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Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain

When you’re choosing the best deck stain, you’ll inevitably run into this question: how do you choose between an oil vs water based deck stain?

The decision you make here is key and influences how much time and effort you’ll need for application, how durable your stain is, and what kind of ongoing maintenance will be required.

So what the difference is and why you should care?

Each stain has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Generally speaking, water based stains last longer than oil based stains. Evaluate your expectations and your commitment to stain application and upkeep before you make your decision.

We’ll look now at the leading benefits and downsides you can expect from oil vs. water based deck stains.


Using an oil-based deck stain is typically easier and applying maintenance coats is simple. The finish typically just fades away over time and can be re-applied every year. It is the “tried and true” method from the past of staining wood and has been around for quite some time.

Key Benefits

  • Oil based stains provide an even finish and won’t create lap marks. Since the dry time is much longer, it’s easier to blend your brush strokes to create a more even finish.
  • Oil based stains are much easier to apply, because they penetrate wood more easily, they will adhere to the wood.
  • Since an oil-based stain penetrates the wood so effectively it takes less effort to apply
  • Because oil based stains penetrate so well, they will resist peeling better than a poorly applied water based stain. You’ll notice that when the fail, they simply fade away, rather than peel.
  • Maintenance is easy


  • Oil-based deck stain can contain higher VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are bad for the environment
  • Oil based stains will not last as long as water-based stains.
  • They take longer to dry (up to 48 hours), which can be a real problem when you live in a humid or wet climate
  • The resins used in oil-based stains often contain materials that act as a food source for mold, mildew, and algae, which can result in your deck turning black.
  • Lifespan is underwhelming with oil-based stains


Thanks to technological advancements, water-based stain is bringing some new benefits to deck staining. It is somewhat more expensive but is friendlier to the environment, lasts longer, and dries faster.

Key Benefits

  • As long as they are applied accurately, water-based stains will last longer thanks to superior UV-resistance and a better ability to retain their color. 
  • Water based stains are not a food source for mold, mildew and algae and minimize their growth potential. Stains containing zinc nano-particles, such as DEFY Extreme and Behr, will have a better natural resistance to mildew growth.
  • Cleaning up is straightforward with a water-based stain, and you won’t need any potent solvents
  • This type of stain dries quickly, and you can walk on the deck 1 to 2 hours after application
  • These stains are completely non-flammable and low odor
  • Since water-based stains are more breathable, you won’t get moisture trapped in the wood
  • Some of the premium quality quality wood stains are easy to maintain, when the finish begins to fade, you can simply clean the surface with soap and water, and reapply a maintenance coat without the need for sanding and stripping


  • Water based stains require greater care and time during application — don’t use shortcuts. Water based stains will fail if you don’t take the needed time.
  • Thoroughly brush the stain into the wood. Water-based stains have more trouble penetrating the wood; these stains have the potential for peeling if they are over-applied. Be careful to only apply as much stain as the wood can absorb.

Water-based stains require a little more time and effort than oils, but it pays off with significantly greater durability. Oil based stains are easy to apply and take less effort, but they will not last nearly as long as a water based stain. They also have more mold, mildew, and algae problems and more maintenance down the road. Determine which type of stain best suits your individual situation before you begin your deck staining project.

The Verdict

As with any aspect of your decking, there’s no right or wrong answer. You need to do your research to find the right answer for you.

As well as considering your own thoughts on maintenance and color, you should pay close attention to the pros and cons of each type of stain. No solution is perfect, so it’s a case of finding which checks the most boxes.

Beyond that, it also pays to take account of the type of wood. If the wood in question is more oily such as cedar or redwood, then you might consider an oil based stain as they all respond particularly well to oil-based variants. Wood types such as pressure treated pine responds well to water-based deck stains.

If you’re just selling your house and just need to stain your deck fast, or you don’t mind restaining your deck every year, then a cheaper, oil based stain may be your best bet. It’s pretty straight forward. Just apply the stain and you’re done. As long as you’re ok with restaining every year, and you’re not in a damp/humid climate, or surrounded by trees that can accelerate mold growth, then an oil based stain may be a good choice.

Has your decking been stained before? If the previous treatment was an oil-based deck stain, you’ll need to either use an oil based stain again, or if you want to switch over to a water-based stain, use a stain stripper to remove the previous finish. Then it will be ready for the water-based stain.

The final factor to take into consideration is how much exposure to the elements your decking gets. If the area is constantly exposed to direct sun and wind or rain, water-based stains are more durable. They generally make the smarter choice.

This information should answer once and for all the oil vs. water based deck stain questions.  Review your decking needs to see which is the most appropriate treatment for your deck. If you still have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

What To Do Next

If you want to learn more about the very best stains on the market, check out our Ranking & Reviews right here.

