Types of Stain & Differences: Oil-based vs Water-based vs Gel Stain

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Cans of stain that is used as a wood colorant

Stain is a common colorant for wood that adds a hue to the surface while it retains the grain of the material. There are different types of stain available on the market. Among them, oil-based, water-based and gel stain are the most common ones.

In general, a water-based stain is a good choice for interior surfaces or in conjunction with a more protective final coating. Oil-based stains are ideal for exterior wood such as decks or wooden balcony floors. Gel stain is thicker and can therefore be applied to vertical surfaces without running or dripping.

In this article, we are going to introduce and compare these 3 types of stain in more detail.

What Is Stain?

Stain is a wood colorant that is similar to paint. It consists of pigments or dye, combined with an oil-based or water-based solvent and a binder. Stain adds a shade of color to wooden furniture, floors, doors or decks. Thereby, it usually retains the appearance of the natural grain of the wood or even enhances it – especially if the color of the stain matches that of the wood.

These characteristics sets stain apart from color paint or lacquer which are cover the original texture. One of the downsides, though, is that a coat of stain on its own does not provide much protection to the wood.

Therefore, a stain is typically used in combination with a more durable colorless finish. For instance, you could treat a piece of wood with a color stain and apply a coat of Polyurethane or colorless lacquer afterwards to achieve both the intended color and the resistance needed. Note that it is often recommended to use a conditioner, sealer or shellac before applying a stain. This helps avoid blotching, in particular for pinewood (source).

The main difference between oil-based and water-based stain is the type of binder that is used as an ingredient. Read on to learn more about this and the characteristics of each type of stain.


What Is Oil-Based Stain?

Oil-based stain consists of petroleum-distillates or a type of varnish as solvents. The other ingredients, i.e. pigments and/or dye as well as a binder, are also used in water-based stain (source).

Oil-based stains are available in various colors, yet the choice may be greater for water-based stain. It is generally more resilient than the water-based type which also includes basic water-resistance. For an even better resilience and durability, a surface treated with stain can be finished using polyurethane or another protective coating.

Oil-based stain is usually applied in 1 coat on sanded wood, using either a natural bristle brush, a foam applicator, or a cloth. If required, the first coat can be followed by a second coat (source). The drying time per coat ranges from 2 hours (interior) to 48 hours (exterior).

Using a conditioner or sealer before staining wood is generally recommended, as well as applying an oil-based protective finish after staining. Follow the instructions on the can for the requirements of the specific product.

What Are the Advantages of Oil-Based Stain?

This is the most durable type of stain. Thus, it can be used in areas subject to tear and wear. It can also be applied to exterior wood, such as decks or fences.

Most off-the-shelf stains for exterior use contain ingredients that increase the resilience and longevity of the finish. Some of these products do not even require a final protective coating.

What Are the Disadvantages of Oil-Based Stain?

In the process of application, oil-based stain tends to be smelly. This is a disadvantage in particular for interior uses as it may take a few days for the odor to vanish.

It also takes generally longer than water-based stains to dry although manufacturers have continuously improved the drying time of off-the-shelf products.

In addition, some might also prefer water-based stain for environmental reasons.

How Is Oil-Based Stain Typically Used?

Oil-based stains can be used to finish interior as well as exterior wood. Typical uses of oil-based stains include but are not limited to:

  • floors,
  • decks,
  • cabinets, as well as
  • furniture and wooden installations inside and outside the house.

4 Examples of Oil-Based Stains and their Different Characteristics

Manufacturer Product TypeCoverage (1 coat) Drying Time Time between CoatsEstimated Cost
Ready Seal
Exterior Wood Stain and Sealer exterior oil-based stainc. 125-170 sq ft per quart 48-72 hours before use > 45 minutes$
Check Price
Minwax

Wood Finish – Penetrating Oil-based Interior Wood Stain interior oil-based stainc. 150 sq ft per quart 2 – 4 hours 2 – 4 hours$
Check Price
Varathane 

Fast drying oil-based wood stain interior oil-based stainc. 275 sq ft per quart 1 hour 1 hour$$
Check Price
Rust-Oleum

Ultimate Wood Stain (oil-based, fast drying) interior oil-based stainc. 280 sq ft per quart > 1 hour 1 hour$$$
Check Price

Sources: manufacturer websites and Amazon


What Is Water-Based Stain?

Water-based stain is made from pigments and/or a dye, a binder and water as a solvent. The latter is the key difference to oil-based stain for which other types of solvents are used.

