Pros and Cons: Oil-Based Vs. Water-Based Finish For Wood

Choosing the right Finish for your furniture involves more than just practicality—it’s also more about style and making your wooden furniture last. The material you choose can inevitably transform your furniture’s feel and look while protecting it.

When it comes to wood finishes, there are two main types to choose from: oil-based and water-based. Each has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks. 

What is the Difference Between Oil and Water Based Wood Finish?

Oil-Based Wood Finish

Oil-based wood finishes use oil to carry the colour pigment deep into the wood. These finishes are known for their ability to bring out the vibrant hues of the wood grain, giving you a warm and more traditional look. 

The oil penetrates the wood deeply and gives long-lasting protection—this makes it ideal for furniture in high-use areas or outdoor settings where durability is essential. However, oil-based finishes have a strong odour, high VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) emissions, and take longer to dry, so remember to have good ventilation during application.

Water-Based Wood Finish

Cathedral walnut veneer, coated with clear shellac and varnish
Walnut topped with shellac and water-based top coat

As the name suggests, water-based wood finishes use water as the primary solvent for the colour pigment. These finishes offer a world of possibilities for your furniture, drying faster and emitting a much milder odour. They provide excellent colour clarity and are particularly suitable for lighter, more modern looks, inspiring you to experiment with different styles. 

In addition, water-based finishes are more eco-friendly. This is because they have lower VOCs. VOCs are chemicals that can evaporate into the air and contribute to air pollution. By choosing a water-based finish with lower VOCs, you can reduce your environmental impact and contribute to a healthier indoor environment.

Water-based finishes initially had a poor reputation as they did not compare to the oil-based finishes commonly used.  However, this is no longer the case. Water-based finishes have come a long way, with continuous improvements in their performance and quality, giving you the confidence to choose them for your furniture projects.

Key Differences between Oil and Water Finishes

Oil-Based Wood Finish

Uses oil as a solvent

Enhances the wood grain with a rich, warm look

Takes longer to dry and requires thorough ventilation

Generally more durable and resistant to scratches and moisture

Water-Based Wood Finish

Uses water as a solvent

Provides a more transparent, more even colour, ideal for contemporary styles

Dries quickly and is easy to clean up with soap and water

Might need more frequent maintenance

applying hardwax oil a type of wood finish

How Do You Know if a Finish is Oil or Water Based?

Oil-based finishes require good ventilation due to their thicker, more viscous texture. You can identify them by labels that say “oil-based.” Their instructions will usually mention the need for solvents, like mineral spirits, for cleanup. These finishes generally have higher VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) levels, which can be a problem for indoor air pollution and health issues.

In terms of application, oil-based finishes are forgiving, making it easier to achieve a smooth, streak-free finish. However, they take longer to dry, often requiring several hours to a day, which can extend the project timeline. Maintenance involves using solvents for cleanup, which can be messy and harder to manage.

Water-based finishes, on the other hand, have a milder odour and a lighter, more watery texture. These products are labelled “water-based” or “acrylic,” with cleanup instructions typically suggesting soap and water. Water-based finishes also dry faster and offer a lighter, more sleek appearance. They often have low or no VOCs, making them a more environmentally friendly choice than oil-based ones.

Common Oil-Based Top Coats

Polyurethane is a strong, oil-based finish that resists water. It forms a tough layer, perfect for tabletops and cabinets.

Wood Oil Finishes, such as tung, teak, and linseed oil, absorb deeply into the wood rather than forming a protective film on the surface. Here’s how to differentiate between them:

  • Tung oil enhances the natural grain, giving it a warm, rich look. It also offers good water resistance, making it suitable for furniture like dining tables and chairs. 
  • Linseed oil, a traditional finish, imparts a soft, shiny appearance and provides good protection. However, it takes longer to dry and often requires multiple coats. 
  • Teak oil is ideal for dense woods like teak, protecting well against moisture and sun damage. It is also a popular choice for outdoor furniture and boat decks. 

However, these oils offer limited protection from wear and tear compared to film finishes.

Hardwax Oil combines natural oils and waxes to create a durable, water-resistant finish that gives furniture a natural look and feel. It offers more protection than wood oil finishes but less surface protection than film finishes like polyurethanes. 

Common Water-Based Top Coats

Water-based polyurethane offers the same protection as oil-based polyurethane. But, it dries faster and has less odour. 

Acrylic Lacquer is known for its fast drying time and clear Finish. It provides a durable, protective layer for modern furniture use, offering excellent clarity and colour retention.

Water-based varnish provides a hard, durable finish that is resistant to scratches and stains. It’s easy to apply and clean, making it a convenient choice for various furniture pieces.

