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Oil vs Water: Which finish is Best For You?

So, you thought you could just waltz into the big box store and grab a finish for your new project? Now you’re standing in the aisle holding two cans. Water-based? Oil-based? Before you start scratching your head, let's uncover the differences between the two most popular finishes on the market, and help you decide on the perfect product for your beautiful project.


Water-Based Finishes: A Modern Marvel

Water-based finishes have emerged as a beacon of innovation in the world of woodworking, offering a host of benefits that appeal to both novice and seasoned woodworkers alike. Here's a closer look at what sets them apart:

  1. Odorless Application: Say goodbye to the pungent fumes that accompany traditional finishes. With lower volatile organic compounds (VOCs), eco-friendly water-based finishes are virtually odorless, making them a “breath of fresh air” for woodworkers (always wear proper safety equipment when finishing).

  2. Quick Drying Times: Time is of the essence in any woodworking project, and water-based finishes deliver on speed. Thanks to their water-based composition, these finishes dry rapidly allowing shorter turnaround times between coats. This can accelerate the finishing process and minimize the risk of dust and debris settling on the surface between applications. .

  3. Crystal-Clear Clarity: If the aim is to preserve the natural beauty of the wood without altering its hue, water-based finishes are the right choice. Water-based finishes dry clear, leaving behind a transparent coating that showcases the wood's unique grain and coloration.

  4. Easy Cleanup: Bid farewell to solvents and harsh chemicals. With water-based finishes, cleanup is as simple as rinsing your brushes and tools with soap and water. This streamlines the finishing process, creates less wear and tear on your application tools, and minimizes exposure to potentially harmful substances, making water-based finishes a safer and more convenient choice for most woodworkers.

Oil-Based Finishes: A Time-Honored Tradition

“I’ve been using oil-based finishes for years and have never had an issue.” Bring up the topic and you’ll likely hear this from a long-time woodworker. For woodworkers who appreciate the allure of classic finishes, oil-based finishes remain a steadfast choice. Here's what sets them apart from their water-based counterparts:

  1. Rich Color Saturation: One of the most distinctive characteristics of oil-based finishes is their ability to imbue wood with warmth and character. Unlike water-based finishes which sit on top of the wood’s surface, oil-based finishes penetrate deep into the grain, enriching wood’s natural hues with an amber tint. Oil-based products are a favorite pick for darker woods, such as walnut, mahogany or popular exotics, but is less preferred on light color woods such as ash or maple due to its golden hue.

  2. Enhanced Durability: In terms of durability, oil-based finishes have historically reigned supreme. They form a resilient barrier, shielding the wood from moisture, scratches, and daily wear and tear, making them ideal for tables or countertops. Admittedly, chemical advances have allowed water-based products to close this gap with the addition of polycarbonate resins. 

  3. Extended Open Time: Unlike their water-based counterparts, which dry rapidly, oil-based finishes afford woodworkers ample time to work with the product before it begins to set. This extended open time allows for smooth, seamless application, ensuring a flawless finish with minimal effort. It also gives woodworkers greater flexibility to achieve the desired level of sheen and coverage. 

  4. Timeless Aesthetic: There's an undeniable allure to the timeless appeal of oil-based finishes. Whether you're crafting heirloom-quality furniture or rustic decor, oil-based finishes lend a sense of authenticity that is unmatched by other finishes, impart due to amber tint from the oil.


To sand or not to sand: In short, yes. Absent a penetrating oil, water-based finishes sit on top of the wood’s surface, and require scuff sanding between coats. Water-based finishes rely on that scratched surface to form a mechanical bond from coat to coat. Without sanding, the next coat will simply lay over the existing coat, and eventually blister or delaminate, often in a short period of time.


Oil-base finishes also do best when sanded between coats. While most oil-based products rely on a chemical bond between coats, sanding helps ensure a solid adhesion of coats and helps remove brush marks, bubbles, or dust that may have settled on the previous coat.


Making the Choice: Factors to Consider

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the perennial debate between water-based and oil-based finishes. Instead, the right choice hinges on a combination of factors, including the specific demands on

your project, your personal preferences as a woodworker, and the characteristics of the wood you're working with.


By understanding how different types of wood react to water-based and oil-based finishes, you can make an informed decision that ensures optimal results and long-lasting beauty for your woodworking creations.


Questions? Reach out to us at You can also come by in person to see the products we use and pick our brains! We love watching your project transform into what you dreamed up while protecting it for future generations to enjoy!

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