Staining Wood with Oil Based Stain vs Water Based Stain – What’s Better?

types of different wood stain colors on the store shelf

Here, I’m going to make staining wood much less confusing by giving you the difference between oil based stain vs water based stain.

Plus, learn the different types of wood stain and which is best for you!

Staining Wood with Oil Based Stain vs Water Based Stain

I absolutely love the look of stained wood, but I will admit I have avoided it because staining wood is hard. Or so I thought! I never took the time to understand oil based stain vs water based stain, Gel Stain, Premium Stain, Classic Stain- it all sounded so confusing!!

During my most recent house renovation, I really wanted a wood door with 3/4 glass. My vision for this house was white siding, black windows, and wood accents. So, to make this vision a reality, I needed a wood door. Being the lover of saving money and refinishing old to new, I found the most gorgeous 1900s solid wood door at my local salvage shop and got to work.

This project forced me to face my fears of staining wood head-on. And I’m so glad I went for it because I finally took the time to learn about different wood stains.

And I discovered that wood stain is not confusing. Once you understand these things, I’m about to share them with you!

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Just a friendly reminder: This tutorial and any opinions or recommendations are genuinely mine, but this is not a substitute for consulting a professional. I also use affiliate links to earn a commission.

Oil Based Stain vs. Water Based Stain

So, which is better- oil based or water base stain? Neither! Although there are several differences between oil-based and water-based stains, it’s less about performance and more about you.

Rather, picking the better one depends on your DIY comfort level and personal preference, the time you’re willing to invest, and what type of wood you’re working with.

Wood Stain Base

  • Oil-Based Stain: These stains use a petroleum-based solvent, such as mineral spirits or turpentine, as their base.
  • Water-Based Stain: These stains use water as the vehicle to carry the color pigments or dyes.
water based wood stain showing how to find the stain base type on the container
can of oil based wood stain showing where to find the base type on the container

Stain Appearance

  • Oil-Based Stain: Gives richer colors and enhances the natural grain of the wood.
  • Water-Based Stain: Typically dries clearer and may not penetrate the wood fibers as deeply as oil-based stains. It might not bring out the grain as much as oil-based stains.

Color Options

  • Oil-Based Stain: Seemingly endless color options available.
  • Water-Based Stain: More limited options, especially if you’re looking for a light to medium finish.

Drying Times

  • Oil-Based Stain: Requires longer drying time. It takes several hours or even overnight to dry completely.
  • Water-Based Stain: Dries quickly, often within a few hours.

Odor and Clean Up

  • Oil-Based Stain: Has a stronger odor and requires the use of mineral spirits to cleanup.
  • Water-Based Stain: Has a milder odor and can be cleaned up with water.

Different Stain Options

Now, knowing that each of the following options I’m about to give you comes in water and oil bases, let’s look at the different types of stains.

After learning this, you’ll know what base is better for you and what type of stain to use, too!

Gel Stain

Minwax gel stain

Gel stains are an excellent choice for beginners because they are super easy to work with. The two main advantages of gel stain are reduced blotching and a less fussy application.

This type of stain is oil-based, but instead of soaking deep down into the wood, its thicker consistency keeps the stain at the surface. You want this because it reduces blotching but still gives those natural wood colors and wood grain finish you’re looking for.

It’s also great for staining over a finished surface, such as your outdated oak banister. It is really helpful when applying to vertical surfaces because its thicker consistency doesn’t drip off.

Premium Stain

premium wood stain

Like Gel stains, Premium Fast Drying stains are another great choice for a novice. What I liked most about working with this stain is the coverage – it goes on much thicker than classic wood stain.

Premium wood stain has high-quality pigments and goes on closer to a paint application but still gives those gorgeous wood tones and grain.

can of premium wood stain

The best part about this stain is total coverage in one coat! The downside is that you have less control over the color than with a classic stain.

Downfalls to this type of stain are they will cost more, and the color choices are more limited than classic wood stains.

Classic Wood Stain

classic wood stain
container of water based wood stain

This type of stain is what you likely think of when you think of stained wood.

It has buildable coverage, which means you have more control over the final look, but that also means you’ll need to apply 2-3 + coats to get full coverage.

It’s not hard to apply, but getting a precise color takes finesse and knowledge.

can of wood stain showing where to find the stain base on the container

The benefits are that it deeply penetrates the wood, creating gorgeous wood grain finishes. It also comes in an abundance of colors that you can mix (sticking with the same base) to create custom colors easily. If you’re looking for a light to medium wood tone, you’ll have the most options with an oil-based stain.

The biggest downfall of classic stain is that it shows alllll those imperfections and is the hardest to get a blotch free finish. It is also very thin and drips, making it the messiest to work with.

How To Stain Wood

supplies needed for staining wood

The way you apply stain to wood is as simple as it comes, wipe it on!

But, the technique of staining wood is a whole other story. And if you’re not doing it right, the odds are good that you’ll end up with a blotchy mess.

That’s why I put together this how to tutorial that gives you the exact steps to follow when staining wood.

Staining Wood FAQ

Can I mix different wood stain colors?

Ever hear the saying “oil and water don’t mix”? When mixing stain colors, you have to stick with the same base. So, oil with oil and water with water. Attempting to mix a water-based stain with an oil-based stain would lead to an uneven color consistency.

If I don’t like the color, can I change it after staining?

Complete removal of stain from wood may not be possible, so it’s kind of a big deal to get it right the first time. Or at least, start light, and then go darker if you have to. The other way around it harder.

Although challenging, you can sand the wood and apply a new stain or finish over the existing one to alter the appearance.

How do I know if the wood stain is water or oil based?

two cans of wood stain

This information is on the front of the container. It’s not always well marked, especially when oil-based, but oil-based stains generally have a yellow label.

Minwax: To find out what base the stain is, on a Minwax container it will say “Premium Oil” right above the Minwax logo (generally towards the top of the can) for oil-based. Their water-based stains are more clear because they say “Water Base”.

can of oil based wood stain showing where to find the base type on the container
water based wood stain showing how to find the stain base type on the container
can of wood stain showing where to find the stain base on the container

Varathane: Check out the image above. You’ll find on the yellow can, under Varathane it says “Classic”, which is their oil-based stain. And for their fast drying premium option, under Varathane it says “Premium”. Both are oil-based stain!

Don’t be confused because Mix Wax premium oil (aka Classic stain) is different than Varathane Premium Fast Drying stain.

Next Steps

Staining wood shouldn’t seem as scary now that you know about oil based stain vs water based stain.

Especially since you know the different types of stains, you won’t be overwhelmed by all the options when you get to the hardware store.

Pin this post for later so you can reference this if you get mixed up on the different types of wood stains.

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