Should I Use Oil or Acrylic Paint on Wood?

Alison Kasch
Written by Alison Kasch
Updated June 30, 2022
Modern wood deck
Photo: Martin Barraud / OJO Images / Getty Images

Oil and acrylic paint are the main contenders for your wood painting project, each with its own strengths and shortcomings

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Acrylic paint is water-based, easier to clean, and lasts longer in most cases. Oil paint usually wears more gracefully, but often requires additional upkeep. Considering these factors will help you achieve the best results.

What are the Key Differences Between Oil and Acrylic Paint?

Oils and acrylics are fundamentally different. Acrylics are water-based, while oils are–you guessed it–oil-based. Oil paint penetrates the wood and protects it from within, whereas acrylics lay on top and create a protective “shell.”

Refinishing a deck using oil, which protects from within, versus acrylic, which lays on top

Choosing Between Oil and Acrylic for Your Wooden Deck

When you’re deciding whether to paint or stain your deck, oil- and acrylic-based methods are both viable options. If you’re repainting or re-staining, the best choice is whichever you went with before. This is because oils need bare wood to adhere properly, and sanding off any leftover acrylic paint is a time-consuming, expensive chore that is rarely worth the effort.

Longevity of Oils vs. Acrylics

For new projects, acrylic paints and stains tend to last about three to five years, while oils can fade in as little as one year. However, acrylics are prone to cracking and peeling while they wear, whereas oil-based stains gracefully fade. If you’re in for the annual maintenance, keeping up a yearly staining regime with oils will help maintain the look of your deck for years to come.

Here are some other tips to help keep your wooden deck looking new:

Different Climates for Oils and Acrylics

If you live in a chronically damp or humid climate, acrylics are the better choice for your deck. This is because water-based paints allow your wood to “breathe” better, preventing trapped moisture that can lead to rot and mold growth. Speak with a deck staining pro in your area to learn your best options.

Comparing the Costs of Oil vs. Acrylic Stains

If you’re on a budget, oil-based stains are often the least expensive route to go. Again, keep in mind that you’ll have to reapply them more often than you would with acrylics, so costs gradually add up. You’ll also need to buy mineral spirits to clean up after the project rather than using plain water (as with acrylic paints and stains).

Wooden deck on summer day
Photo: chuckcollier / E+ / Getty Images

Using Oil or Acrylic Paint on Wood Furniture

Oil paint makes a durable choice for wood furniture since it won’t crack, chip, or scratch as easily as acrylics. However, it’s costlier, requires mineral spirits for thinning during application, and takes much longer to dry. There are also plenty of fumes involved, so be sure you’re painting in a well-ventilated area.

Acrylic paints are cheaper than wood, but you’ll most likely need to invest in a primer to coat the piece before you paint. Wood, on the other hand, adheres to a wide variety of interior surfaces with no primer necessary.

Fences, Siding, and Other Exterior Woods

For most exterior wooden surfaces, acrylic paint comes out on top. While oil has a durable finish, it cannot expand and contract, which might lead to cracking in extreme temperatures. It also might lose its luster after only a couple of years.

Acrylic paints tend to maintain their rich pigmentation much longer than oil paints. They’re also more able to expand and contract as needed, making them less likely to crack or develop other unsightly blemishes. While both are feasible options (provided you use the right primer), acrylic will likely deliver the best bang for your buck.

Oil vs. Acrylics: The Bottom Line

If you’re repainting wood that had paint on it previously, the best option is choosing what you went with before. This is because oil and water don’t mix: acrylic won’t stick to an oil-painted surface, and oil paint requires bare wood to adhere correctly. Otherwise, oils often look better in the long run if you’re willing to do the maintenance, while acrylics last the longest and are the easiest to clean up. Your priorities will determine what works best for your project.

FAQs

Is acrylic paint good for decks?

Yes, acrylic paint is a great choice for wooden decks. It’s low-maintenance, durable, and fairly easy to clean up.

Is oil stain good for decks?

Many people prefer the look of oil stain, making it a great choice for many. It’s easier to apply and often less expensive than acrylic. However, it may not last as long.  

Is there a deck stain that doesn’t peel?

An oil-based deck stain won’t peel, but will eventually fade. You can also prevent peeling by sealing your deck properly.

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