Stain vs Paint Furniture: Key Differences to Consider

To paint or to stain? It’s one of the first things to consider if you’re thinking about upcycling or flipping furniture.

Both methods give new life to your furniture and home. However, there are also advantages and disadvantages to either way. Knowing them can help you decide on the best choice for your aesthetic goals and practical needs.

To learn more about these mediums, here are the key differences between using stain vs. paint for furniture.

Paint vs. Stain Wood Furniture: Key Differences

Paints and stains add a protective layer on wood surfaces. These mediums can protect furniture from moisture, UV rays, and daily wear and tear. 

Although stains and paints offer many of the same benefits, they also have distinct features. So, let’s explore these key differences between stain vs paint for furniture.

Application

Stains can be more efficient to apply since they require less prep than most paint types. For small surfaces and pieces of furniture, a rag will do for applying the stain. For larger surfaces, a brush is best. Note that applying stain has a learning curve to overcome to ensure an even finish.

In contrast, you would use either a brush or roller to apply paint and there are pros and cons to each method. With a brush, you can more easily paint rounded parts of furniture and hard-to-reach areas. With a roller, you can apply paint more efficiently, but can only use the tool on flat surfaces like table tops.

Related: How to Chalk Paint Over Stain

Appearance

Paint completely hides the wood texture and grain. It completely customizes the furniture to match any aesthetic – modern, contemporary, coastal, and even vintage.

Paints are available in a wider range of colors and finishes, including glossy, matte, or satin sheen.

In contrast, stains exude warm, rustic, and traditional vibes. However, stained furniture can look good in practically any setting.

Keep in mind that stains are translucent, so they are used to highlight wood grains, knots, and textures. They only come in matte or satin finishes, so you may need a topcoat to change their sheen.

The lighter the stain is, the easier it is to see the character of the wood through the stain. The darker the stain is, the harder it is to see through to the underlying wood surface. For black wood stains, for instance, you can still see through to the wood, but for the darkest color possible, consider black wood stain vs paint.

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Composition

Stains are mostly composed of pigments or dye and the carrier medium. Similar to water-based paints, water-based stains are generally less toxic and have fewer VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Some brands, like ECOS Paints Stains, are even labeled zero VOCs.

In comparison, paints are made of pigments, solvents, binders, and additives. Pigments give the paint its color while solvents, binders, and additives create the proper consistency and make the paint easy to apply evenly.

Paint toxicity and VOC levels also vary from different types with water-based paints, typically in the lower range. In addition, water-based paints like chalk paint, mineral paint, and milk paint have a significantly lower environmental impact.

Oil-based mediums, including stains and paints, have more VOC and are more toxic to your health and the environment. They are also more prone to cause mild irritations to the skin, nose, and eyes so wearing the proper safety gear is important. 

Types of stains for furniture

There are different types of stains for furniture. They mostly differ in components and durability. And here are some common types you’ll find in the store.

Water-based stains

Water-based are more transparent than oil-based stains, so they let the wood grain show through more. They are generally less toxic. They are also easy to use, quick-drying, and easy to clean up. However, they’re less durable than oil-based stains.

Natural oil-based stains

Natural oil-based stains have richer, deeper colors and are made of plant-derived oils, natural pigments, and dyes. They have lesser VOC than synthetic oil-based stains but are still higher than water-based alternatives.

They’re also more durable than water-based stains but less durable than synthetic options.

Synthetic oil-based stains

In contrast, synthetic oil-based stains are made from synthetic resins and petroleum-based solvents. They have high-VOC content, but these are the most durable type of stains for furniture.

However, they don’t highlight wood grains as well as the previous types.

Gel stains

Unlike the previous stains on this list, gel stains don’t penetrate the wood. Instead, it stays on top of the surface. It is easy to use and is great for vertical surfaces since it doesn’t drip like liquid stains do. 

However, it dries slower than other stain types. And it needs multiple reapplications, depending on the desired opacity and smoothness.

Types of Paint for Furniture

Different types of paints for furniture painting have differing bases, durability, and sheens.

Here are the common types of paint for furniture to try for your project.

