Oil-Based vs Water-Based Wood Stain

Aug 22, 2023Richard Weager

Enhancing the natural beauty of wood while safeguarding it from the elements is a common goal for many woodworkers. To achieve this, natural wood stain is a great choice. However, when selecting the right wood stain, there are two primary options: oil-based and water-based. Each type offers its own advantages and disadvantages, making it crucial to understand their differences before making a decision.

We explore the unique qualities of oil-based and water-based wood stains, compare them in various aspects, and provide a practical buying guide to help you make an informed choice for your project.

Overview of Oil- and Water-Based Wood Stains

Oil-Based Wood Stain

An oil-based wood stain is a type of wood finish that uses oil as a carrier for the colour pigment.

Benefits Disadvantages
Provides rich, vibrant colour Longer drying time
Penetrates deep into the wood for lasting protection Stronger odour that requires good ventilation
Durable and more resistant to scratches More difficult to clean up (requires solvents)
Excellent water repellency Potentially harmful VOCs
Can be applied in a wide range of weather conditions Can yellow over time
Easier to achieve a smooth, streak-free finish Can be more expensive

Water-Based Wood Stain

A water-based wood stain is a type of wood finish that uses water as its primary solvent for the colour pigment.

Benefits Disadvantages
Faster drying time Might not penetrate as deeply as oil-based stains
Easier cleanup (just soap and water) Can raise the grain of the wood, requiring sanding
Low odour, making it safer for indoor use Might not provide as rich colours
More environmentally friendly Less resistant to scratches
Generally, they won’t yellow over time Durability might be lower in harsh weather
Available in a wide range of vibrant colours Could require multiple coats for desired results

Comparison Between Oil- and Water-Based Wood Stains

Here’s an in-depth comparison of oil- and water-based wood stains in terms of five key criteria:

  1. Application ProcessOil-based stains require more thorough surface preparation for proper adhesion and penetration compared to water-based stains. When it comes to application, oil-based stains can be applied with a brush, cloth, or sprayer, offering a longer open time for even application and blending. In contrast, water-based stains can be applied with a brush, cloth, or roller, but their faster drying time requires a quicker and more precise application to avoid lap marks. When it comes to the number of coats needed, oil-based stains often require fewer coats due to their higher pigmentation and better coverage, resulting in a more even colour with fewer applications. On the other hand, water-based wood stains may require multiple coats to achieve the desired colour intensity. However, cleanup after using oil-based stains can be more challenging as it requires special solvents like mineral spirits or paint thinner, while you can easily clean up water-based wood stains with just soap and water.
  2. Finish and AppearanceOil-based wood stains offer a deeper, richer colour with a more pronounced and traditional stained look. The oil penetrates the wood, enhancing its natural beauty and grain. They take longer to dry and cure (typically several hours to a day) and provide a more natural and subtle sheen that you can tweak through different finishes like matte, satin, or glossy. Water-based wood stains may not offer as deep a colour as oil-based stains, but they provide better colour clarity and are popular for achieving lighter or more contemporary finishes. They dry quickly – often within an hour or two. Water-based stains also offer a clearer, more even sheen, making them suitable for modern or minimalist aesthetics.
  3. Durability and Long-Term Performance – Oil-based wood stains are generally known for their durability. They penetrate deep into the wood fibres, providing a strong protective barrier against moisture, UV rays, and general wear and tear. This makes oil-based stains well-suited for high-traffic areas and exterior applications, but they may develop a yellowish hue as they age. On the other hand, water-based wood stains may not be as durable in the long run. While they offer good initial protection, their resistance to moisture and UV rays may diminish over time, especially in high-traffic areas. However, despite being less robust, water-based stains generally maintain their original colour better over time.
  4. Maintenance RequirementsDue to their hard-wearing nature, oil-based wood stains typically require less frequent maintenance. They also attract less dust and dirt than water-based wood stains. Depending on the conditions, you may only need to reapply oil-based wood stain every 2 to 5 years or even longer. Water-based stains, though less durable, are relatively easy to maintain and reapply, making them a flexible choice for those who enjoy regular touch-ups. You may need to reapply this stain every 1 to 3 years, depending on usage and exposure to the elements.
  5. Environmental Impact and Eco-Friendliness​ – Oil-based wood stains have a larger environmental impact due to their higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can contribute to air pollution and indoor air quality issues. Disposing of oil-based stain containers and waste requires special care as they are considered hazardous, potentially leading to soil and water contamination. Additionally, most oil-based stains are derived from petroleum-based sources, contributing to the depletion of non-renewable fossil fuels. Water-based wood stains are more eco-friendly and have a lower environmental impact. They contain lower VOC levels, reducing harmful emissions and promoting better air quality. The disposal of water-based stains is less hazardous than that of oil-based stains, and they are often based on water instead of petroleum products, making them more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

A Practical Buying Guide for Wood Stains

When choosing a wood stain, consider the following factors:

  • Project type: Determine whether your project is indoor or outdoor, as this will influence the type of stain you choose.
  • Desired finish: For a traditional, rich colour with a subtle sheen, go for oil-based stains. Select water-based wood stains if you prefer a clearer colour and contemporary appearance.
  • Application ease: If you are a DIY enthusiast or prefer easy cleanup, water-based stains are the better choice. They are easier to apply and clean up with water.
  • Durability: Assess the level of durability required for your project, considering factors such as weather exposure and foot traffic.
  • Environmental impact: If eco-friendliness is a priority, opt for water-based stains with low VOC content.
  • Consider drying time: Water-based stains dry faster than oil-based stains, making them more suitable for projects with time constraints.
  • Test samples: Before committing to a large project, test both oil-based and water-based stains on a small area of the wood to see how each performs and looks.

Paint Products for Wood Staining Projects

Beyond stains, other paint products play a crucial role in enhancing and protecting wood staining projects. Varnishes, available in glossy or matte finishes, offer an additional layer of protection to the wood surface.

Sealers serve as a moisture barrier, preventing warping and rot due to excessive water absorption. In addition, wood conditioners are specifically designed to ensure an even stain application on porous wood surfaces. By using these various products together, you can achieve a professional finish that suits your project’s requirements.


The choice between oil-based and water-based wood stain depends largely on the specifics of your project, your personal preferences, and the desired outcome. Oil-based stains are praised for their durability and rich, lustrous colours, while water-based stains score points for their quick drying times, ease of cleanup, and environmental friendliness.

At Greenshop Paints, we have many high-quality oil- and water-based wood stains to choose from. We recommend AURO 160 woodstain, a great all-rounder that you can use indoors and outdoors, offers long-lasting protection, and comes in a wide range of colours.

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