Oil vs. Water Based Stain: Which Should You Use?

Staining is a crucial step when finishing most woodworking projects as it determines the appearances of the workpiece and also affects the durability.

While there are many types of wood stains out there, most woodworkers will always find themselves in a situation where they have to pick between the water-based and oil-based stains.

Both are quite useful stains as they protect and enhance the appearance of the workpiece. However, each has some pros and cons and it will be suitable for different situations.

Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of the two common stain types is vital in ensuring that you pick the right one for your project.

1. Oil Based Stain

Oil Based Stain

Oil-based wood stains are the most commonly used and they are what comes to may woodworkers mind when they think of wood stain.

These stains will have a linseed oil base or a mixture of linseed with varnish which gives woodworkers plenty of time to wipe off any excess before the stain dries.

Read More: Linseed Oil vs. Tung Oil

One of the easiest ways to identify oil-based stain and also what sets them apart from the water-based types is the fact that they use mineral spirits as a thinning and clean-up agent. For the water-based stains, you only need water for thinning.

Oil-based stains tend to penetrate deeper than the water-based ones and also leave behind a richer and more vivid color that is easy to refresh by applying another coat.

Since these stains penetrate deeper into the wooden workpiece and adhere to the surface, they are relatively easier to apply than the water-based ones. And this is more so when working on large pieces.

The excellent surface adhesion that the oil-stains provide helps to resist peeling, and it makes these some of the longest lasting stain types.


  • More even finish. The oil-based stain will require more time to dry and while this might be a disadvantage it is also an advantage as it makes it easier to get a more even finish. Also, the slow drying makes it possible to wipe off any excess stain for an excellent finish.
  • Penetrate deeper. The formulation of oil-based stains is meant to ensure that it penetrates deep. It will penetrate into the wood deeper than the water-based stains and hence offer more long-lasting protection for the workpiece.
  • Extremely durable. If you are looking for a wood stain that will last for a long time an oil-based one is always the best option. Although it will take longer to dry, the stain will last for a long time once dry and it is also easier to refresh.


  • Slow drying. Oil-based stains will take a long time to dry and they might not be the best choice when working on an urgent product. Some will take about a day to dry while others will require at least a couple of days to dry completely.
  • More susceptible to mold/mildew. If you prefer to use oil-based stains you should be ready to deal with mold and mildew at some point. Unfortunately, the resins that make these stains what they are, also make them more susceptible to mold and mildew.

2. Water-Based Stain

Water-Based Stain

Water-based stains might not be as popular as the oil-based types but they are still handy to have in the workshop, as they can be useful for certain projects.

These stains are the types that use a water-based finish as the binder and they will replace most of the organic thinner with water. And you can tell that a stain is water based if it uses water as a thinner and for clean-up.

Water-based stains are ideal for use under water-based finishes as they will not bond well with the oil-based ones. However, it is still possible to use them on oil-based finishes if you give them enough time to dry first.

In case the stain does not come out how you wanted, it is easier to fix the problem when using a water-based stain. All you need to do is to clean up the section with water and apply a fresh coat.

Also, these stains will allow air to move in and out to ensure that the stain does not trap water and cause decay. And they are also more environmentally friendly than the oil-based stains since they will not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).


  • Quick drying. Sometimes you do not have the time to wait for the stain to dry, and so you need something that is quick drying such as the water-based stains. When dealing with simple and small projects a quick-drying stain offers a significant advantage.
  • Easy cleanup. There is nothing special that you will need to clean up a water-based stain because some water is just enough. This makes the stain quite convenient, unlike the oil based ones that will require minerals spirits for cleanup.
  • Mildew and mold resistant. Water-based stains are extremely resistant to mold and mildew. You will never have to deal with the two when using water-based stains as most will also have some additives to prevent their development in your workpiece.
  • More environmentally friendly. If like many other woodworkers you are always concerned about the environment when picking your products, water-based stains are better than the oil-based ones. These stains will not emit VOCs and they also do not produce a lot of harmful fumes and odors.


  • More difficult to use. Water-based stains dry fast and also raise the grain of the wood which makes them more difficult to use than the oil-based types. For example, if you were to use water-based stains on a larger workpiece some sections will dry even before you finish applying the stain on the others.
  • Not deep penetrating. These stains are not deep penetrating or at least not as deep as oil-based stains, and so they will not offer a lot of protection for the wood.


Ultimately the choice between water-based and oil-based stains is all up to a woodworker’s preference. However, there are certain things that should guide you when making this choice.

You need to consider the type of wood, previous wood treatment, and weather exposure. If you are dealing with wood with a natural resistance to rotting such as cedar and cypress, a water-based stain is the best option.

Water-based stains are also the best option for simple woodworking projects that require some quick staining as they tend to dry fast. Also, these stains will be the best choice where mold and mildew are a concern as it is extremely resistant to both.

Oil-based stain, on the other hand, is great for covering wood that will be exposed to elements like wind, rain, and sunlight as it can withstand the harsh conditions for long.

Last Updated on August 7, 2020 by

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Tom Bradly

My entrepreneurial journey started in 2006, when I dropped out of university. I wanted to work with my hands, to build things. Now I mix my background with computers with my first-hand experience with woodworking to provide insights into the tools I like best. I love everything about woodworking and have been building stuff for over 20 years of my life. I hope to pass some knowledge and expertise. See more at TomBradly.com

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