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How To Tell If Stain Is Oil Or Water Based (Oil Based vs Water Based Stain)

How To Tell If Stain Is Oil Or Water Based

Oil Based vs Water Based Stain

Whether you’re a homeowner, woodworker or DIYer, at some point your going to end up using wood stain.  And if you’re holding a can in your hand wondering if it’s oil based vs water based stain, then you’re not alone.

At first glance, these two wood stains can look identical.  But if you take a little closer look, you’ll be able to easily tell the difference between oil based stain and water based stain.

How To Tell If Stain Is Oil Or Water Based

The easiest way to tell if stain is oil or water based is to look on the can and see what is needed to clean the brush afterwards.

  • Oil Based – Will require mineral spirits, lacquer thinner or another chemical to clean up or thin.
  • Water Based – Will only require soap and water to clean up or water to thin.

Oil Based Stain

Oil based stains are probably the most commonly used kinds of wood stains available. They are also the type most people think of when they think of stain.  As a former cabinet maker, I can tell you that I used oil based stains almost exclusively for kitchen and bathroom cabinets.

In my opinion, oil based stains are the simplest to use because the oil base allows plenty of time to remove the excess before the stain sets and dries. This proves to be very helpful on your large projects.

How To Tell If A Stain Is Oil Based

You can identify oil based stains by reading what solvents are used to thin the stain.  If mineral spirits are required for clean up, then you have an oil based stain.  

oil stain vs water based stain


Water Based Stain

Water based stains use, you guessed it, water based finish as the binder, and replace most, if not all of the base thinner with water. As a result, water based stains pollute less, are less irritating to be around and are significantly easier to clean up after  than oil based stains.

How To Tell If A Stain Is Water Based

You can tell if you have a water based stain by again taking a look at what is needed to clean up and thin the stain. In the case of water based stains, all you would need to clean it up is water and soap.  And to thin the water based stain, all you would need is to add water.

What Type of Finish To Use on Each Stain

When it comes to applying wood finish, the kind of finish you use depends on what kind of wood stain was applied.  If a water based stain was applied, then water based finishes are usually a better choice to use.  This is because water based finishes to not adhere well to oil based stains, unless the oil based stain is very thoroughly dried.

Final Thoughts

In summary, the easiest way to tell the difference between water based stain and oil based stain is to take a look at what is needed to clean up the stain.

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