Paint Versus Stain

Stain is traditionally used to bring out or enhance the natural beauty of wood while paint is typically used to obtain a uniform color that obscures the grain and texture of the underlying wood. Here is a comparison between these two commonly used finishes in terms of coloring agents, appearance, application, protective properties, and drying time.


Paint consists of a coloring pigment suspended in an oil or water solvent (the "vehicle"), a resin that binds the pigment particles together and provides adhesion to the surface being painted and various additives that enhance properties such as mold resistance, scuff resistance, drying and sag resistance. Paint is a "film-forming finish" in that it forms a thin layer that lies on top of the surface to which it is applied with minimal absorption below the surface. It is used to both protect and decorate surfaces.


Stain consists of a coloring agent, either pigment or dye, dissolved in a solvent. The solvent can be alcohol, water, oil or other petroleum distillates, or even the top finish (lacquer, shellac, varnish, etc.) The type of coloring agent affects how the stain penetrates and colors the wood. Dyes are considerably smaller than pigments, allowing them to soak deeper into the wood pores, especially with fine-grained woods such as cherry and maple. The larger pigment particles tend to stay near the surface except for woods with large pores such as ash, oak, and pine. Most commercial stains contain both dyes and pigments.


Paint provides better color uniformity and comes in a broader range of colors than stain. It is superior to stain in terms of covering up blemishes and other irregularities.

Because stain contains fewer solids than paint, it is used to enhance the wood's grain and texture rather than cover it up. It is a better choice than paint if you wish to enhance the natural beauty of the wood.

Protection and Durability

Stain is more resistant than paint to cracking, peeling, and blistering. However, it is less protective in terms of moisture resistance, solvent resistance, and preventing physical damage such as dings and dents. Stain is typically used in conjunction with a protective top coat such as lacquer or polyurethane.

Paint tends to be more protective and longer lasting than stain when applied properly. For outdoor applications, its UV resistance is superior to stain. On the down side, paint is susceptible to peeling and blistering so periodic maintenance is required.


A primer coat is usually required before applying top coats of paint. If the surface is not primed, paint will not adhere to the surface and it will peel off very easily. Primer also allows for more uniform absorption of paint which contributes to a smooth, even finish. Paint can be applied with a brush, a roller, or a spray gun.

Stains are generally easier to apply than paint. It is usually a matter of brushing some stain on, allowing to sit for a few moments, and wiping off the excess. A primer is typically not needed with stain. The stain can be applied with a brush, a rag, or a spray gun. Stain highlights scratches and other imperfections in the wood so it is important to thoroughly sand the wood before applying the stain.

Drying Time

Paint varies considerably in drying time, depending on how it is applied (spraying versus brushing) and whether it is water-based or oil-based. A brushed on oil-based paint can take up to 8 hours to dry where as a sprayed on paint may dry in less than 1 hour.

Stain dries to produce a flat, non-sheen surface that typically dries to the touch within a couple hours. A topcoat such as varnish or shellac is typically applied after the stain in order to provide a more protective, glossy finish. Depending on the particular stain product, the topcoat can be applied after as little as 1 hour drying time although many woodworkers prefer to wait at least 24 hours.