Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain: What is the Difference?

If you have a deck that needs staining, you’re probably like me, staring at the shelves in the hardware store trying to figure out whether to use oil vs water-based deck stain. The choice really comes down to the type of wood you’re staining, climate, exposure, and durability. If infants and toddlers are going to be on the deck, look for Greenguard Certified stains that have been tested for chemical sensitivities to protect children.

Base your decision on the differences and which will provide the best results for your project. Be prepared to pay for quality, not quantity.

Oil-based stains are better for harsh weather extremes, high traffic areas, and wood that doesn’t have any natural rot protective qualities. Cleanup is easy with mineral spirits. Water-based stains are better for cedar, cypress, and redwood as they are naturally protected from rot. Cleanup is also easy using soap and water.

In this article, we take a look at oil-based stains and water-based stains, their benefits, disadvantages, and which is better for what and why to understand the differences better. We also provide a quick look at the best oil and water-based stains. By the end of the article, you should have a better understanding of how oil and water-based stains differ, and where and when to use them.

Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain

Oil-Based Deck Stain

Oil-based stains have been around for decades, and most have undergone formula changes to make them more environmentally friendly. Oil-based stains use oil – including paraffin, synthetic oil, or natural plant-based oils like linseed, Tung, and soybean instead of the oil-alkyd base of past years. There are stains, however, that don’t comply with some jurisdictions VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) rules that protect against air pollution and are prohibited.

Stains with an oil base can be used on any wood surface to protect against moisture damage as oil sheds water naturally to prevent rot. Oil-based stains are best for woods that don’t have natural, rot-resistant oils in them, such as pine, spruce, and fir.

Cedar, mahogany, teak, cypress, and redwood are rot-resistant due to natural oils, and often more expensive than other wood for decking. Most oil-based stains also inhibit the growth of mildew and mold, but it is best to check the label as some formulations don’t.

Oil-based stains penetrate deep into the wood cell structure, preventing moisture from causing the wood to split, crack, check, and warp. The deeper the stain penetrates, the better the protection.

Oil stains are recommended for wood exposed to harsh conditions like fences, decks, docks, pergolas, and other outdoor structures and surfaces. Oil handles the freeze-thaw cycles better than other stains, so it is also better for climates that experience sub-zero temperatures part of the year.

Apply the stain with a natural bristle brush of good quality, doing several boards at a time from one end to another for even coverage. You can also use a sponge, roller, or sprayer.

Oil-based stains take between 24 and 72 hours to dry depending on the amount of resin, so check the label. Cleanup is easy with mineral spirits. However, disposal of the used mineral spirits in an eco-friendly manner may be more difficult. It is good to note that some products are also soap and water cleanup.

The stain should be good for 5 to 7 years before it needs to be reapplied. Wash the surface down, let it dry, and reapply the same product makes for easy maintenance. After several reapplications, use a deck stripping product to bring up the grain and reapply stain.

Pros and Benefits

  • Excellent penetration & protection
  • More natural-looking
  • More even finish
  • Enhances natural beauty
  • UV protection
  • Longer to dry so more even finish
  • Thicker seal
  • More durable finish
  • Harsh weather resistant
  • Many are VOC compliant
  • Longer lasting
  • Easy to maintain and reapply

Disadvantages

  • Some aren’t VOC compliant
  • Odors
  • Flammable
  • Longer drying time
  • Some oil bases are prone to mildew
  • May darken with age
  • Environmental hazards

Water-Based Deck Stain

Water-Based Deck Stain

Water-based stains are a more recent addition to the outdoor maintenance shelf, and like their oil-based counterparts, they continue to go through formula improvements. Most contain liquid acrylic dispersion polymers, plasticizing agents, resins to block UV, and antiseptic to combat molds and mildews.

Additives like zinc also assist water-based stains in resisting rot and fungal growth. Two-component water-based stain with acrylic and polyurethane blend is less susceptible to weathering and performs better than acrylic only stains.

Water-based stains allow the wood to breathe, which means moisture can seep in and then evaporate out. The skin of the stain doesn’t trap moisture in the wood, and so it is less likely to encourage mold or mildew growth.

Although most water-based stains are VOC compliant and classed as more environmentally friendly than oil-based stains, some do contain toxic solvents like glycol ether and heavy metals like zinc.

Since water-based stains don’t contain oils, they are often recommended for use on cedar, redwood, cypress, and other woods that resist rot naturally due to their natural oils. They can also be used to restain wood that was originally treated with an oil-based stain too.

Most stains contain pigments that protect against UV damage, but the stain can also obscure the wood grain. If planning to use a ‘clear’ stain, ensure it contains UV protection.

To apply water-based stains, use a quality synthetic (nylon) bristle brush, roller, sponge, or sprayer. Spread the stain on evenly so there are no overlap lines – work end to end on several boards at a time. Water-based products often require two applications four-hours apart and can take up to 48-hours to dry.

It is important to note that while they ‘dry’ faster than oil-based stains, they can take up to two weeks to develop a protective film or skin fully. Cleanup with soap and water is also quick and easy, although the effluent may not be environmentally friendly.

