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Which is better for wood: stain or oil?

SpaceSaverLeftAngle-03crop450pxWhich is better for wood: stain or oil?  Most people usually go with stain, to give the wood some color.  But wood surprisingly has the ability to look different and better, even when a clear oil is applied.  This is especially true with fine grain wood such as oak, which has a unique grain and pore pattern.  The grain really pops out with just a clear oil.  No tint is needed.  It’s like nature’s built in paint brushes.

Different types of wood are going to react differently with stains and clear oils.  Oak, Pine, Maple, and Ash are the most common woods used for home furnishings.  Most home improvement stores will have a display in the paint department that shows the effect of stains and oils on various types of wood.  There is a remarkable difference.

We’re not even going to talk about paint, which covers up and hides wood grain.  Sure, white paint or black paint is great for matching certain types of home or office decor.  Typically fine wood furnishings use a unique wood species for its natural grain and color.


If natural clear oil does not give the final appearance that you want, some oils are available with a tint.  Just be aware that on softer woods such as pine, the wood soaks up the tinted oil really fast and can lead to a blotchy appearance.  For soft woods, is best to use a clear oil first, like a pre-stain/primer, before applying a tinted oil.  This will allow the stain to create a more uniform color appearance.

Wood oil is available under different product names:

  • Danish oil
  • Linseed oil
  • Boiled linseed oil
  • Tung oil

Due to clever marketing, be sure to look at the actual ingredients.  Many products are actually blend of several components in order to provide the best overal results while balancing application efforts, drying time, and durability.

Currently, I use Danish oil which is a blend of natural linseed oil, mineral spirits to aid drying time, and varnish for a durable finish.  The ratio is about 1/3rd of each component. Danish oil typically has a satin finish.  2 or 3 coats are all that is needed, without sanding between coats.  Just be aware to clean brushes and allow rags to fully dry to prevent spontaneous combustion and starting fires!

Douglas Lee does woodworking part time. He previously worked as a landscape architect, promoting saving and planting new trees.  Now he creates wood home and office products as a renewable natural resource.