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7 Different Types of Wood Stains: Which Is Best?

Get the best wood stain for protection, adherence, and enhancement.

When it comes to coloring wood, you can use paint, or you can use wood stain. There are several types of wood stains, and each has its merits and disadvantages. Knowing which you should use and why makes a world of difference to the results.

We explore the different wood stain types available on the market and what differentiates them.

Key Takeaways

  • Oil-based wood stains are popular, easy to use, and provide excellent protection for exterior woodwork like decks and fences.
  • Water-based stains are less polluting, safer to use, and ideal for indoor projects like kitchen tables and cabinets.
  • Gel stains are great for preventing blotching on pine and work well on decks and outdoor furniture.
  • Water-soluble dye stains and metalized dye stains offer a rich and varied choice of colors for wood finishing, but may fade under UV light.

What Is a Wood Stain?

A wood stain is similar to paint in that it changes the appearance of wood by adding darker shades or enhancing the natural wood grain. The chemical makeup is also similar to paint in that they contain the same three ingredients: pigment, solvent (the carrier), and binders.

Not only do they enhance the look of your woodwork, but they also protect against moisture, mold, and the sun’s UV rays.

Some products have pigmented stains and dyes that dissolve in solvents, which is called the vehicle. Popular solvents include shellac (originally created from crushed beetles), lacquer, polyurethane, and varnish.

Types of Wood Stains

If you want control over your staining, you need to understand each type of wood stain and their differences. Each stain type has pros and cons, and gaining a more profound knowledge of how they perform will serve you well further down the line.

Oil-based Wood Stain

Oil-based wood stain is the most popular and one of the easiest stains to use. Typically, they contain linseed oil or a mixture of linseed oil and varnish as a binder, which gives the user plenty of working time to remove excess oil from the wood surface before it dries.

Oil stains are easily identified by the cleaning agent required after use. Unlike water-based stains, oil products require either thinner or mineral spirits to get your brushes clean. The disadvantage is that mineral spirits and thinners are toxic, meaning they are bad for you and the environment.


Oil-based stains have strong odors, which can be overpowering in enclosed spaces, so you should always work in a well-ventilated area. Plus, inhaling these odors can cause nausea, stinging eyes, a sore throat, and lung conditions.

These solvent-based substances also contain high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which damage the environment because as the stain dries, it releases low-level ozone.

Some oil stains contain only pigment, others contain pigment and dyes, while dye is also acceptable as the sole main ingredient in other products. It doesn’t matter which combination of colorants you have because it’s the binder that makes the most significant difference to how it dries and looks.

Oil stains are excellent at penetrating the wood surface to protect within. It creates an effect known as beading, where water sits on the surface of the wood. This quality makes oil stains the best candidate for exterior woodwork like decks, sidings, and fencing.

Water-based Stain

Water-based stains use water as the primary binder, replacing solvents and oil. It means that water-based products are less polluting and better for the environment. They are also safer to use, even in enclosed spaces, because they have lower odors. You don’t suffer from all the health issues that oil-based products bring.

Another advantage of this type of stain is it is easier to clean up after using soap and water, and it means nothing bad gets washed down the drain. It also contains minimal VOCs, so as it dries, it doesn’t pollute.

It is best to use a water-based stain when you have an existing water-based finish on your wooden surface because they bond better and faster than oil-based finishes. Applying water-based products to an oil base could take up to a week to adhere.

The downside with water-based products is they dry faster, making them less forgiving to use. This is a pain if you are staining a large surface area and you need a uniform finish.

They also raise the wood grain, which inevitably requires sanding to smooth the surface again. You then risk removing patches of the stain, creating an imperfect finish.

You can avoid this by applying water to the bare wood prior to using the stain. You then need to sand the wood to reduce the grain before laying down the color. It all means there is more prep time necessary when using water-based products.

Quick Tip

You can slow the drying process by adding solvents like propylene glycol, but be aware that it reduces the color intensity and makes the stain more hazardous to you and the environment.

A water-based option is ideal for indoor use on kitchen tables, cabinets, flooring, and furniture. And while it can work adequately outside, you should choose an oil stain if you want the maximum protection.

Gel Stain

Gel stains have a thicker consistency than other wood stains, and for the most part, they are oil or solvent-based. Gel stains are messy to work with when left at their original mayonnaise-like consistency; however, they can be diluted using thinner to make them easier to spread.

Pine is notorious for blotching, and gel stains are unique for removing blotching on pine. Blotching only occurs when the dye reacts with the natural resins in the wood, producing an uneven appearance.

The only way to fix blotching on pine is to sand it out and then re-stain, which takes time, and the results are rarely predictable. Gel stains remove the uncertainty and are easy to apply because they remove the need to use multiple products like wood conditioner and wash coat before staining.

Gel stain is the ideal product for use on decks, fencing, and outdoor furniture.

Lacquer Wood Stain

Lacquer stains are fast drying, making them a firm favorite with professionals because they can get the stain down and apply the finish in as little as 15 minutes. The tones and colors are also versatile when you add wood stain to lacquer to make a toner.