Off-the-shelf water-based stains come in a great variety of colors that exceeds by far the range of colors other types of stain are offered in.

This stain does not clog the pores of the wood. Thus, the wood can breathe, and moisture will not be enclosed in the treated wood. However, it tends to be less durable and less resilient compared with oil-based stains.

You can apply water-based stain with a cloth, a synthetic bristle brush or a foam applicator. Typically 1 coat of stain (sometimes 2) is sufficient. If more than the minimum resilience is required, you may want to consider applying a final protective coat (e.g. poly). Water-based stain excesses or spills can easily be removed using water and soap. This type of stains dries within 2 hours (interior) to 24 hours (exterior) – for more details, read this article where we have analyzed and compared the drying time of 11 common wood stains.

Usually, the wooden surface should be treated with sealant, conditioner or shellac before staining it. Note that some woodworkers argue that protective finishes should contain the same type of solvent as the stain – for this type of stain, water-based polyurethane would match that rule, for instance. In practice, it is however not uncommon to use an oil-based finish on top of a (fully dried) water-based stain.

What Are the Advantages of Water-Based Stain?

A main strength of water-based stain is the ease of its application: it is generally less smelly than oil-based stain which makes it a common choice for interior applications. It also dries faster (depending on the product, though) and can easily be wiped away with water and soap. In addition, water-based stain finishes can be fixed if necessary.

The range of colors available on the market is the broadest among all types of stain, although it could not compete with paint.

Lastly, some, if not most, water-based stain products are healthier than their oil-based counterparts. Most of these stains come with low VOC and are non-inflammatory which is an advantage during the application process.

They are also more environmental-friendly – if this is an important consideration for you, check out this eco-friendly stain.

What Are the Disadvantages of Water-Based Stain?

The cons of water-based stain relate mostly to its lack of resilience compared to oil-based stains and other finishing products. If it is applied on surfaces in humid areas or outside the house, a final protective coating is definitely required.

What Is Water-Based Stain Typically Used For?

Water-based stains are often used for interior applications where the resilience of a finish is not a priority. This may include, for instance, cabinets, frames or decorative objects.

If you intend to use water-based stain to finish exterior wood, you will need to apply a final more protective coating such as polyurethane.

5 Examples of Water-Based Stains and their Different Characteristics

Manufacturer Product TypeCoverage (1 coat) Drying Time Time between CoatsEstimated Cost
Defy

Extreme Wood Stain (water-based) exterior water-based stainc. 80 sq ft per quart 24 hours before use 2-4 hours$$
Check Price
SamaN

TEW-212-12 Water-based Stain interior water-based stainc. 200 sq ft per quart 1 hour 1 hour$$$
Check Price
General Finishes

Water-based wood stain interior water-based stainc. 100-150 sq ft per quart > 2 hours > 2 hours$$$
Check Price
Miniwax

White Wash Pickling Stain (water based) interior water-based stainc. 100 sq ft per quart 3 hours 3 hours$$$
Check Price
PureColor

Eco-Friendly Wood Stain interior water-based stainc. 150 sq ft per quart 1 hour < 1 hour$$
Check Price

Sources: manufacturer websites and Amazon


What Is Gel Stain?

Gel stains are oil-based or water-based stains with a formula adjusted to prevent the finish from dripping or running. This thicker consistency makes gel stains an ideal choice to finish doors, windows, fences, wooden walls and all other vertical surfaces. Other more fluid types of stain would likely start dripping and lead to an uneven surface finish or spoil the floor or ground.

Some DIYers also use it for staining wood types subject to blotching, such as pine. This is because a gel stain finish is less likely to be affected by surface imperfections (e.g. different density of a surface) which may otherwise cause an irregular appearance of the finish.

Due to its consistency, gel stain is applied with a cloth or a foam applicator rather than a brush. This type of stain is usually applied in one coat although it is also possible to apply a second coat if needed. The average drying time of gel stains is c. 10 hours.

Refer to the back of the can for the details on how a specific gel stain is applied and check whether conditioners and protective finishes are recommended.

What Are the Pros of Gel Stain?

Gel stains resolve one of the core issues of many types of colorants and wood finishes: they drip and run when they are applied on vertical surfaces. Thanks to its thicker consistency, the gel adheres to workpieces such as windows, doors, frames or fences without staining floors and porches.

