Are you starting on your next big woodworking project? “Do you think I should oil or stain this?” is a good place to start. Both oils and stains each have significant advantages and disadvantages, and either might be better depending on your circumstances and project. The difference between staining and oiling wood shows in durability, appearance, application, and maintenance.
Keep reading to learn more about wood stains and wood oils, and which will be ideal for your project.
Wood stains feel like varnish and can transform a plain piece of pine into a vibrant colored board. Stains have strong pigments in a variety of colors and tones and add a sealing layer to your boards.
The sun can deteriorate the appearance of wood as time goes on and turn wood grey-ish over the years. With strong color pigments and great coverage, stains can protect and add longevity to the color of your wood.
There are two types of wood stain — water-based and oil-based. Water-based wood stains tend to stay near the surface of the board and can add to the durability of your boards. Water-based stains also dry very quickly in comparison to their oil-based alternatives and have been rumored to maintain their color longer. If you are trying to get a job done quickly, a water-based wood oil will suit you well.
Because oil molecules are far smaller than water molecules, oil-based wood stains penetrate the board deeper than water-based stains. They provide a protective layer of moisture beneath the surface of the board. Oil-based stains tend to be more durable than their water-based counterparts.
Wood stains can create a plastic-like layer on the surface of the board. This layer pulls double duty as a seal that can protect from weathering and handling.
If stains are like varnish, wood oil is like lotion for your boards. Wood oil can be clear or colored. The color of wood oil will usually be very similar to natural wood colors while the clear oils will simply enhance the existing color and appearance of the grain.
Wood oils not only enhance the look of the wood but will also improve the durability of the wood. Oils are nourishing and will prevent moisture damage as time goes on. Oils absorb deep into the board and contain special UV filters to delay sun damage.
To maintain wood that’s been oiled, it can be as easy as sanding damaged areas and adding a new coat of oil.
Which Should You Use Stain or Oil?
Are you using it on a log home or cabin?
Use wood stain to maximize the longevity and appearance of your boards.
Is it a high-moisture, humid, rainy area?
If your project is going to be in a rainy or humid area, you should protect your boards with moisture. Boards will only absorb so much oil or stain, but oils nourish the board and can even make your boards rainproof because the rain/humidity will have a harder time penetrating the board. Under intense rain and humidity, if moisture penetrates the seal the stain’s plastic-like surface can crack, chip, or peel.
Is matching the color on the can important?
While it’s impossible to guarantee a perfect color match, stains are usually more pigmented than oils and will match the color on the can closer than an oil will.
Do you need to get the job done quickly?
Apply a water-based stain to your boards as they dry quicker than the alternatives.
Do you only want to maintain the wood’s natural color?
Stains are great for changing the color of wood, but oils will enhance and maintain the longevity of the wood’s natural color.
Will you change your mind?
If you think that you’ll want to change the appearance of your project in the future, it’s notoriously difficult to evenly lift, strip, and remove wood stain from timber.