Water Based Vs. Oil Based Stain

Tonight’s behind the music stain is brought to you by Minwax.  It’s a battle royale of sorts.  Just picture that famous wrestling/boxer announcer dude in his booming voice going “IN THIS CORNER….WEIGHING IN AT 32 OUNCES….WAAAATER BASED STAAAAAAIIIIN…AND IN THIS CORNER…WEARING THE YELLOW…ALSO AT 32 OUNCES….OOOOOIIIIIIIILLLLL BASED STAIN!”  But seriously, this is a post about water based vs. oil based stain, just for clarification’s sake.

We have been doing A LOT of staining and polying these days.  Seriously.  We just hit the 200+ mark in iPad/cookbook stand production for our Etsy shop, Roostic.  Since I’m always looking for ways to make production faster, easier or generally more pleasant, switching out our stinky oil based stain for a slightly more pleasant smelling water based version seemed like a logical choice.  So I took the water based stain for a test drive and compared the results.  Can you tell which stain is which?

I was hesitant about the water based stain from the moment I opened up the can and revealed this:

For those of you who have worked with oil based stain but not water based stain, the water based is a completely different consistency.  It’s thicker, milky, and almost paint like.  Which kind of makes sense since when you buy the stuff, you have to get it tinted first at the paint desk.  So I gave the can a good little mix up and then test stained a piece of scrap wood.

As I suspected, the water based stain went on sooooo much thicker than your typical oil based stain.  I probably used 2-3 times as much water based stain for the same coverage as the oil based stain.  The staining process is the same for both finishes.  You just slap it on with a brush, let it sit for your chosen amount of time, and wipe off with a clean cloth.  So here’s the result after staining one iPad rand with water based and one with oil based (both stands are made from the same board):

I’m not gonna lie, I don’t really like the water based stain’s finish as much as the oil based stain.  The oil based stain brings out the wood grain and really enhances it where the water based stain seems to sit on top of the wood and mask the beautiful grains.  I even tried scraping my finger nail across each iPad stand to verify this hypothesis, which resulted in the finish scraping off for the water based stand but not for the oil based one.  Even after laying on a couple coats of glossy, water based poly, I still wasn’t overly impressed with the water based stain finish.

Here’s the closeup:

Even though the stains are the same shade, it’s like the water based stain has more red undertones in it.  Me thinks I’ll stick to my typical oil based stain for iPad stand production.  Although, it’s hard to beat this cleanup!

But who am I kidding!  I stain every single day and have probably cleaned my brush three times in the last three months.  I’m a shameless wrap my brush in saran wrap until my next staining session kind of stainer in lieu of cleaning it with mineral spirits every day.  It even serves as stain every day motivation so I don’t ever have to worry about cleaning my brush!  Shameless!

So to recap the water based stain trial:

  • Pro:  Does not stink (in comparison to oil based stain)
  • Con:  Goes on super thick meaning you’ll use a ton more than it’s oil based counterpart
  • Pro:  Cleans up super easy with just water (no mineral spirits needed)
  • Con:  Masks the wood grain and brings more red out in the wood

Pssst…How about you guys?  Have you ever toyed with water based stain?  Do you have a preference?


  1. 08/10/2012 08/10/2013

    On the above date we were on our way to Bangor for: drum roll please, Angie and Colby’s wedding. Happy one year anniversary Angie and Colby.

  2. Perhaps you should consider offering both on your site…As a consumer i would prefer the look of the water based stain…as long as the final product is durable….just a thought

    1. I’m actually thinking I will offer both. The stain seems to fine once it dries over night and you layer on a couple layers of poly. It’s just as durable as the oil based at that point. In fact, I stained up a batch this weekend and just need to photograph and list the items.

  3. What stain tint did you use for the water based stain? I am looking to stain a headboard and that is the exact look I am going for!! I am having the hardest time finding any stain to get that look. I have been staining like crazy. Please please please ease my misery. 😀

  4. My husband built a large farmhouse table and our dilemma is using an oil based or water based stain. It needs to withstand a lot of wear and tear with 3 kids but I am currently standing here at Home Depot trying to decide. Decisions decisions!!

    1. I tried water based and my major hang up is it raises the grain. I went back to oil based stain and use a water based poly for the top coat.

  5. Note that water based stains must be tinted at the paint store (or dept) and the minimum is one quart, so for small projects oil a small can might be more economical (there is less left over). Water based are also more likely to be blotchy, even if you use the recommended wood conditioner. As for storage of the stain, oil based will probably last longer in the can.

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