  1. What would you recommend for staining a pine ceiling on a screened-in porch that is not affected directly by UV rays? I live in VA so humidy is quite high in the summer months so I’m not sure if I need to be concerned about mold/mildew. Water-based or oil-based? Considering Cabot Australian Oil. Thoughts?

    • If the humidity is high, you may want to stay away from oil based products as these can be more susceptible to mold and mildew growth. Water-based stains are going to be your best bet here. If you want a semi-transparent or a clear stain, check out DEFY stains. If you want a solid color stain, check out #1 Deck.

      • We just put up a new deck with treated wood. What is the best deck stain for o put on using a roller and some parts a paint brunch ?

      • We just bought a home with a big deck. How do I know if the stain currently applied is oil or water based?

      • ‘May I apply a water based stain to a pressure washed deck that had been coated with a semi transparent oil- based stain 5 years ago?

        • Dave, I’d definitely clean and brighten the wood first. But if it’s been 5 years, you’re probably fine to use a water-based product.

  2. […] Resources — Richmond Hardware, This Old House, Deck Stain Pro […]

  3. It’s good to know that oil-based deck stains contain higher VOCs which are bad for the environment. My brother recently decided to restain his deck and has been looking into different options. I will have to tell him to remember the environmental concerns, like the ones you pointed out, when considering his options.

  4. Hey there! thank you sharing such great blog post about Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain. Please keep up this type of blog posts.

  5. I have just brought a property with full length decks front and back. Problem is I don’t know how to tell what the current finish is. Is there a way to tell if this is oil based stain, painted, just oil, or water based stain?? The color is uniform and it appears to have worn away in patches which are quite lighter in color (you can see the wood grain through the finished color.

    • Terri, if you can see the wood grain beneath the stain, then it’s either a semi-transparent stain, or a semi-opaque stain. It’s hard to say whether it’s an oil based stain, or a water-based stain. The safe route here is to use a stain stripper with a pressure washer to remove the existing stain.

  6. My kids ride bikes and little cars on the deck., so I’ll need a finish that’s easy to maintain. And I’m concerned with fixing the chipping of an acrylic finish – can I just paint over the chipped areas or will I have to clean up and scrape and redo the whole thing? Is oil good for high-traffic areas?

    • Ted, a few things…riding bikes and cars on the deck will certainly cause the finish to wear away faster than normal. If you use a good quality stain, it shouldn’t peel though, unless it’s a film former like paint. In that case, you could just paint over the areas that peeled. However, if you’re using a high quality semi-transparent stain, it would most likely just begin to wear or fade away as it gets worn. Oil based stains are certainly less prone to peeling than water-based, but some definitely do still peel. Also, oil stains are not going to hold up to high traffic areas any better than water-based. They may actually wear away faster. For a good water based stain, try DEFY Stains or #1 Deck. For oil based, try TWP or ReadySeal.

  7. Great article! We are in East Canada, rebuilding front entry. If we use the brown tinted pressure treated lumber, is there anything we can do to change the color somewhat,

    • John, one option is to use a solid stain over top and change it to any color you want. Otherwise, if you use a semi-transparent stain, it will be a mixture of the brown color of the wood, with whatever color you use as a semi-transparent.

  8. Thank you for all these wonderful questions and answers. I put one coat of oil-based stain on my pressure treated deck a year ago. The rain no longer beads up on the deck and I think it is time for another coat. (The deck gets only morning sun and I am in Texas.) After walking on my deck, I track into my house a slight smudge from my slippers onto my concrete floors. (No outside shoes are allowed in my house.) This is very troublesome for me. Is there any way to prevent this? Will water-based stain work better?

    • Stephanie, this is a fairly common problem with oil based products. Most water-based products won’t have this problem.

  9. We had a new wood deck installed in October of last year and now its spring and we are ready to stain. We like the look of the solid color stain because we do not like seeing the wood grains. We get full sun and heat all day long.
    What is the better stain for our new wood deck that protects the wood; oil base or an acrylic ?
    Which is less maintenance in future? In future applications, do we have to sand every time?
    Thank you !

    • Ann, water-based/acrylic is your best bet. It’s just as durable if not more, and the cleanup is easier. Plus they’re better for the environment. Maintenance is easy as well, no sanding. Just re-apply when it begins to look weathered.

  10. I think I just applied a coat of oil stain on top of an acrylic stain. What’s the best way froward? Thanks

    • Peter, ideally you would have stripped the acrylic stain off first before applying the oil over top. I would wait and see how it holds up. If it looks good in a year, you’re probably fine to apply a maintenance coat of the oil stain again, but if you see peeling or other problems, you may want to consider using a stain stripper and power washer to bring it back to bare wood.

