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Oil Based Vs Water Based Stain For Various Uses

No matter what kind of wood you’re working with, choosing the right wood stain is crucial. You’ll have to decide between two different stain types: oil based or water based. Both have a unique set of benefits and drawbacks, and they can totally transform your wood. Before you invest in one wood stain over another, make sure you know which one is right for you. We have thoroughly researched the difference between oil based wood stains and water based wood stains.

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Oil based wood stains are most distinguishable from water based stains because of their drying time. However, there are several other ways to tell the two stains apart. So, it’s important to consider your own individual purposes, and choose the right wood stain based on their special characteristics:

  • Oil based stains have a longer drying time
  • Oil based stains have more durability
  • Oil based stains won’t raise the wood grain
  • Water based stains have increased flexibility
  • Water based stains are more eco-friendly
  • Water based stains resist UV light

Before you commit to one wood stain in particular, you should feel certain about which one is the best fit for your own woodworking adventure. Keep reading to learn if an oil based stain or a water based stain will work best for projects like flooring, furniture, or cabinets.

Paint brush and paint can for a timber deck, Oil Based Vs Water Based Stain For Various Uses

How can you tell if a stain is oil or water based?

Manufacturers will always sell their wood stains with the base substance printed on the product. But you still need to know how oil based stains and water based stains are different.

Using one wood stain type over the other can get pretty divisive, but it all comes down to your personal preference and project. Once you can distinguish the benefits of an oil or water based stain, then your wood will turn out just the way you want it to.

Staining hardwood patio deck

Drying Time

This is easily going to make the biggest difference, when you choose between oil or water based wood stains. Because oil based stains typically have a base of linseed oil in their binder, it will take longer for oil based wood stains to dry. The longer drying time of an oil based stain can make your decision very simple.

For example, specialists like Deck Stain Help agree that a water based wood stain will dry in just a few hours. Meanwhile, oil based stains can take as long as a full day to dry. In fact, you also have to wait longer on an oil based wood stain for a full cure.

However, since oil based wood stains take longer to dry, you are allowed more time to evenly distribute the stain. This will result in a smoother, level coating on the wood. An oil based stain is sometimes considered to be more user friendly, since you aren’t in a rush to apply the coating and then remove the excess.


One of the greatest advantages of an oil based wood stain is its superior durability. An oil based stain will naturally penetrate the wood a lot more than a water based stain. This is because oil molecules are actually smaller than water molecules.

An oil based stain will soak directly into the grain of the wood, with much greater adhesion. As a result, an oil based wood stain will maintain its form over time, fading rather than peeling. Water based stains can peel over time. They may also peel if you apply too much at the very beginning.

Ultimately, this means that you will not have to add another coating of oil based wood stains as often as you would for a water based alternative. An oil based stain’s adhesion also makes it easier to refresh. You can read this post to learn if wood stain protects wood.

Wood Grain Effects

When any kind of wood is exposed to water and moisture, the natural fibers in the grain are going to swell and rise. This means that using any water based wood stain can potentially raise the grain of your wood project.

If your water based stain raises the wood grain, it will compromise the entire job. This means you will have to commit to more preparation. If you plan on using a water based stain, you’ll need to “bury” the wood grain beforehand. You have to deliberately get the wood wet in order to raise the grain, then sand it down before you ever actually apply the wood stain.


Water based wood stains are the clear victor when it comes to overall flexibility. This is mainly because a water based stain is remarkably easy to clean up. The binder for a water based wood stain just includes more water. In other words, all you would need to quickly fix a mistake is some ordinary soap and water.

Also, water based wood stains will not cause the area to develop an overwhelming stench. Since water is the primary ingredient, you don’t have to worry about a long-lasting odor. An oil based wood stain will sink so deep into the wood, the smell penetrates that much longer. As such, the oil based stain can potentially stink for days, weeks, or even months.

Lastly, water based wood stains are also famous for their wide range of colors. You can find a vast selection of shades on the market. Meanwhile, it may be harder to find just the right color with an oil based wood stain. This can make all the difference if you’re trying to style your home interior or exterior. With interior design, colors are often supposed to remain within the same family of colors and shades.


Water based wood stains are most ideal if you want to benefit the environment. To begin with, they do not require complex solvents in order to clean up a mistake or mess. An oil based wood stain would require a lot more than soap and water.