Some woodworkers prefer gel stain over other types when they work on wood types that are prone to blotching, e.g. pinewood. With a bit of exercise, gel stain can easier be equally spread across a surface which prevents imperfections.

Oil-based gel stains can also be used for exterior wood (check the product specifications for details).

What Are the Cons of Gel Stain?

Gel stains can be more expensive than other stain types. However, this as price premium many DIYers are willing to bear when it comes to staining vertical wood surfaces.

First-time users might find the consistency of this type of stain unusual – it may require some time to learn the trick on how to apply and equally spread gel stain on a wooden surface.

How Is Gel Stain Typically Used?

Probably the most common use of gel stains is for staining vertical interior and exterior surfaces. This can include, for instance, doors, windows, fences, wooden walls, shelves and all kinds of wooden installations.

Gel stain is also a common choice for wood types that tend to be subject to blotching, such as pinewood.

2 Examples of Gel Stains and their Different Characteristics

Manufacturer Product TypeCoverage (1 coat) Drying Time Time between CoatsEstimated Cost
Miniwax
Gel Stain gel stainc. 200 sq ft per quart > 10 hours 8-10 hours$$
Check Price
Varathane 

Premium Gel Stain gel stainc. 240 sq ft per quart > 1 hour 1 hour
$$$
Check Price

Sources: manufacturer websites and Amazon


Summary of the Differences between Oil-based, Water-based and Gel Stain

This table summarizes the different characteristics, uses, pros and cons of the different types of stain.

  Oil-based stain Water-based stain Gel stain
Ingredients Petroleum-distillates or a type of varnish as solvent, pigments and/or dye, a binder Water as a solvent, combined with pigments and/or dye and a binder Gel stain is usually am oil-based stain (yet there are also water-based gel stains) with a thicker consistency
Appearance and durability oil-based stains come in many different colors. It is more resilient than the water-based type and even offers a basic water-resistance water-based stains are available in a variety of colors (often more choices than for oil-based stain). While it allows the wood to breathe, it is generally less resilient and less durable than oil-based stains Following the characteristics of either oil- or water-based stain, depending on the type of gel stain
Application Application with a natural bristle brush, a foam applicator, or a cloth in 1 (or 2) coats A Cloth, a synthetic bristle brush or a foam applicator is used to apply water-based stain in 1 to 2 coats + final protective coat if required 1 coat, applied with a cloth or foam applicator (2 coats possible)
Pros Most durable type of stain;
Can be used for exterior applications;
Does not always require a final protective coating.
Less smelly than the oil-based type; can be a natural product (depends on the manufacturer);
Dries faster than oil stain;
Easier to clean up (only water and soup required);
Finish can be fixed if necessary
Can be applied on vertical surfaces without dripping or running;
Exterior use possible (oil-based gel stains)
Cons Smelly;
takes longer to dry than water-based stains
Less resilient than oil-based stains;
exterior use requires a final coating with a more protective finish
Can be more expensive than other stain types;
‘unusual’ consistency may pose a challenge for first-time users
Drying time
(read a detailed comparison here)
2 hours (interior) to 48 hours (exterior) 2 hours (interior) to 24 hours (exterior) c. 10 hours
Typical uses Interior and exterior uses, e.g. for floors, decks, cabinets and furniture in bathroom, kitchen or outside the house Interior uses for surfaces less prone to tear and wear;
Alternatively, interior and exterior use with a more protective final coating
Vertical interior  and exterior surfaces, such as doors, windows, fences;
Wood types subject to blotching

Alternatives to Stain as a Wood Finish

Ingredients are several alternatives to off-the-shelf stains that you can consider when choosing your wood finish.

For instance, there are several ways to produce your own, natural wood stain. Using coffee and water or vinegar is a natural and inexpensive alternative to enhance the appearance of a wooden surface (read this step-by-step guide to staining wood with coffee for more details).

If you are looking for a finish with a slight hue, you may want to consider oil finishes as an alternative. On the other hand, if you require more resilience than water- and oil-based stains are able to provide, check out polyurethane, varnish and lacquer.

For coloring a surface, paint and color lacquer are good alternatives to stain although they tend to cover the natural texture of the wood more than a stain.

Conclusion

Water-based, oil-based and gel stains come with different characteristics, advantages and disadvantages. Each of these types of stain has certain use cases where it is particularly useful while there are also alternative wood finishes for specific uses, e.g. where resilience is a main concern.

If you have chosen stain for finishing your project, make sure you visit this free stain calculator to find out how much stain you will need.

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