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Oil Based vs Water Based

Oil Based Stains & Sealers vs Water Based Stains & Sealers

Selecting a stain or sealer for your wood deck, siding or furniture can be a daunting task.  You read about water (or soy) based stains that are all natural and environmentally friendly and then you read about oil stains and it can all be very confusing.  The fact of the matter is that there is no real correct answer.  What we want to do is to educate you on the pros and cons of each and allow you to make your own decision! 


Qualities of Water Based Stains & Sealers:

Wood Breathability – Water base stains and sealers do not trap moisture in the wood allowing the wood to breath after application allowing the wood’s own inherent properties protect itself.  This is especially beneficial on softer woods like cypress, cedar and redwood.

Application Process – The application of water based products can be much easier to deal with.  There are little or no harmful fumes emitted which allows for you to use in an enclose area and not have to have all the windows open.  Dry time is faster and clean-up is a synch with just soap and water.  You have to be careful because using too much of a water based stain can raise the grain of some woods.  It’s less of an issue with decking, siding and outdoor furniture where you aren’t trying to have that perfect glossy finish.  If you are finishing a raw piece of wood, you can select whichever type you want.  And water based products can be applied over oil based products if that was what was originally used.

Mildew Resistant – Completely mildew resistant because of the breathability quality we discussed earlier.  However, some manufacturers will include additives that can increase the possibility of mildew.  If this is the case, the instructions will say that the product is not breathable. 

Environmentally Friendly – Soy Based Stains are often considered eco-friendly.  Where water based stains don’t normally carry the same stamp, they are certainly more environmentally friendly.  They have less harmful chemicals and are not flammable.

Durability – Over the years they have made these products more durable but oil stains are still considered to be more durable.  What this means is that you may want to reapply more often as the finish will wear off faster.  So the advantage of an easy application can be offset a bit by the need for reapplying more often.


Qualities of Water Based Stains & Sealers:

Wood Breathability – Oil Stains and Sealers penetrates your wood deeper than water which provides for a more durable coating but if moisture is present, it can trap that moisture.  With woods that have a tight grain like teak and shorea, this is not as much of an issue as the water doesn’t penetrate those woods easily.   

Application Process – Application of oil based products can take longer in time but can be easier to get an even color.  These need to be applied in an open or well-ventilated area because of the high VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) levels.  Oil rags are known to combust under hot temps.  Care must be taken when disposing of these rags.  Always allow them to dry completely and do not store in an empty can or even tightly sealed trash can. 

Mildew Resistant –   Most of the newer formulated oil based products are mildew resistant but they must say so on their label.

Environmentally Friendly – Because of the high VOCs these products contain, they are considered to be less environmentally friendly.  But once the stains have dried there is little or no difference.

Durability – Oil stains and sealers are considered to be a longer lasting finish as they penetrate deeper into the grain of your wood.  Thus, allowing you more time between applications.  Exactly how long they last is tough to say as it all depends on the weather the piece is being subjected to and for how long during the year. 


Hopefully, you can now go and make a good decision on what stain you’d like to use.  As we stated in the beginning there is no right answer, it all comes down to preference.  In many cases, we tend to prefer water based products on furniture and products made of softer woods like cedar, cypress, pine and redwood and then oil based products on woods like teak and shorea.  Basically, when your furniture looks like it needs re-staining, you should apply another coat.  


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