Latex paint

Latex paint is one of the most common types of paint for furniture. This medium is made of acrylic resins and pigments. It is generally low-VOC and more environmentally friendly than other synthetic paints.

The major pros of using latex paint are its accessibility and affordability. It also comes in multiple sheens, including matte, eggshell, semi-gloss, and high gloss. However, it dries slower than the previous paints in this list and may take about 4-6 hours before it can be recoated.

Oil-based paint

Oil-based paints are composed of alkyd resins, pigments, and solvents. They have very high VOC content and release toxic fumes during and after painting. However, the key benefit of oil-based paint is its durability. That said, consider oil-based paint for furniture that experiences a high amount of foot traffic or wear and tear. 

These mediums are also available in multiple finishes like flat, matte, and glossy. Oil-based paints are highly accessible but more expensive than latex and acrylic paints.

Milk paint

Milk paint is an eco-friendly paint primarily made of casein (a type of milk protein), color pigments, and clay. It may come in powder form to be mixed before use. It is great for painting antique pieces or achieving a rustic appearance on indoor furniture. It dries to a flat or matte finish and is incredibly durable. 

This is a specialty/niche type paint, which is more expensive than latex and acrylic paints. It is less accessible and unavailable in big retailers.

Chalk paint

Chalk paint is another great furniture paint option that has been famous among DIYers for years. This water-based medium is mostly composed of calcium carbonate (chalk), color pigments, and binders, so it is eco-friendly and low VOC.

This paint is popular because it requires minimal prepping and dries fast at 30 minutes to an hour. Although it’s thicker than regular latex paint, chalk paint is easy to apply to furniture

Chalk paint dries to a lovely matte sheen. DIYers praise chalk paint because it’s easy to distress to create a charming weathered look in your furniture. However, it is less durable than most paints. And can also be very expensive, depending on the brand. 

Mineral paint

Mineral paint is another niche paint that is eco-friendly and has low VOC content. It’s almost exclusively used for furniture. It is a water-based paint made of natural minerals and binders. And it dries with a smooth, matte finish.

This paint is also a low-prep medium that dries quickly. It also is extremely durable once cured, even without a topcoat. However, it can take weeks before it fully cures.

The only downside with mineral paint is its high price point and lack of accessibility. You generally won’t find mineral paint at big box hardware stores. 

Enamel paint

Enamel paint is available in water-or-oil-based options. This is an extremely durable furniture paint that is great on furniture prone to wear and tear. However, similar to many oil-based paints, it is high in VOCs, making it more toxic than most other paints. 

This medium is made of resins and synthetic pigments and dries to a glossy sheen. Also, enamel paint is easily accessible, but it is also more expensive than latex paint.

Acrylic paint

Acrylic paint is a water-based medium made of acrylic polymer solution and resin. It is water-resistant and dries quickly. Like latex paint, this medium comes in a variety of sheens, like matte, semi-gloss, and gloss.

Another pro of using acrylic paint is its affordability and ease of use. You can get acrylic paint in most hardware and craft stores.

Pros and Cons of Stain vs. Paint for Furniture

Stains and paints are great for adding protection and aesthetic value to your furniture. But they also have some advantages and disadvantages:

Pros of staining

The major pro of staining is its ability to highlight wood furniture’s natural look. Other pros include:

  • Ease of application
  • Accessibility and lower price point (compared to most specialty furniture paints)
  • Wood protection against moisture and rot
  • No chipping or peeling over time

Cons of staining

The main con is the low durability. Other things to watch out for include:

  • Limited colors and sheens
  • Does not hide wood imperfections
  • Needs multiple coats for darker shades
  • More work to change color once applied
  • Doesn’t work well on all wood
  • Easy to use but has more learning curve for beginners

Pros of painting

Painting is great because it offers unlimited options for color and a variety of sheens. Other pros include:

  • Easier to achieve a smooth, even finish to cover small surface imperfections
  • Easier to use even for beginners (for most types of furniture paint)
  • Matches different home aesthetics

Cons of painting

However, some paints can have high VOC content. Besides this, painting:

  • Requires more prep (more time-consuming) 
  • Generally requires multiple coats
  • Has the risk of chipping, flaking, and peeling due to age
  • Can be more expensive

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