Testing for Oil or Water Based Finishes

by Lee Wyatt
(last updated March 23, 2016)

4

When beginning any wood working restoration project then testing for oil or water based finishes should one of the first things that you do. The reason for this is that each kind of finish or paint will require a different method for removal. If you try to use the wrong kind of removal method, while you may not actually ruin the wood, you can at the very least ruin the effect that you are going for. This doesn't even mention the fact that you will end up wasting all kinds of time by using the wrong kind of removal method.

Here are a few simple tests that you can use to help determine whether you have a water based, or an oil based finish. Each of these methods are things that you should be able to do with the materials that you already have in the house. If you don't have these materials in your home already, then a quick trip to your local department store will quickly get you back on track.

  • Cotton ball. Gather together a cotton ball, and a little rubbing alcohol. Dampen the cotton ball with the alcohol, and begin to wipe it along the woodwork. If, after the alcohol has dried, the woodstain is a little lighter in color, then you know that the stain is water based. Oil based stains really don't react to alcohol at all.
  • Goo-Gone. Purchase a bottle of Goo-Gone or any other similar cleaner, and place a little bit of it on an old clean rag. With the rag in hand, begin to wipe down the wood stain. After a while, if you notice the rag getting dirty with the stain, and the wood is becoming a lighter color, you know that you have an oil based stain. Cleansers such as Goo-Gone only really work in this manner on oil based stains, and the water based ones are not harmed in any way.
  • Touch. Another method that you can use to test between water based and oil based finishes is by touching the stained area. Typically oil based stains will feel just a little smoother than water based ones. The reason for this is that the oil stains typically rest more on the top of the wood, rather than "inside" the wood as the water based stains do.
  • Water beads. Oil based stains are somewhat more water resistant than the water based finishes. Due to this, by sprinkling a little water onto the stained area you can tell if the stain is water or oil based. Simply wait for a minute and see if the water beads up. If it does, then you have an oil based stain.

Author Bio

Lee Wyatt

Contributor of numerous Tips.Net articles, Lee Wyatt is quickly becoming a regular "Jack of all trades." He is currently an independent contractor specializing in writing and editing. Contact him today for all of your writing and editing needs! Click here to contact. ...

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What is 0 + 1?

2018-08-13 21:01:44

Stelzer Painting Inc.

You have it backwards: Oil-based stains penetrate deeper than water-based stains. It's the water-based stains which rest more on the surface. You cannot necessarily tell the stain by the feel, but I suspect what you might instead be referring to is the fact that water-based stains will raise the grain, creating a rougher texture, so in that regard, you're correct. The manner in which water beads off the surface is much more likely to be associated with whether it's ready to be re-stained vs. whether the stain is still able to repel water.


2014-08-18 11:24:14

Sue

I have an unmarked can of stain which was used on my cupboards. How can I tell if the stain is oil or water based. I want to finish some pine frames with it and I need to know so I can purchase the proper wood conditioner. Thank you


2014-03-05 13:34:40

Ladona

Thank you! This is exactly what I needed. The walls in our cabin are stained and I need to match. Step one was to figure out if I should start with oil or water based stains. This will save me hours!


2013-07-19 19:17:15

Norm

Are these tips for stain or finish? The title indicates for finish, but the discussions are all about stain. For example, on water beads...even if the stain was water based, if there is a finish like poly or lacquer, etc then it will bead up. I want to know how to tell if the finish is water or oil based; not concerned about the stain, yet.


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