Polycrylic Finish is a versatile water-based finish that provides a transparent, durable layer of protection. It is easy to apply, dries quickly, and resists yellowing over time, making it suitable for various indoor projects.

Polyvine wax matte top coat
One of my Favourite Water-based Top Coats

What Are the Pros and Cons of Oil-Based Wood Finish?

Pros of Oil-Based Wood Finish

  • Oil-based finishes make the wood grain stand out, giving a deep, warm look that enhances its colour.
  • The oil soaks deeply into the wood, providing long-lasting durability and protection.
  • These finishes are tough and can handle a lot of wear and tear, making them more resistant to scratches.
  • They repel water well, protecting against moisture, which is excellent for areas with a lot of use.
  • Oil-based finishes can be used in many different weather conditions.
  • The application process is forgiving, making getting a smooth, streak-free finish easier.

Cons of Oil-Based Wood Finish

  • It takes several hours to a day for the Finish to dry, making projects take longer.
  • The pungent odour requires good ventilation during application, which can be inconvenient.
  • Cleanup involves using solvents like mineral spirits, which can be messy and harder to manage.
  • Higher VOC levels in oil-based finishes can contribute to indoor air pollution and health problems.
  • Over time, the Finish may turn yellow as it ages.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Water-Based Wood Finish?

Pros of Water-Based Wood Finish

  • Water-based finishes dry quickly, often within an hour or two, making them ideal for time-sensitive projects.
  • Simple cleanup with water makes the process hassle-free and more convenient.
  • The mild smell is less intrusive and safer for indoor environments, providing low odour.
  • Water-based finishes have lower VOC emissions. This makes them a greener choice and more eco-friendly.
  • The Finish maintains its original colour longer, as water-based finishes generally won’t yellow over time.

Cons of Water-Based Wood Finish

  • The Finish might not enhance the colours of the wood grain as effectively as oil-based ones.
  • Water-based finishes may not penetrate as deeply as oil-based stains, which can require more frequent maintenance.
  • Water-based finishes may be less durable in high-traffic areas. They offer less resistance to scratches.
  • They may not withstand extreme conditions as well as oil-based finishes, resulting in lower durability in harsh weather.

Which is the best oil-based or water-based Finish?

Choosing between oil-based and water-based finishes really depends on your specific project and personal preferences. I lean towards water-based finishes for most of my indoor projects because they dry quickly, have a milder odour, and are easier to clean up with just soap and water. Plus, they’re more environmentally friendly with lower VOC emissions, which is a big plus.

ARt Deco cocktail cabinet with glossy hardwax oil wood finish
Hardwax oil

However, I do appreciate the rich, warm look that oil-based finishes can provide. For instance, I have been working more with hardwax oil, and the results are very vintage —it brought out the natural grain in a way that water-based finishes just can’t replicate. However, the finish provides less protection and requires maintenance over time. 

For ultimate protection use a film based finish like an oil polyurethane.

Factors to Consider

Type of Wood

Different wood types may react better to one kind of Finish over the other. For instance, oily woods like solid teak can affect water-based finishes, often resulting in poor adhesion and a blotchy appearance.

Location

Consider whether the furniture is indoors or outdoors, as this affects the choice of Finish. Oil-based finishes are generally better for outdoor use due to their superior durability.

Personal Preferences

Your aesthetic preferences and tolerance for odours and VOCs will influence your decision. If you prefer a traditional look with deep, rich colours, oil-based might be the way to go.

Environmental Impact

Water-based finishes are more eco-friendly, with lower VOC emissions. If environmental sustainability is essential to you, this is a significant factor to consider.

How to Make Wood Grain Pop with Water-Based Finishes

How do you make your wood grain pop without using oil-based finishes? Here’s a simple trick: use shellac. Applying a coat or two of dewaxed shellac to bare wood will bring out the wood grain beautifully, similar to the effect of oil. 

Once the shellac dries, add your water-based topcoat for extra durability. This method gives you the best of both worlds: the stunning oil look with the toughness of a water-based finish.

Midcentury modern after refinishing and restoration work, with water based top coat as type of wood finish
Shellac with Water Based top Coat

Final Thoughts

Choosing between oil-based and water-based finishes for your furniture depends on several factors, including durability, appearance, ease of application, and environmental impact. 

Oil-based finishes give rich colour and lasting protection but have longer drying times and higher VOCs. 

On the other hand, water-based finishes dry quicker, are easier to clean up, and have a lower environmental impact, although they might require more frequent maintenance.

With all that said, the best choice depends on your specific needs and preferences. Consider the type of wood, where your project is located, and your environmental priorities. By weighing the pros and cons of each Finish, you can make an informed decision that enhances your furniture’s beauty and longevity!

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Pinterest pin with features of two teak vintage furniture items. With oil vs water finishes comparison written above
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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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