Timber Oil vs. Wood Stain

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Choosing a color for timber is something critical and once you have applied the color, you cannot change it easily. Two commonly used finishes to wood are timber oil and stain. Both of these finishes are semi-transparent which means that the character of the timber within can come through. The final look depends on the condition of the timber and its color.

A best practice is to apply two to three coats of the finish to a test piece of wood to get an idea of the final look. In this post, we examine the difference between wood stain and timber oils as well as the benefits of each type of finish.

Wood Stain

Wood stain feels and looks like varnish. A plain piece of pine becomes a vibrant-looking piece of wood if suitably stained. Wood stain plays the dual role of adding color to wood and sealing it. It protects wood from the harmful effect of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The pigment in the stain blocks the sunlight and adds color to the wood.

The two types of stain that you get in the market are water-based and oil-based. Water-based stains remain on the surface and add durability to the wood. They also dry faster than the oil-based variety.

In contrast, oil-based stain penetrates deeply into the wood creating a protective moisture layer just underneath the surface. Oil-based stain offers more durability than water-based stain.

Timber Oil

Cabot Australian Timber Oil

In contrast to stains that resemble varnish, timber oil plays the role of lotion to wood. Wood comes in a variety of colors. The purpose of timber oil is to enhance the natural color of the wood. Other than enhancing the color of wood, it also has the effect of adding some water resistance to wood.

Timber oil will not provide UV protection to the wood. Hence, you need to refinish wood finished with timber oil every so often. Fortunately, sanding the wood surface when the oil starts to dry and reapplying timber oil is a relatively straightforward process.

Timber Oil vs. Stain

So, how do we distinguish timber oil from stain? This question has two answers – after application, how it looks and how long it will last. Although both these finishes have similar functions, each one looks and lasts differently.

Timber Oil vs. Stain: How Each One Looks

Timber oil enhances the look of the wood. If you have wood that looks good on its own, then you would do well to use oil. You can use lightly pigmented oil to add to the good looks of your wood while also adding a certain level of protection but not obliterating the features of the wood grain.

Stain contains more pigment as the name suggests – it will stain the wood, thereby changing the color. You can even get a stain that creates streaks to simulate the effect of wood grains. Stain comes in a variety of different colors and shades and adds considerable durability to the wood.

Timber Oil vs. Stain: How Long Each One Lasts

A hint from what we mentioned above that stain adds to the durability of the wood indicates that stain makes the wood last longer. Stain lasts longer in wood than timber oil. Timber oil, although it dries faster than stain, tends to dry out after a few weeks.

It means that you will have to keep reapplying timber oil now and then unless you add a wood sealer to the wood finish. Further, the pigments that stain contains help to offer a certain degree of UV protection and mechanical protection.

What Type of Finish to Use for Decking?

A man painting exterior wooden pool deck, Top view

An often-asked question is whether we should use timber oil or stain for applying a finish to decking. Let us get into this interesting discussion and examine the pros and cons of timber oil vs. stain:

Benefits of Using Timber Oil to Finish Decking

Here are the main benefits that make timber oil the preferred choice to finish decking:

  • Coverage is good – you can spread a liter of timber oil across 8 to 12 meters.
  • It makes the deck rainproof and can be ready to use within 4 to 8 hours.
  • Some of the darker varieties of timber oil contain UV blockers.
  • Regular application of timber oil can supplement the natural oils present in the wood.
  • Timber oil helps to prevent the wood from cracking and warping.
  • It increases the flexibility of the wood.
  • Timber oil is easy to apply and reapply. For the maintenance of wood with timber oil, you don’t need to strip down the wood to replenish the oil.
  • Spot repairs on a timber oil finish are easy to carry out.
  • Cracking, peeling, flaking, or blistering will not occur with timber oil.
  • Decks coated with timber oil do not compromise on the surface grip.

Disadvantages of Using Timber Oil on Decking

Here are a few disadvantages of using timber oil on decking:

  • Regular timber oil may not be suitable for certain exotic woods like iroko, balau, and teak because they already contain high levels of natural oil.
  • You cannot coat a deck with stain or paint unless you completely strip the deck of the oil layer.
  • The final color will depend on the original color of the wood, so the final results may differ from the desired effect.

Benefits of Using Stain to Finish Decking



  • Using stain to finish decking has its own set of advantages as mentioned below:
  • Staining the surface of a deck results in a highly durable plastic-like layer that protects the wood from the adverse effect of weather and heavy foot traffic.
  • The pigments in stains contribute to the protection of the wood from UV rays of the sun.
  • Deck accessories like spindles and handrails look great if finished with an appropriate stain.
  • Stain dries quickly and you get a waterproof layer on a deck in a short while.
  • A deck finished with a stain will not develop algae or fungi.

Disadvantages of Using Stain on Decking

You may find the following disadvantages by using stain on decking:

  • The wood grain may get obliterated by darker stains.
  • Stain can deteriorate, cracking, flaking, and peeling off in case moisture enters below the surface of the stain layer.
  • If you are going to replenish the surface of the deck with a different type of stain, you will have to remove the old stain first.
  • Applying stain to grooved decking can prove to be tricky.
  • You cannot apply stain to a deck that had an oil finish previously.
  • A deck made from new woods like iroko, teak, and balau will be high in natural oil content. You cannot apply stain directly to such decks but need to wait for 3 to 6 months for some of the oil to dissipate and the wood grain to open up.


You need to have some background knowledge about timber oil and wood stains to use them to the best of their capacity. Here we touched upon all the aspects regarding these two wood finishes – the advantages and disadvantages. With this knowledge, you can now make an educated guess on when and where to use each type of finish. You can create some beautiful effects in your woodworking projects.