Are you a diy-er? Do you like to stain your own wood projects?

If so, you need to know the difference between oil based stains and water based stains.

Each type of stain has its own pros and cons, so it’s important to choose the right one for the project.

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at both types of stains and help you decide which is best for you.

First things First: What is Stain? 

Stain is simply a pigment added to wood to give it color. It is a kind of finish added to wood to protect its surface and keep the grains in place. This finish comes in different colors, textures and works just like paint.

However, the difference between paint and stain is that paint stays on the surface it is used on while stain gets absorbed into the material’s pores.

Wood stains come in different types, including oil-based, water-based, and gel stains, but we will be talking about two of them.

Also Read: Gel Stain Compared to Conventional Wood Stain

Oil Based Stain 

From its name, it is obvious this type of wood stain contains oil, most commonly linseed oil, in its formula. This oil serves as a solvent in which pigments are dissolved.

Due to how thick and viscous it is, it dries slowly. Oil stains are often used to stain furniture, decks, kitchen cabinets, and floors.


  • It offers a durable base for paint to last long
  • Its glossy finish makes the surface water-proof; hence water or moisture cannot seep in.
  • It absorbs and adheres to wood better, making it stronger and capable of bearing weight.
  • Oil-based wood stains are easy to apply as one coat is enough.
  • When given enough time to cure and harden, it leaves a super hard finish.


  • It has a high content of chemical-based pigments and particles, which makes it release toxic fumes when in use.
  • Oil-based stains are difficult to clean.
  • It has a longer drying time
  • Its lifespan is quite short when exposed to direct sunlight and needs to be re-applied several times

Water Based Stain

This type of stain has its particles dissolved in water, serving as its solvent. Water-based stain is usually thin in consistency and flow. The water content in this stain gives it lesser drying time. When dried, it leaves a textured finish that does not require sanding before an extra coat is applied. If you want to color the wood or enhance its appearance with a natural bristle brush and a water-based wood stain, you will achieve this. This is why it is also called a wood dye, as it can be used on decorative items such as frames and for staining cabinets.


  • It is easy to apply using a spray gun or a paintbrush
  • It can retain its color for a long period
  • With soap and water, you can easily get rid of excess water-based stain
  • It prevents the build-up of moisture on the surface of the wood as it does not clog the wood’s pores.
  • Water-based stains have a short drying time as they dry on time within as few as 30 minutes.


  • It cannot resist harsh weather, which makes it unsuitable for use outdoor
  • It is not durable as its particles do not bond very well on the surface
  • Water-based stains can dry hard, but the surface is susceptible to marks and scratches from sharp objects.
  • It is less penetrating to wood which makes it peel off over time.
  • It sometimes requires a sealant or conditioner to be applied before staining is done.

What is the difference between oil based and water based stain?

Oil based stain soak into the wood grain, forming a great adhesion with your surface, while water based stain easily peels off. The water based stain peels during the application, or this may happen over time. Besides, oil based stain is more durable and do not fade as quickly as water based stains.

Is oil based stain better than water based?

Depending on where you want to stain, it is better to use oil-based stain outdoors than water-based stain, which is more suited for indoor use.

This results from how resistant oil-based stain is to moisture and extreme weather changes, whereas water-based stain serves more coloring purposes than protection on interior surfaces. 

Read also: Best red stain for wood and Purple wood stain

Oil vs Water based Stain: Head to Head Comparison?

There are certain situations where one stain is better than the other. So, let us compare both stains based on special characteristics and factors.

You might want to put one or two of them into consideration before you go ahead to purchase a type of stain. 

Oil based vs water based stain: Durability

Oil-based stains are the most durable type of stains. Remember, durability refers to the ability of the stain to stay for a long time without deteriorating in quality. So, when it comes to how durable stains are, oil-based stains are a better option than water-based stains.

This is a result of how long it takes for stains with an oil base to dry up, offering them more time to bond well and adhere to the surface of the wood.

They dry hard on the surface of the wood, making them not easily prone to scratches or chipping, unlike water-based stains that are even known to peel off over time.

Water based wood stain vs oil based stain: Flexibility 

The type of surface you want to stain is probably the first thing that dictates what kind of stain you would go for. Generally, it is advised to use water-based stains indoors and on pressure-treated wood while oil-based ones for outdoors on more oily woods.

A water-based deck stain is better if you want to stain your outdoor deck exposed to the sun as its color does not fade easily. Oil-based stains are more suitable if you want to stain wooden floors in high-traffic areas. 

When it comes to flexibility, oil-based stains are more flexible and versatile as they can go on any surface anywhere in the home.

Oil based wood stain vs water based: Drying time 

Generally, water dries faster than oil which explains why oil-based stains take longer to dry than water-based stains. On average, in about 30 minutes, water-based stains can dry enough to take on an extra coat and take about 24 hours to dry fully.

Meanwhile, oil-based stains need about an hour to dry after the first coat and up to 3 days to dry completely. Note that drying time varies based on several factors, such as humidity and temperature. 

So, in this regard, water-based stains win as they have a shorter drying time

Water based vs oil based wood stain: Wood grain effects 

The rate of penetration of both stains has a corresponding effect on the wood grain. Oil-based stains penetrate more into the wood, which does not result in raising the wood grain.

Hence the stain adheres well to the surface and does not peel off on time, even if the color fades. On the other hand, water-based stains do not penetrate as they do not absorb into the wood, which will raise the wood grain, resulting in peeling off.

This is why light sanding is done before another layer of stain is added to make the surface smooth.

So in terms of effects on wood grains, an oil-based stain is better than a water-based stain.