More importantly, water based stains will not cause dangerous fumes. Oil based wood stains result in something called “VOCs.” This is an acronym for “volatile organic compounds,” which are not safe to breathe.

Experts like ECOS Paints advise that oil based wood stains are made with ingredients that can produce long-lasting, toxic VOCs. These VOCs can potentially cause bad health conditions such as nausea, dizziness, and respiratory issues. The VOCs may even be corrosive, which certainly isn’t environmentally friendly.

In fact, oil based stains are actually flammable, which most manufacturers warn you about right on the package.

UV Light and Mold

Water based stains are stronger against UV light. This means that any water based stain can retain its color for a longer period of time.

Also, water based stains don’t penetrate the wood so deeply, letting in plenty of airflow when you apply it. Since the wood is allowed to breathe, water won’t build up so easily. And mold is simply a fungus that requires moisture to survive.

It’s only after the oil stain fully cures that it can more effectively hold out water. But it takes a long time for oil based stains to cure. Oil based wood stains can trap water when you apply it, causing decay over time. After application, oil based stains are better at deflecting water and mold. 

When do you apply oil based stain?

Staining wooden floor in a room

Given all of the factors listed above, there are specific projects that will benefit most from an oil based stain. Since the oil option takes longer to dry, it is ideal for any large surface area. This will give you enough time to evenly coat the entire project.

Oil based stains also have a smell that lingers. This means you may want to avoid interior projects unless you can fully ventilate the area. Since oil based stains are thicker and more durable, most people suggest using them for outdoor projects anyway. You can read this post to help choose between staining or painting for outdoor wooden surfaces.

Don’t forget that oil based wood stains are flammable, too. So, it’s generally best to keep away from your home. But don’t forget that you’ll have to add a protective coat on an exterior oil wood stain. It is notoriously weak to mold and UV light.

Water or oil based stain for furniture?

An oil based stain is best for furniture projects. Furniture is often quite large, so you will need time to evenly coat all of the wood. But furniture can also be treated outside, where the harmful, smelly VOCs will not seep into your home for months. The furniture can then be brought inside when ready.

How long does oil based stain last?

A hand in a gray glove with a brush paints the floor with brown oil paint

The lifespan of any wood stain can change from one brand or project to the next. However, oil based stains are known for their special durability once they are applied to the wood. If you are looking for something that can withstand rougher elements, then you need a thick oil based stain. But water based stains can keep their color for longer periods of time.

Specialists like Lovitt’s Coatings suggest that any wood stain on a deck needs to be refreshed every two or three years. But keep in mind that many experts agree that any kind of water damage will force you to re-stain the wood much sooner than that. If your oil based wood stain caught water upon application, you might have to re-stain your wood within a year.

What are water based stains used for?

Adult carpenter craftsman painting with water-based paint the wood

Water based wood stains are best for small and indoor projects. That’s because this stain will dry up too quickly for larger projects. But they won’t trap unwanted smells and fumes indoors. Also, water based stains are not flammable, which makes them safer to use inside.

Water or oil based stain for hardwood floors?

Either stain can be best for hardwood floors, depending on the circumstances. For example, a water based stain would be less durable and dry too quickly, requiring more work. Then again, you would be able to walk across the hardwood floor sooner. And there won’t be any negative health issues.

An oil based wood stain will survive more foot traffic. You would also have more time to evenly distribute the stain. But it is also flammable, and it could stink up the place for months. You have to personally determine if the durability of an oil wood stain will outweigh the health risks involved.

Water or oil based stain for kitchen cabinets?

Kitchen cabinets are the perfect job for a water based wood stain. It is a relatively small project as long as you divide the work. It absolutely has to be used indoors. More importantly, it’s best that you avoid using anything as flammable as oil based wood stains in a kitchen. And kitchen cabinets won’t be subject to tough weather conditions.

Can I use oil based stain over water based?

Yes, it is possible to use either kind of stain over the other. The only thing you have to account for is that the existing layer must be allowed enough time to completely cure. Only then can you add anything on top of it.


There are countless applications for wood stains, but choosing an oil or water based stain can make all the difference. Now you know which wood stain is best for unique jobs, based on the pros and cons of oil or water based stains. So, all you have to do is weigh the advantages for your own project and get the job done right.