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Oil vs Water Based Deck Stain

When you’re choosing the best deck stain, you’ll be presented with a question. Oil vs. water based deck stain – which is better? 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.

You might be wondering 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 deck stain is powerful and does not need much maintenance. It is the “tried and true” method of staining wood and has been around for quite some time.

Key Benefits

  • Oil based stains will not last as long as water-based stains.
  • Although an oil-based stain could take 48 hours to dry, this ultimately allows for a more precise and even finish
  • Oil based stains are much easier to apply, because they penetrate wood more easily and will quickly adhere to the wood.
  • Since an oil-based stain penetrates the wood so effectively and also adheres well, it takes far 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 give your wood a thicker seal with oil-based stain
  • Long-term maintenance is minimal
  • The wood grain will show through more clearly with these stains


  • Oil-based deck stain can contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
  • The resins used in oil-based stains often contain materials that act as food to mold, mildew, and algae, which can affect the health of the wood.
  • 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 and dries quite rapidly.

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. This also leads to a richer, deeper color
  • They are easier to clean and maintain.
  • Water based stains are not a food source for mold, mildew and algae. So they minimize their growth potential. Stains containing zinc nano-particles, such as Defy 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’ll be ready to roll 1 to 2 hours after application
  • These stains are completely non-flammable and also odor-free
  • Since water-based stains are more breathable, you won’t get moisture trapped in the wood

Water-Based Deck Stains: Drawbacks

  • Take greater care and more time when applying a water based stain. 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 can begin peeling soon after drying if they aren’t worked into the wood properly.

Water-based stains require time and effort, which 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 naturally resistant to rotting, water-based stains make better sense. Cedar, redwood, and cypress all respond particularly well to water-based variants.

Has your decking been stained before? If it’s been treated with stain or paint previously, making the right decision here will help you get an even new layer with better protection. If the previous treatment was oil-based, rather than using the same again, opt for a water-based stain instead. This will adhere more efficiently.

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, oil-based stains are more rugged and durable. They generally make the smarter choice.

This information should clear up once and for all the oil vs. water based deck stain debate.  Review your deck and needs to see which is the most appropriate treatment for your decking. 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?

    • Reply
      deckstainadmin Expert May 23, 2019 at 12:13 pm

      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.

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