Pros and Benefits

  • Water cleanup
  • Quicker drying time
  • Retains color better
  • Breathable
  • A low incident of mold or mildew
  • UV protection
  • Eco friendly
  • Little odor
  • Non-flammable
  • VOC compliant
  • Can adhere to previously oil-based stained wood

Disadvantages

  • Don’t penetrate as well
  • Prone to peeling, flaking, chipping
  • Wear quickly
  • Patchy finish
  • Film-forming
  • Pigment masks the wood grain
  • Requires more maintenance
  • Needs sanding between coats

Is Oil or Water-Based Deck Stain Better?

Oil-Based Deck Stain

Determining whether oil-based is better than water-based stains or not, depends on many factors. How the product is applied, the condition of the wood, following the manufacturer’s instructions, the weather, and other aspects influence the comparison without even looking at the stains themselves.

Better quality products often cost more, and protect better and last longer. In the course of 10 to 15 years or more, you probably won’t pay a significant difference between being cheap and reapplying every 2 years versus every 5 years with a more expensive and better quality stain. Of course, if you have to replace the deck due to the failure of the inexpensive stain, the costs will be greater.

Oil-based deck stains tend to work better in hot or cold extremes, and with most woods. Water-based stains work well on woods that have natural oil, or wood that has previously been stain with oil-based products. The chart below is a quick reference comparing oil and water-based stains.

Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain

What to ConsiderOil-Based Deck StainsWater-Based Deck Stains
DIYer FriendlyYesYes
Where to UseHorizontal and vertical outdoor surfacesHorizontal and vertical indoor and outdoor surfaces
VOC CompliantSome are, some aren’t, depends on State laws – more odorMost are compliant – less odor
Eco FriendlySome areMost are
Wood GrainMore natural-lookingLess visible
How to ApplyNatural bristle brush, roller, sprayer, paint pad-spongeSynthetic-nylon bristle brush, roller, sprayer, pain pad-sponge
PenetrationDeep penetration into wood grainSurface penetration
DurabilityExcellentGood
UV ResistantYesYes
Water ResistantExcellentGood
Mold & Mildew ResistantYesYes
FlammableYesNo
Drying Time24 to 72 hours24 to 48 hours

+ 14 days to ‘skin’ over

CleanupMineral spirits or paint thinnerSoap and water
Longevity5 to 7 years2 to 5 years
MaintenanceClean and reapplyClean and reapply

Best Oil-Based Deck Stain

Cabot 140.0003459.007 Australian Timber Oil Stain, Gallon, Mahogany FlameCabot’s Australian Timber Oil Stain offers excellent coverage on pine, fir, spruce, pressure-treated, cedar, cypress, redwood, and even hardwoods. It is a blend of three oils for greater protection – linseed oil for deep penetration, alkyds for excellent durability, and Tung oil to accentuate the grain color depth and to repel water.

The three oils also make it flammable, with a flashpoint around 200F. Additionally, it contains translucent iron oxide pigments that improve UV protection.

The deep penetrating transparent finish accentuates the wood’s patina and grain and leaves a translucent, flat finish, not glossy. It has long-lasting color, tolerates extremely harsh climates, and is mold, mildew, and algae resistant.

Australian Timber Oil comes in quart and gallon pails, and aerosol applicators. It comes in five oil-based color options, and five matching low VOC water-based choices.

Apply with a natural bristle brush for best results, or use a sprayer, roller, sponge, or paint pad. The stain is touch-dry in 4-hours and light traffic in 24 hours. Oil-based cleanup with mineral spirits or paint thinner, and the low VOC water-based products are soap and water cleanup.

Australian Timber Oil Stain should be good for five years, or longer depending on conditions.

Best Water-Based Deck Stain

DEFY Extreme 1 Gallon Semi-Transparent Exterior Wood Stain, Cedar ToneDefy Extreme Exterior Wood Stain is the best water-based semi-transparent deck stain. It’s available in one and five-gallon pails and seven color options. Defy wood stains use quality resins that resist fading and blackening.

The stains are durable and finish in a non-glossy natural matte. It uses zinc nano-particle tech to disperse the zinc particles in the mixture. The zinc reflects UV rays, protecting the wood and preventing fading or graying.

Extreme Exterior Wood Stain is environmentally friendly for indoor or outside use. Additionally, the residue and runoff are safe, so that the stain can be used around pets, plants, and children. Defy Extreme is UV and mildew resistant, and transparent, which allows the wood grain through. Use colored stains to tint the wood, or the Crystal Clear to see only the natural wood beauty.

Apply using a synthetic or acrylic 4-inch wide brush or sprayer. Defy goes on milky and dries clear, making it easier to see where you’ve applied it. Read and follow the instructions for best results.

A second coat may be required in harsh weather or traffic areas. As a water-based product, it can be applied over decking previously stained with oil-based or other water-based stains, once they have worn off. Cleanup is quick with soap and water, or dispose of the brush when done.

Conclusion

Staining your new deck, fence, or structure will protect it from the elements, mold, and mildew. Whether to use oil-based or water-based should be based on weather conditions, wood type, and traffic.

Water-based stains tend to have lower VOC issues, and oil-based deeper penetrating and more durable in climate extremes.

I hope you have a better understanding of the differences between oil and water-based deck stains. If you found this article interesting or of value, please share it. Your comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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