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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.

OIL BASED 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

Drawbacks

  • 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

WATER 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

Drawbacks

  • 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.

4 Comments
  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.

  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.

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