Staining.... Oil based vs Water based or Gel

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Forum topic by Luddite posted 09-27-2017 11:52 PM 1830 views 0 times favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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238 posts in 2011 days

09-27-2017 11:52 PM

Topic tags/keywords: staining red oak finishing

27 Sep 2017

I need some advice from the LJ community on which type of stain to use on red oak.

After reading though other forum entries I’ve not found a clear choice yet. I’m finishing a queen red oak bed frame for our niece and would like it done correctly. She’d like it stained a dark oak color. This may be a stretch for me since I’ve only used stain twice in my woodworking life and I didn’t care for it at all. I’ve only used watco natural with a waterlox finish. Any advice would be of great help.

Thanks in advance.

-- T Loftus -- Just on the edge of common sense

11 replies so far

View woodbutcherbynight's profile


6069 posts in 3181 days

#1 posted 09-28-2017 12:02 AM

This is probably more of a personal preference than right or wrong choice. With your limited staining experience I would practice on a maybe a few L joint of red oak and get an idea of how what you do chose works before going for the big project.

That being said I prefer oil based stain verses water. To me it looks better more vibrant. Many like the idea of water clean up and this is a good feature but I think the oil based soaks in better overall.

My 2 cent worth anyway. Best of luck with your project don’t forget to post it.

-- Live to tell the stories, they sound better that way.

View cabmaker's profile


1745 posts in 3581 days

#2 posted 09-28-2017 12:15 AM

Oil base stain would likely be the most forgiving for you…...

View pintodeluxe's profile


6155 posts in 3586 days

#3 posted 09-28-2017 12:51 AM

1+ oil based stain like Rodda, Varathane or Cabot. They have a good mix of solids and dye. I don’t care for Minwax stains. Here is a quartersawn red oak bed in Rodda #19 Fruitwood oil based stain.
Gel stains like General Finishes Antique Walnut have a dark, rich color that look like an instant antique, however gel stains are much harder to work with (especially on larger projects).

Bedset project page:

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View Jerry's profile


3388 posts in 2421 days

#4 posted 09-28-2017 03:21 AM

Oil always works better for me. Here’s a weird thought, have you considered charring the wood with a torch, or using the vinegar, steel wool, and black tea method to artificially age it? I’ve tried both with very good results.

-- There are good ships and there are wood ships, the ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships and may they always be.

View Picken5's profile


307 posts in 3464 days

#5 posted 09-28-2017 03:55 AM

+1 for oil stains — definitely my favorite. I’ve done what Jerry suggested, i.e. vinegar & steel wool. The results vary with each species of wood and with the amount of time the steel wool is left in the vinegar, so experimenting with this stuff is well worth the time… and some amazing results can happen.

-- Howard - "Time spent making sawdust is not deducted from one's lifetime." - old Scottish proverb

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Jim Jakosh

24792 posts in 3878 days

#6 posted 09-28-2017 11:33 AM

I always use oil based stain and Zar is my favorite. It is not in all the stores it used to be, but I keep a full line of all the colors. I used water based stain once and it seemed to be real thin and not color well and even raise the grain a bit so that was my last time.
I have not used gel stains but they must be one of the two types water based or oil based, I think.

Get a bunch or scraps of the red oak and sand them to the highest grit your piece is. Use them for test samples before hitting the piece with the stain and that will be you best and safest guide to the finished product. your e customer can make the call on the sample before you proceed.

Cheers, Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View ArtMann's profile


1480 posts in 1589 days

#7 posted 09-28-2017 03:34 PM

When you guys say “oil based”, do you mean alcohol based? That is what I see in big box stores. What brands are we talking about?

View OSU55's profile


2647 posts in 2762 days

#8 posted 09-28-2017 04:41 PM

I prefer a water based oil emulsion stain base tinted with dye, Target WR4000. Here is a pic of a red oak project in a dark brown. Here is the project page detailing the finish schedule.

View Rich's profile (online now)


5613 posts in 1362 days

#9 posted 09-28-2017 08:11 PM

Since stain is pigmented, the solids will tend to settle in the open grain of red oak. That might, or might not, be the effect you want. I’d recommend trying some dye as well, either alcohol or water based, since dye will color the wood more evenly and won’t settle in the wood grain. As was mentioned before, do plenty of test boards and see what look you like best.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

View d38's profile


142 posts in 1035 days

#10 posted 09-29-2017 02:27 AM

I’ve used Minwax solvent based in the past, and its easy to use.
I’m getting things figured out for oak window jambs/trim, and plan to use Mohawk Ultra Penetrating Stain. Its water cleanup, but main ingredient is acetone, so non grain raising.
I’ve got 2 quart bottles to experiment with before I make my final decision.

View sawdustdad's profile


379 posts in 1657 days

#11 posted 09-29-2017 03:06 AM

I have used Minwax oil based stains almost exclusively for 40 years. Several reasons—easy to apply being the major reason, but widespread availability and consistent colors over the decades. You can go buy a can of dark walnut today and touch up a table made 30 years ago and it will match.

I’ve used gel stains, alcohol based dyes, water based stain, etc. Always had more trouble getting even color. I don’t stain much of my work these days as the woods seldom need it. But there are times it is needed to even out varying wood color.

-- Murphy's Carpentry Corollary #3: Half of all boards cut to a specific length will be too short.

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