  11. Our deck needs a new coat of stain, we didn’t build it or stain it, but the previous owner of the house left the cans nicely labeled in the garage. The problem is that the product they used doesn’t seem to be available anymore? They used BEHR Oil-Based Semi-Transparent Wood Stain – Cedar Naturaltone no 4533. I can’t find that, instead I can only find the acrylic product by that brand now. Can I just retouch with acrylic or is it better to find an oil based product by another manufacturer. I really don’t want to strip the whole deck. I’d rather just clean it and go? What would you recommend? Thanks so much. Rachel

    • Rachel, we are shopping for stains on a new pressure-treated pine deck and the Behr oil-based semi-transparent Cedar Naturaltone is available as product no. 4633. It was in-stock in our local store yesterday. We will likely go with a semi-transparent water-based stain, but have not decided on a brand yet.

    • You’re best option is to strip it and start over with a quality product, but if you’d rather not do that, I would reach out to the manufacturer and see what they recommend. They may still have it available just under a different name.

  12. […] Before staining, it’s a good idea to clean the wood first. DEFY also has a safe wood cleaner for docks and marinas called MarineSeal Wood Dock Cleaner. Use that first to clean the wood, then use a pressure washer to rinse it off. Once it’s dry, the wood is ready to stain. The best way to apply it is to give the wood 2 coats of stain using a car wash brush. This saves your back and your knees, and it makes your project go quicker. Just remember to only apply enough stain that will soak into the wood. You don’t want to the product to puddle on the surface, otherwise it could peel. The advantage of using a water based dock stain like this, is that it dries quickly. Many oil based stains are slow to dry, and dock owners frequently have problems with tracking stain onto their boats because of this. For a more in depth look at oil based versus water based stains, check out our other article Oil Vs Water Based Deck Stain […]

    • I just got new redwood deck installed, it has 2 huge redwood trees in the middle that are dropping little sap and some seeds that are breaking and leaving some purple color. I’m planning to stain semi transparent dark shade. I’m confused between oil based and hybrid. What should I do? Thx

  13. Can I use a sprayer to apply the water based stain and sealer to my deck.

  14. Hi. Fantastic Article. Quick question.

    If I used an oil based semi-solid stain w/tint 3 years ago. Am I able to use a Water based stain this year? I used various deck cleaners to remove mildew, mold and dirt yesterday. I would like to use the water based if I can but dont want to ruin things. It would be the exact same color. Any thoughts?

    • As long as water can absorb into the wood, then yes you should be able to switch to a water based product. Concerning color, most brands offer different colors so you’ll have to get samples to test for color. Otherwise, you can use a stain stripper and pressure washer to remove the previous coating. That way you can start fresh with bare wood.

  15. Hi, I have a cypress tung and groove ceiling on my patio beach house, that has a Minwax Spar Urethane Clear Satin Finish on it. As it has a high peak, the side that faces the east gets heavy wind and salt spray on it, so it is peeling, and a bit moldy in spots. I am going to get it sanded down, and I would like to put a darker brown color on it. I am not sure whether a semi transparent stain will cover some of the discoloration from mold, or if it is even enough of a color. I have also considered semi- solid, and solid stains. I would love some advice on that, as well as whether to go with oil based or water based stain. The house is in the tropics, so warm all year round and humid in the summer months. Thanks.

    • Solid is going to be your best bet for color uniformity. The semi-transparent could work, especially if it’s darker, but it still may show any discoloration currently present. Water based stains are going to be less susceptible to mold and mildew than oils are. If you go with a water-based solid, check out DEFY Solid Stain. It’s a tintable product, but it can only be tinted at Do it Best stores ( #1 Deck has a solid stain available in pre-packaged colors you can get on Amazon –

  16. Outside front wooden porch & stairs previously stained w/ solid medium gray color oil base stain. Must I use another oil base stain, or can I use a water base acrylic product over the oil base stain? I was told that oil base products have been changed or discontinued for environmental reasons

  17. […] Generally, aged wood tends to accept stains better than green lumber. The latter will be difficult to stain. But you could try oil-based when dealing with a deck made of fresh lumber because they penetrate the surface better. […]

  18. Hi great article. Finding it hard to get two days in a row with no rain. Can I apply 1 coat of oil based decking oil now and then in a few days the second coat? It will likely rain between the two coats. Thanks!

  19. Hi guys, great article! My question is, I have just put a new treated pine deck around my pool (salt/chlorine) I’m in Australia so the deck gets heaps of hot dry sun.
    Is water based stain still the best bet for us or should we go with an oil based? Which deck finish will be slippery when wet?

  20. I just had a new Acacia wood deck. The wood is unfinished and not pressure treated. Can I use water base stain to protect it from mold, insects and color fading than oil base.

  21. we have used oil base translucent stain on our exposed deck for the last 20 years. We are thinking of moving to a solid stain but are unsure as to going with oil based or water base stain. Any feedback would be appreciated.

    We also have a connected cover deck same stain for last 20 years. But it is still in good shape. the penetration of the wood is still good and is very well sealed. Will you recommend not doing it or with either of these work for it also. Thanks

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