Oil based vs water based wood stain: Type of finish 

The type of finish these kinds of stains leave also differs. An oil-based stain leaves a glossy finish after it has dried and hardened, while a water-based stain does not dry that hard.

This explains why water-based stains are easier to clean with soap and water, while oil stain requires using paint thinner or mineral spirits.

Although this depends on your preference, generally, oil-based stains leave a better type of finish.

Read More: Can You Dilute Wood Stain With Water?

Water vs oil based stain: UV light

This is the light that comes from the sun. So under exposure to the sun, these stains fare differently. Water-based deck stains are more resistant to UV light than oil-based stains as they do not affect their color appearance.

Hence, water-based stains retain color longer than oil-based deck stains upon exposure to UV rays.

In this regard, a water-based stain is better than an oil-based stain.

Water vs oil based wood stain: Eco-friendliness 

This refers to how safe or harmful the stain is based on environmental reasons. The oil-based stain has a high concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which get released into the environment and is harmful.

It releases toxic fumes with a lingering odor which is why a mask and appropriate ventilation are important while staining is done. On the other hand, water-based stains are not as harmful because there is less VOC concentration.

So water-based stains are more environmentally friendly than oil-based stains.

Read More: How to Tell if Wood Stain is Bad

Water based stain vs oil based stain: Resistance to water 

Wood traps moisture but is less absorbent to water after being stained. Oil-based stains offer more resistance to water as they dry hard on the surface they are applied to, making it almost impossible for moisture to seep in.

The glossy finish they leave also makes them water-resistant. On the other hand, water-based stains leave a coating that water can easily pass through.

Read Also: Alder Wood Stain Chart

Advantages of Oil based Stains over Water Based Stains

  1. Oil-based stains are more durable than water-based stains as they penetrate deeply into the wood.
  2. Oil-based stain leaves a very hard protective layer on the surface of the material it is applied to after drying, which protects the wood from moisture and scratches. 
  3. Oil-based stains are better for outdoor use as they are more resistant to prolonged rain, wind, and sun exposure.
  4. Oil-based stains are easier to apply and maintain compared to water-based stains.
  5. Oil-based stains leave a thick glossy sheen finish which might not require an additional protective layer of coating.
  6. Oil-based stains are versatile as they can be used for interior and exterior use.

Advantages of Water-Based Stains Over Oil Based Stains

  1. Water-based stains are best suited for wood such as cedar, redwood, and cypress as they offer natural resistance to rot.
  2. Water-based stains can be used over surfaces that have been previously stained.
  3. Water-based stains offer longer color maintenance than oil-based stains.
  4. Water-based stains do not take as long as oil-based stains to dry, which makes them a better option for quick and small staining projects.
  5. Water-based stains do not clog the pores of wood as oil-based stains do; hence air can move in and out of the wood without being trapped, causing wood rot.
  6. Water-based stains are not as flammable as their oil-based counterparts are due to the nature of their solvent, so it is safe for use in home areas like the kitchen.
  7. Oil and water-based stains emit fumes, but oil-based stains have a lingering smell. Here is what to do if the stain smell won’t go away.

Water or oil based stain: Use Cases

Oil or water-based stain for dining table?

Oil-based stain is better for a dining table because it gives it an even finish. If you use a water-based stain, you’ll likely need to apply multiple coats to get an even finish, and each coat will need to dry completely before applying the next.

With an oil-based stain, you’ll only need to apply one or two coats, and the drying time is much shorter.

Oil-based stain vs water-based stain for cabinets

Oil based stain is more suitable for cabinets than water based stain because of its high durability and resistant properties. This means your cabinets will last longer than when you use a water stain.

Oil based stains also make the cabinets richer and darker, giving your cabinets a more refined look.

Oil or water-based stain for cedar fence

When it comes to staining cedar fence, either oil or water-based stains can be used. However, water-based stains are generally recommended because they are less likely to cause the wood to dry out and crack.

Cedar is a naturally resistant wood, so using a water-based stain will help to keep the wood looking fresh for many years.

Also, read on the best screws for wood fences.

Oil or water-based stain for deck

Oil-based stain is the best for a deck if it’s in direct exposure to sunlight, wind, and rain. This is because it is more durable than water-based stain and can withstand such weather conditions.

If your deck is in a cooler climate and does not get a lot of sunlight, water-based stain would be fine, but it is not as effective as oil-based stain.

Interesting read: Can you put water-based polyurethane over oil-based stain?


When should I use an oil based stain?

You should use oil-based stain when you want to stain a piece for outdoor use, where it will be exposed to extreme weather changes. You can also use it to protect your wood and prevent damage that could occur over time. Oil-based stains can be used to cover cracks or change the color of your wood too.

When should I use a water based stain?

You should use water-based stain when staining for indoor use, mostly to serve a decorative purpose. It is suitable when there is a need for a sealant as it is applied in light coats, which can be layered with a second coat. 

Can I use oil based stain over water based?

Yes, you can apply oil-based stain over water based stain as long as the previous stain has dried up. All you have to do is lightly sand the surface that has been previously stained before you apply the new stain.

Can I use water based stain over oil based?

Yes, you can use a water-based stain over an oil based finish as long as the surface is completely dry. Also, you want to ensure you clean the surface of the wood to wipe off any traces of moisture.

Read also: Valspar vs sherwin williams paint.

Water based vs oil based stain: Final Verdict

So, what’s the verdict? In short, oil-based stains are more durable and versatile than water-based stains. They can be used on a wider variety of surfaces and last longer without fading or peeling.

However, they’re also more difficult to work with and require specialized equipment.

Water-based stains are your best bet if you’re looking for a quick and easy solution that will get the job done quickly.

But if you’re willing to put in a bit of extra effort, oil-based stains will give you better results in the long run.

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