Best Finish over Oil-Based Stain: Here’s What You Can Use

Everyone knows that wood stain is a great way to give your project a little extra oomph. The thin liquid soaks into your wooden surface’s pores to increase its suppleness and richness of color. If you are wondering about the best finish to use after staining your wood, this article is just what the doctor ordered.

Clear finishes are the best option for your freshly stained wood. However, there is a wide range of clear finishes in the market, and choosing one may be challenging. You need to select a finish that protects the surface without hiding or tampering with your wood’s natural appearance.

We will help you figure out the most suitable finish for your stained wood.

  • What to consider when selecting a finish for your stained wood
  • Types of finishes for stained wood

What to Consider When Selecting a Finish for Your Stained Wood

Not all finishes are designed to be multipurpose, so avoid reaching for the first (or cheapest) one you see at your local home improvement store. Here are things to consider when shopping for a finish for your stained wood surface:

  • Type of stain used – as a rule of thumb, it is best to match the type of stain used to the finish applied. If you use an oil-based stain, an oil-based finish will have better results than a water-based alternative.
  • Purpose – wood that is subjected to heavy use or exposed water damage will require an industrial-strength finish. A lighter finish will work perfectly for surfaces meant for light use, e.g., a bookshelf.
  • Sheen – the amount of sheen you want will also dictate the best finish for your wooden surface. High gloss finishes are recommended for exterior surfaces, and semigloss is preferred for interior surfaces.
  • Level of expertise – some finishes require sophisticated application techniques and tools to achieve the perfect finish. If you are a beginner, opt for the finish with the least complicated application procedures, e.g., spray-on finishes.

There isn’t a single product that could market itself as the best finish for stained wood. Clearly, the perfect finish is different for everyone. It will all depend on the nature of your project, the type of wood stain you use, the sheen desired, and your level of DIY expertise.

Types of Finishes for Stained Wood

Your choice will be between oil-based finishes and water-based finishes. Each of these finishes has a unique design that performs efficiently under different circumstances. Nonetheless, most people agree that oil-based finishes provide the most durable coats.

Water-Based Finishes

Water-based finishes form a layer on top of your wooden surface without penetrating the pores. When this layer dries, it forms a hard protective layer. These types of finishes are most popular for outdoor wooden surfaces and furniture. Water-based finishes are much cheaper than oil-based alternatives. They are also better for the environment. The biggest disadvantage of water-based finishes is that they are not as durable as oil-based finishes. They also tend to oxidize and become yellow over time.

There are multiple factors to consider when selecting the best water-based finish, but most people go with polyurethane because of its durability, versatility, and affordability. You have to be careful when applying water-based finishes because a small mistake could have disastrous results.

Ensure you use the right application tools and techniques. All you need to remember is to apply along the grain; the coat should be as thin and evenly spread as possible, allow enough drying time, and sand lightly between coats. Compare these water-based finishes and select the one which best appeals to your needs.

1) Polyurethane

This popular water-based finish is as versatile as it gets. Beware that it is quite challenging to apply correctly. Failure to follow instructions correctly could create a myriad of problems, including bubbling, cracking, or visible brush strokes on the final coat. Polyurethane tends to yellow and should not be used for any surface that will be exposed to intense UV rays.

2) Polycrylic

Unlike polyurethane, polyacrylic is much easier to apply without specialized techniques. It is the best water-based finish for beginners. Polycrylic is also much better to use in a poorly ventilated area because it is less toxic than polyurethane. Although a polycrylic finish does not last as long as polyurethane, it has the advantage of not yellowing over time.

3) Lacquer

This spray-on finish is very popular for furniture. Lacquer provides a durable protective finish that looks much sleeker than polyurethane or polycrylic. If you do not have the spraying equipment at hand, try renting at your local home improvement store.

4) French Polish/Shellac

Shellac is one of the oldest finishes on the market and can be found adorning almost all antiques. It has lost popularity because it is even more fragile and susceptible to scratches and water damage than polycrylic.

Oil Based Finishes

If you want to give your wooden finish first-class treatment, an oil-based finish is the only option for you. Oil-based finishes will penetrate your wooden surface much like the stain did. Unlike the stain, the oil-based finish will seal your surface’s pores, thereby protecting them from moisture and scratches. These types of finishes are mostly used by professional furniture makers and usually need to be carefully reapplied annually.

If you are looking for a finish that preserves your wood’s natural appearance, an oil-based finish is the best choice for you because it is not as glossy as the other finishes. However, ensure you perform a test on a small patch of the surface because some oil-based finishes are reported to darken wood or alter its original color.

Oil-based finishes are also very easy to apply – you do not even need to buy a brush, and most of them can be applied with a cloth. They are more foolproof than water-based finishes whose application could go wrong despite your best efforts. Be sure to check out the instructions on the label for precise application and drying time instructions.

General Method of Applying Oil-Based Finishes

Most oil-based finishes are rubbed onto the stained wood using a brush or damp cloth to create a low-sheen finish. Apply the oil sparing onto the surface to ensure you get a thin and evenly spread coat.

The number of coats necessary depends on the type of oil-based finish you have selected and the durability you expect to enjoy from the coats. Just be sure to allow enough drying time between coats.

The more coats you use, the more durable your protective finish will be. Surfaces that are heavily used require at least three coats of a tough oil-based finish, e.g., linseed oil. One of these oil-based finishes will be just right for your project.

1) Tung Oil

Tung oil is a low-sheen finish that performs perfectly whether used on the exterior or interior. It is popular for use on cutting boards and other wooden surfaces used in food preparation. Tung oil dominates the food-friendly category of finishes because it is naturally derived and can be formulated to be safe for human consumption.

2) Linseed Oil

Linseed oil is a popular finish that shares many properties with tung oil. However, it is much heavier and takes longer to dry. This weakness doubles as a strength because the high density ensures that once dry, it provides a more durable finish than tung oil.

3) Danish Oil

The Danes are world-renowned for their woodworking skills. Danish oil is a blend of varnish and oil. The varnish is added to the oil to provide additional protection for wooden items subjected to heavy use, e.g., wooden clogs.

Be warned that Danish oil could darken your surface, perform a test before application. Unlike most oil-based finishes, Danish oil can be customized with a stain or color of your choice.

4) Wax

If you want your wooden surface to have a high sheen, wax is the thing for you. Wax has the additional advantage of being very easy to apply. All you need is to apply a thin, even coat using a cloth and buff it out after leaving it to dry for a few minutes.

5) Long Oil Spur Varnish

This type of finish is the best option for outdoor furniture if you are on a tight budget. It is cheaper than pure oil-based finishes. Even better very durable and does not tend to yellow like water-based finishes.

Unlike most varnishes which have a negligible amount of oil, spur varnishes have at least forty gallons of oil for every hundred pounds of resin. It is the best compromise for any wooden surfaces that are exposed to UV rays.


We have mentioned that the best finish for your oil-based stain is a decision made by you. The type of stain you use on the wooden surface, your level of DIY experience, the sheen desired, and the functional use of the surface will lead you to the best finish. Hopefully, this article has furnished you with all the information you need to make an informed choice.