Protecting the quality of timber for your floors, walls, and furniture is a very important process. This is the reason why we coat them with finishes, to preserve, to safeguard, and to further enhance its appearance. Some of the various finishes are shellac, polyurethane, varnish, and lacquer.

With the numerous differences that each of these finishes have, it’s important to consider whether they’re oil-based, or water-based. Knowing the difference between will help you choose what suits your project best. Today, we’ll be talking about a certain type of finish, specifically stain varnish, and the difference between its oil-based and water-based form.

What is a Stain Varnish?

Before we proceed and differentiate oil-based from water-based stain varnishes, let’s out find out what a stain varnish is. Regular varnish is a hard, transparent, protective finish, most commonly used in wood finishing. It consists of thinner, drying oil, and resin, and has little to no colour. Wood stains are coatings that have colour pigments designed to enhance the timber’s colour, while varnish is usually applied over them, as a final step.

Stain varnish, or more commonly called “stain and varnish,” is a combination of wood stain and varnish. It does both: adds a richer colour to the timber and protects it at the same time. With this, you won’t have to buy a separate product for wood staining, and a different one for varnishing. You won’t have to wait for the stain to dry before applying the varnish as well, advantages that both save you time and money.

Water-Based vs Oil-Based Stain Varnish

Water-based, and oil-based stain varnishes both have benefits, as well as disadvantages. One works better in certain circumstances, can be considered as its strength, but that strength would prove to be a weakness in other situations. This is why it’s crucial that you are aware of disparities, so you’d be able to make a wise decision as to which one you’ll use, and when to utilize them. The table below has both their differences and similarities indicated by the ✔ and ✘ marks.

Base Longevity Colour Protection Easy Maintenance


Although both of them have quite a long life-span, water-based stain varnishes do lasts longer. Oil-based stain varnish coatings used to last longer because they work by seeping in to the timber, like water being soaked up by a sponge, leaving a thin layer of film on the surface. This also enhances the timber’s colour and makes the stain varnish more resilient. This was something that water-based stain varnishes weren’t capable of doing before.

Due to technological advances, water-based stain varnish coatings have been improved. Although they can’t penetrate through the wood that good, compared to their oil-based counterparts, but that detriment allows it to leave a thicker film on the surface. The film then protects the wood’s surface, making it more resilient to damage, therefore making last longer.


The remarkable capability of the oil-based to seep deep in to the timber, gives it the upper hand in this department. It gives the wood this richer, fuller, shade of colour that is very important for aesthetics. They also contain a lot more pigments, compared to their water-based counterpart. Not to mention the fact that it tends to enhance the appearance of wood grain, making it more pronounced.


Water-based stain varnish coatings are the clear leaders in this area. The thicker film that they leave on the surface protects the timber from scratches, UV radiation exposure, and prevents liquids from soaking in. In comparison, oil-based stain varnish coatings only leave a thin film on the surface, making the wood susceptible to the risks aforementioned.

Easy Maintenance

Due to the nature of oil-based stain varnish coatings, they require more time and effort to maintain. They require regular maintenance inspections for water penetration. Soap and water wash would not be enough to clean wash it off, requiring you to use turpentine or mineral spirits, which are potentially harmful chemicals. Recoating every 3-6-12 months would be necessary as well.

Water-based stain varnishes on the other hand, requires less work, and time, to maintain. Since it provides superior protection, you want to have to worry about water penetration, which means no regular maintenance inspections. You won’t have to deal with dangerous chemicals because soap and water is enough to wash it off. There’d be no need to recoat it every 3 months as well, and only needs to recoated whenever necessary.

People might think that water-based, or oil-based, doesn’t really make any difference. All you have to do is go with what works and that’ll be it. However, knowing their disparities could spell the difference between a successful, and not-so-successful, project. It’s better to know what you’re dealing with, so you can use them properly, and get the best results.

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