in our woodworking shop.  What’s the piece?  What is the aesthetic we’re shooting for?  Where is it going to be used, and with what other pieces?  

Then, no matter which you choose, the next question is color, and the next after that is water-based or oil-based.  And if the choice is stain, what would make us want to choose water-based stains over oil-based stains?

Time heals all wounds.  Time waits for no one.  Time is money.  All sayings about time, of course.  When it comes to stains, though, time is telling.  And by time we mean drying time and the ability to last a long time.

On those two scores, water-based stains have it over oil-based stains.  Oil-based stains take much longer to dry – depending on the workpiece and the application, the difference can often be 1-2 hrs for water-based stains vs up to 48 hours or longer for oil-based stains.  

Advantages and Disadvantages of Oil-based and Water-based Stains

1/2 pt Minwax 22750 Jacobean Wood Finish Oil-Based Wood Stain

There are other differences, as well as advantages/disadvantages for each type of stain, and the application instance has some bearing on which is better for you.  Interior vs exterior use is such an instance where one might serve you better.  

So let’s make our list:

  • As mentioned, drying time difference is huge.  With such a drastically shorter drying time for water-based stains, you’re able to move along the process of completing your project much quicker.  If the application is exterior, like a deck, you’d be able to use the deck within just a couple of hours, as a water-based stain will certainly dry in that time.
  • Durability.  While oil-based stains used in interior applications might last longer, the difference can be stark in exterior use.  Staying with the deck example, a water-based stain will offer much greater protection from harmful UV rays and will retain its color longer as a result.

Some argue that oil-based stains are more durable because they protect better against the elements in external use (again, think your deck), this really isn’t the case.  There will be the need for more frequent re-applications even if for no other reason than to keep the color up.

  • Application and Penetration.  Because oil-based stains dry more slowly, their application can be easier.  This means you can take your time with blending in your brush strokes to create a more even finish without brush overlaps.  Oil-based stains won’t raise the grain on your wood, either.  

Oil-based stains penetrate the wood more effectively and easily than water-based stains.  That better penetration makes oil-based stains far less likely to peel – their color will fade and fail, but they won’t peel.

Water-based stains, on the other hand, require more attention and presence during application.  You will want to be quicker in getting the stain down before the area you just stained can begin drying in earnest.  In doing so, though, you don’t want to apply too much stain, more than the wood can absorb – water-based stains are not absorbed by wood as well as oil-based stains are –  or you risk peeling down the road.

Water-based stains will raise the grain of the wood it is applied to, and require that you give a light sanding to the wood to smooth out the surface again.

  • Environmental Considerations.  Oil-based stains contain higher volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can harm the environment.  They carry with them an odor against which you should be using a face mask and ventilator, as well as keep the windows/doors open to allow plenty of air to circulate.

Water-based stains, on the other hand, are environmentally friendly.  There is also the odor with water-based stains, and they are entirely non-flammable – they’re water-based, remember.  

  • Susceptibility to harmful influences.  Oil-based stains often contain elements that feed the growth of mildew, mold, and other harmful effects that can damage, and ultimately rot, wood in exterior uses (again, think that deck out back).

Water-based stains, on the other hand, offer no “food” for mildew, mold, and other harmful effects, and do not make the wood more susceptible to them.   

  • Uses.  We’ve mentioned exterior uses and the desirability to use water-based stains on your deck for the UV protection and to combat color fade.  For indoor use, though, oil-based stains may be favored for hardwood floors because of its longer drying time – you’d have more time to evenly distribute the stain over the whole floor.  Oil-based stains will take a lot of foot traffic better than water-based stains; yet, you can walk on the water-based stain in just hours.

Then again, there is the higher flammability of the oil-based stain to consider, as well as its lingering odor, and the need to keep windows and doors open to aid in during and in odor removal.

  • Cleanup.  Water-based stains win the day with the ease of their cleanup.  Soap and warm water will clean the brush, the roller pan, and your hands.  You’ll want to have mineral spirits handy to clean up after using oil-based stain, though, as warm, soapy water will not do the trick.

Final Considerations on Which Stain To Use For Which Purpose

The wood to be stained might have a bearing on which stain you will want to choose.  The more oily woods, cedar or redwood, for instance, will take to an oil-based stain better than a water-based one.  Pressure-treated woods like pine will respond better to water-based stains.

Oil-based stains are cheaper than water-based stains, although price is a lesser consideration than using the right stain in the right setting.  

One other consideration we didn’t mention above is the use of a pre-stain.  That will be the subject of a future piece, but suffice it to say its use can affect the choice of stain on some types of woods.  Here’s a video that shows a piece of pine stained with both types of stains, on one side with a pre-stain product, and the other side without.  

That’s really what it comes down to in this instance.  Picking the right stain for the job.  Time is the major difference, but there are enough others to consider that time will not necessarily be the deciding factor.  

What’s the job?  What’s the wood?  How big is the job?  Indoors?  Outdoors?  Ask these questions, too, and the answers will determine your choice.

Leave a Comment