These stains get their name from this mixing process because they don’t use lacquer as a binder, instead opting for oil or a fast-drying solvent. Lacquer stains are instantly recognizable by their strong odors, thanks to xylene and ketones.

Keep In Mind

For this reason, you need to wear a respirator and goggles and work in well-ventilated areas if you are indoors. The last thing you would want is a nasty reaction with the stain and inflame your lungs, throat, or eyes.

The other disadvantage of lacquer stains is they are challenging to use solo because most professionals work in pairs, with one to apply the stain and the other to remove any excess. The 15-minute drying time means you have to keep stopping while the lacquer sets.

Another negative is that this product contains VOCs and chemicals that are harmful to nature. Plus, you need mineral spirits to perform a cleanup, which also damages the natural world when you flush the wastewater down the sink.

If you have a small project, choose lacquer stain, but for larger tasks, either ditch it in favor of an oil-based stain or get someone to help you.

Water-soluble Dye Stain

Sometimes called aniline dyes, water-soluble dye stains are instantly recognizable because they come in a powder-based formula. They are a throwback to the 19th-century textile industry, but they were then adapted for use with wood.

Their popularity peaked in the 1950s in the furniture industry and the advent of metalized dye stains. Still, their use has never waned among amateur and small-shop woodworkers because of their rich and varied choice of colors for wood finishing.

All you need to do is dissolve the powder in water to create a dye, typically using an ounce of powder for every quart of water to make the correct consistency. The more powder you add per quart of water dictates the intensity of the color stain.

Quick Tip

If you want the maximum dye to water ratio, consider heating the water to allow more of the powder to dissolve. And use distilled water rather than tap water because it contains fewer metal particles.

Because this dye is a powder form, it has an infinite shelf life, and even in liquid form, it lasts for a very long time.

Soluble dyes don’t obscure the natural texture of the wood, even when applied in the thickest layers. Plus, you can darken or lighten the stain even after it has dried because it lacks a binder.

If you want to enhance your wooden furniture or upcycle old pieces, water-soluble dye stains are a great choice because you can choose whatever shade you want.

To darken, simply add more stain, and to lighten, wipe the surface with a damp cloth, and the color lifts off. The downside is soluble dyes fade under UV and fluorescent light, so only use it in locations where the lighting is suitable.

If you want to mitigate the effects of sun damage, you could choose an alcohol or oil-based soluble dye stain with the same fast-drying qualities. This will provide more resilience against natural light.

Metalized Dye Stain

As with soluble dye stains, in the 1950s, metal-complex dyes were developed to provide greater resistance against UV light, making them more fade-resistant. It still fades but over an extended period.

Originally, these dyes were thinned with methanol, but modern versions use acetone in the formula to create a thinner consistency. The main advantage of metalized dye stains is that they are guaranteed non-grain raising, which is why they are labeled “NGR,” making them popular within the industry.

It sprays directly onto the wood and dries rapidly. It is also mixable with lacquers to make a toner. These dyes are available in liquid form and can be thinned with alcohol, acetone, lacquer thinner, and water, although if you choose water, you increase the chances of raising the wood grain.

You would choose this dye for the same reason you would want the powder soluble dye; for the richness of the color finish.

Varnish Wood Stain

Varnish stains share many attributes of oil stains, except in one area; varnish stains dry to a hard shell, while oil penetrates the wood to protect from within. It means that varnish stains can be brushed on and left, unlike oil stains where the excess needs to be wiped away.

Varnish and oil stains use the same mineral spirits as a thinner, but if you are unsure, you can always check the label on the can to distinguish between varnish and oil stains.

Varnish stains are more challenging to use than oil versions because they dry faster, which leaves brush marks on the colored surface of the wood. However, it is an ideal product to use when laying it down over an already stained surface that has dulled or faded.


Can You Mix Wood Stains?

You can’t mix different types of wood stains, but you can mix oil-based stains with other similar stains. For example, you can mix varnish stains with lacquer to create a toner to enhance the color of your stain.

The general rule of thumb is water-based products don’t mix with oil-based stains. However, it is common woodworking practice to mix polyurethane with wood stain.

Are Varnish and Stain the Same Thing?

Varnish and stain do similar things to protect your wooden surfaces, but stain changes the color of your wood, while varnish is clear and preserves the natural grain of the material.

Is It Better to Stain or Paint Wood?

Staining wood helps the material expand and retract with weather conditions. It also preserves the grain of the wood, and while it changes the color, it doesn’t conceal the wood entirely. Painting is thicker and forms a solid barrier between the material and the elements.

However, it covers the natural grain in a solid block of color. This is an advantage if you cover old and blemished wood, but choose a stain if you want the wood grain to show through.

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About the Author

Mark Weir

Mark spent 24 years working in real estate, so he knows his way around a home. He also worked with contractors and experts, advising them on issues of planning, investments, and renovations. Mark is no stranger to hands-on experience, having renovated his own home and many properties for resale. He likes nothing better than seeing a project through to completion.