Stained timber deck

Timber oil vs stain vs varnish vs paint

There are many types of timber treatments and finishes available. Although each is different, terms such as ‘timber oil, ‘stain’ and ‘varnish’ are often used interchangeably.

We examine the properties of some of these popular products and when each might be used.

Wood stain

Purpose: Designed to penetrate and change the colour of wood while leaving the grain visible.


  • Highlights the natural beauty of the wood
  • Can be colour matched to your styling
  • Offers some wood protection
  • Wears away gradually, only requiring periodic re-coating
  • Easy to clean and maintain


  • Doesn’t offer a lot of protection to the wood, especially in harsh environments
  • Can raise the grain in wood

After staining, oils or varnishes can be applied to the wood as a protective layer.

When to use: To expose the natural beauty of a timber installation.


Purpose: Varnish is an older finish made up of oils, resin and solvents that coats the wood as a protective layer.

Varnish can be compared to paint without the pigment.


  • A protective coating can be applied after stains
  • Ensures the natural grains of the wood remain exposed
  • Durable and hard wearing
  • Choice of matt, satin or gloss like paint
  • Exterior varnishes are often microporous and have an added fungicide
  • Available as a ‘fire retardant’ treatment
  • Offers UV protection (where stated)


  • Varnish can’t be used on its own as it doesn’t protect the wood inside
  • Accentuates stains, bumps and marks so preparation of the timber is essential
  • Dries slowly

When to use: When finish is important for decorative purposes and when a project requires the  natural timber look to be retained.

Polyurethane varnish

Purpose: Tough protection for wood after staining.


  • Can be used in place of varnish with the same benefits and more
  • Extremely durable with a hard finish
  • Heat resistant


  • Has a plastic, unnatural look about it
  • Not UV resistant (unless specifically stated on product)

When to use: Applications where a durable surface is required, especially in high traffic areas.

Combined Products

There are some combined stains and varnishes available on the market designed to be applied for one-step colour and protection.

These varnishes with added colour can be a time-saver, however they may need more maintenance and reapplying more frequently.


Purpose: To protect and change the look of timber.


  • Many different colours on the market
  • Choice of matt, satin or gloss
  • Can be considered aesthetically pleasing
  • Can cover up unsightly timber
  • Available as a ‘fire retardant’ treatment
  • Durable and hard wearing


  • Coats the top of the wood rather than penetrating the wood
  • Hides the natural beauty of timber
  • Can peel and look unsightly particularly after exposure to the elements
  • Surfaces must be thoroughly prepared before application, usually including sanding
  • Is expensive to reapply when used on vast areas

When to use: In situations where it is desirable to cover or weatherproof timber without exposing the natural grain at all.

Wood oils

Purpose: Designed to bring out the character in wood whist offering some protection.


  • Brings out the natural beauty in wood (more so than a stain) and makes the grain ‘pop’
  • Replaces natural oil in wood that dries out over time
  • Adds protection against moisture
  • User-friendly; easy to apply and maintain
  • Long-term, cost effective option


  • Traditional wood oils aren’t as durable as varnish
  • Oils are not easily covered with varnish or paint

The CUTEK® Difference

CUTEK® exterior wood oils are a professional option that offers more protection than traditional wood oils as they works from the inside out by deeply penetrating the timber. CUTEK® oils are long lasting making them a great choice for timber exposed to the elements. CUTEK® Extreme CD50 has been developed for tough conditions.

CUTEK® timber protection oils are designed to minimise warping, cupping and splitting over time. CUTEK® oil is versatile, a Colourtone can easily be added for a stunning effect.

Timber is amazingly versatile, with the right level of care it can be used for a vast array of projects. Wood does need to be looked after and treated with respect in order to ensure that it retains its beauty over time. Choosing the right timber treatment or finish for an installation is critical.