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Oil vs. Water Based Stain – What’s the Difference?

Oil vs. Water Based Stain

Photo: eurodesignbuild.com

While there are several factors that you will need to consider when choosing a wood stain for your projects, the choice always starts by deciding whether to buy the water or oil-based type.

The two stain types will provide different protection levels and coverage depending on things like wood type and exposure to the element. In this piece, we compare oil and water-based stains side by side to help you figure out which one will work best for your project.

Overall Findings

Oil-Based Stain

Water-Based Stain

  • Takes longer to dry – up 48 hours
  • Easy to apply and penetrates deeper into wood
  • More long-lasting coat
  • More challenging to clean & special solvent is required
  • Not very breathable as it seals wood
  • Gives a nice, smooth finish
  • Fast-drying – under 2 hours
  • Harder to apply and Does not penetrate deep
  • Requires more frequent reapplication
  • Easy to clean & only water and soap are required
  • More breathable coat
  • Finish is not very smooth

Oil vs. Water-Based Stain

1. Drying Time: Water-Based is Always Fast Drying

If drying time is your most important consideration when picking between the oil and water-based stains, the latter will always take the day.

Depending on the specific water-based stain you are using and the workpiece, it can dry in as little as an hour, and most hardly take more than 2 hours to dry. The fast drying time means you will not have to wait long to apply the second coat if you need more than one.

On the other hand, a typical oil-based stain can take up to 48 hours to dry completely. Worst, yet once dry, it also leaves a strong odor that lingers for days. With the water-based stain, there is hardly any odor left once it is dry.

2. Ease of Application: Oil-Based Will Give You an Easy Time

Because the oil-based stains penetrate the wood easily, they are relatively easier to apply than the water-based ones. Also, the longer dry time will give you more time to blend the brush strokes to get an even finish and color.

But, the oil-based stains still have some drawbacks when it comes to the application. Key among these shortcomings is that the application has to be in a place with proper ventilation, which can be very restrictive. Also, these stains are highly flammable and have high VOCs(volatile organic compounds) levels.

Water-based stains will give you a more challenging time for the application as they do not penetrate deep into the wood. These stains require more care and thorough brushing to get them on the wood; this means more skill and effort are needed.

Still, the water-based stain also has advantages such as allowing you to use them in enclosed spaces since they do not have any harmful fumes.

3. Finish: Nice & Smooth Finish

While the oil-based stains take a long time to dry, the wait is always worth it as they leave the wood with an excellent finish. When applied correctly, you will get a smooth and more even finish with your oil-based stain without having to do much.

The finish that you get when using the water-based stain is not as smooth as the oil-based stain, and it will largely depend on your skills and the quality of the specific product you are using.

When using the oil-based stains, the finish that you get is more resistant to peeling. Instead of peeling off, these stains will fade away. The finish tends to raise the wood grain when using the water-based ones, and if over-applied, it can peel out as it ages.

4. Durability: Long Service Life is guaranteed with Oil-Based Stain

The service life you get with oil-based, and water-based stains largely depends on the quality of the particular stain brand you are using. There are products in the market for both types that last on your surfaces for several years, and others that hardly protect the wood for more than a few months.

That said, the oil-based stains tend to be more durable than the water-based ones and will hence require less maintenance. Because they penetrate deep into the wood, they will protect it for longer.

While water-based stains have come a long way and are now more durable than before, you will still need to reapply them more often than the oil-based types. However, the first drying time should make up for this.

5. Breathability: Permanent Wood Sealing Makes It Less Breathable

Because the oil-based stains will seal the wood, they are not very breathable. With these stains, wood types that do not have very tight grain, such as teak, can end up trapping moisture in them, which can damage the wood. But, this wood sealing capability also makes it hard for the elements to penetrate in.

Water-based stains will create a more breathable coat. These stains ensure the wood can still use its natural properties for protection and not trap moisture in the grain.

This property also makes the water-based stains ideal for use with less dense woods like cypress and redwood that have a natural resistance to rotting.

6. Cleaning and Maintenance: Quick and Easy Cleaning with Soap and Water

Water-based stains are quick and easy to clean as you will only need soap and water. Maintaining these surfaces is also straightforward because you only have to clean the faded surface and then apply a maintenance coat without having to do any sanding or stripping off the old stain coat.

With the oil-based stain, cleaning is a more hectic process as soap and water will not do much. These stains will also contain materials that act as food for mold and mildew, which causes the wood to darken over time and hence require reapplication of the stain.

For cleanup, you need to use special solvents on the oil-based stains. And when it comes to maintenance, sanding the surface is necessary before applying a maintenance coat to ensure it adheres well.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a fast-drying wood stain that is low in odor and is safer for both the user and the environment as it contains low VOC levels, the water-based stains are perfect.

However, if you want a more durable stain that can withstand the elements and offers a smoother finish, the oil-based stains will serve you well.

Clipped Head

  • D-shaped head
  • Requires a small magazine
  • Provides less holding power
  • Prone to overdriving
  • Can be paper collated
  • Hard to pull out
  • Affordable

Round Head

  • Round-head
  • Requires a large magazine
  • Gives more holding power
  • Hard to overdrive
  • Requires plastic or wire-weld collation
  • Easy to pull out
  • Expensive
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