Exterior Oil-Based Stain vs. Water-Based Stain

Staining a fence

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When staining any exterior wood element such as a fence, deck, siding, or garden bridge, you can choose between either an oil-based or water-based stain. Oil-based stains traditionally been used for exterior elements, but they are messier and smellier than water-based stains. The final appearance is different, due to matters of opacity and color vibrancy.

  Oil Stains Water-Based Stains
Appearance Natural Solid color, vibrant
How They Work Oils harden over time Water evaporates, leaving solids behind
Application Natural bristle brush, synthetic filament brush, or pad applicator. Nylon or polyester brush.
Curing Time 4-5 hours About 2 hours.
Lifecycle 4 years or more Up to 4 years
Cleanup Mineral spirits Water
Pro Tough and durable Easy to work with
Con Long drying time Lower durability

Oil-Based Exterior Stains

Appearance

Oil-based stains have a more natural appearance, with the wood's grain showing through. The color is muted. If improperly applied, shiny areas can result.

How It Works

Oil-based stains completely soak into the wood's cellular structure. With the cells filled, water cannot penetrate. It just beads up on the surface. Oil-based stains, as well as oil-based paints, cure slowly as the oil hardens.

Application

Oil-based stains are more difficult to apply than water-based stains. Though since you are working outside, some of the downsides associated with indoor use are mitigated, namely the odor.

Use a natural bristle brush, synthetic filament brush, or pad applicator. Unless you are experienced, using an airless sprayer for oil-based stains is not recommended.

Curing Time

Oil-based stains can cure in 4 to 5 hours if the conditions are warm and dry. Usually, though, you'll want to wait a full day for the stain to cure. Oil-based stain remains tacky for a number of hours.

Lifecycle

Oil-based stains can last up to 2 years on decks, and 4 years or more on fences and siding. The issue isn't that the stain is failing; the transparent nature of oil-based stain gets only more transparent over time, allowing UV rays to degrade the wood.

Clean-Up

Mineral spirits are required to clean up oil-based stains.

Pros and Cons

  • Pros: Wood grain will still show through even dark oil-based stains. With lighter water-based stains, wood grain may not show. Oil-based stains last for a long time and are more durable than water-based stains.
  • Cons: Over-application means the stain will sit on the surface and pool up. Since oil does not dry in the air, it will remain until you rub it off with a cloth. Oil-based stains also require petroleum-based products or mineral oil to clean brushes.

Water-Based Exterior Stains

Appearance

Water-based exterior stains have more of a solid color look akin to the appearance of house paint. Vibrant colors are common with water-based stains. Easy to apply consistently, water-based stains have a smooth appearance, with relatively little blotchiness.

How It Works

Water-based stains cure by evaporation. The pigments and binders remain after evaporation.

Application

Water-based stains are easy to apply. Use a nylon or polyester brush, 3/4-inch (19 mm) long nap roller, or sprayer.

Curing Time

Water-based stains cure quickly, usually in less than two hours.

Lifecycle

While annual refinishing is recommended, latex stains might go as long as two to four years before you need to refinish.

Cleanup

These stains require only water and a paint comb to clean the brushes thoroughly.

Pros and Cons

  • Pros: Even though the opaque pigments make for a less transparent stain, this also means that the wood is better protected against UV rays from the sun. Water-based stains are simple to use and clean-up is easy.
  • Cons: Water-based stains work less well on horizontal surfaces, such as decks, as they do not wear well.


Representative Brand Names

Oil Stains

  • Behr Semi-Transparent Oil-Based Wood Stain
  • Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Exterior Oil-Based Transparent Stain

Water-Based Stains

  • Behr Solid Color House & Fence Wood Stain
  • Behr Premium Semi-Transparent Weatherproofing All-In-One Wood Stain & Sealer
  • Sherwin-Williams SuperDeck Exterior Waterborne Clear Sealer

Recommendation

For longevity and durability, oil-based stains tend to work best for exterior surfaces such as decks, fences, and siding. Oil-based stains are messier and more difficult to work with, but wearing latex gloves and using mineral spirits helps with application and cleanup.

If the difficulty and mess of working with oil-based stains are obstacles to staining your exterior surfaces, then use water-based stains. Just know that you'll need to apply this stain more frequently.